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touring Susannah Place with Ann Toy

Toy, A. Susannah Place: tour with Ann Toy August 1992

A few ground rules – the rooms are very small and the fabric is pretty fragile, so I would appreciate it if you could resist the urge to touch surfaces like the wallpapers and the painted finishes, they are very delicate and fragile. Similarly, you must watch where you walk; the ceiling levels in these houses are very low, and the staircases are low so you should take care where you put your head, and similarly where you step because of the extensive building works – some of the floors are uneven, so take care. Certainly when we are climbing up and down staircases hold onto the balustrade.

Welcome to Susannah Place, ladies and gentlemen. This morning I want to take you on a guided tour and it is impossible to cover everything, but I wanted to try and give you some sort of feeling for the history of the Rocks area, because that is the natural context for Susannah Place. We will talk about the construction of this building, and its history, hopefully we will be able to cover the work that the Trust has done here over the last four years and I want to talk about some of the future proposals.

Looking at the facade there is a lot of interesting information that tell us about the history of the house. Firstly the plaque which says 'Susannah Place Anno Domini 1844'. In some ways it is common for houses to have name plaques but it is fascinating what that particular feature conveys – gives it the name of the place, the date of construction presumably and also in a very funny way it unconsciously says a lot about the pride of the owner, to actually put that information up there. It's very valuable because in fact our historical research has been fairly limited, so that we really don't know a great deal about the earlier history of the site. From the research that has been done to date, in 1836, the site was granted to a James Byrne on the proviso that he was to erect a building on the site, so it was a free land grant. He didn't do so, and the next leap of information that we have the City of Sydney council rate books, which in 1845 talk about 4 terraces on this site, new, with 4 rooms and a basement kitchen. The recorded owner at that stage was an Edward Riley, and apparently the rents that were paid in that year were £26 per annum, £28 for the end house, which was in fact a shop (No. 64).

Edward Riley is very interesting. From the little research we have done on him, we've found that he arrived in the colony in 1838, as an assisted emigrant, aboard the 'Amelia Thompson'. He was from Ireland, and according to the ship's records, He was an Irish Protestant, a farm labourer. He was 30 when he arrived, could read and write, and was of good character. He was accompanied by his wife Mary Riley. Mary was aged 31, and she was a nursery governess, and interestingly enough they were also accompanied by their niece, Susan Sterne, or Susannah Sterne – there were different variations on her name. Susan was a milliner by trade. Possibly that is the link for Susannah Place – we can't prove it.

We are fascinated by how Edward Riley was able to make the transition from an assisted emigrant, a farm labourer, to 1845, the owner of this row of four terrace houses. When you bear in mind the circumstances of the colony, that there had been that depression in the early 1840s, it was a period when substantial families like the Bowmans and the Wentworths were very close to losing their fortunes. How did this immigrant make enough money to acquire that sort of property. We haven't unravelled that mystery yet. Presumably in the years after his arrival in the colony he was able to find employment and certainly when you look at the salaries of domestic servants, a nursery governess might have made a good wage. Mary Riley in fact did have a sister, an Ann Jones, who was resident in the colony. We haven't been able to do further research on that family.

What we do find is that in the early years all four houses were rented out, and part of our research has involved a search of the Sands directories, and we have been able to establish fairly accurately and for most of the period the names of tenants who have lived at Susannah Place, from 1844-1990. There are occasions where there is a reference to the tenants' occupation. £26 pounds per annum is not dirt cheap accommodation, in the scale of things in the Rocks, it is a middling rent, and when we walk through the buildings you will be able to see that for that scale these were very substantial houses with very good facilities.

Jumping back a bit, the Rocks is one of the most historic parts of Sydney – it was the earliest settlement from 1788 onwards, and in fact it is fascinating that one significance of this site is that it is one of the few of the pre 1850s buildings left in this part of the Rocks. There are two other houses that are much earlier; down in Harrington Street, we have Reynolds' Cottage, built in 1831 and then right on George Street, we have Cadman's Cottage, built 1816. So Susannah Place is not the earliest surviving structure in this part of the Rocks, but one of the reasons that it has a significance for us is its intactness. As we go around this building I hope to be able to show you through the fabric and the research that we've done the intimate links that this site has with the history and the development of the Rocks area. When the land was first granted it was in fact on the site of the garden for the hospital that was built by Governor Phillip. One of the things we know about the Rocks, and it is still evident today in the topography – firstly the Rocks area was named because of the outcrops of sandstone that occurred in the area and this is one of the features that actually mark the development of housing in the area, that is was lineal, north to west and as you went up (the terrain it was very rocky, and it was possible to construct in a very systematic way. Probably Governor Macquarie did his best in 1810 to try and rationalise the town planning in this area, and he was certainly responsible for the naming of these streets of our immediate neighbourhood. We go from George Street, named for the Prince of Wales, who subsequently became George IV, we then have Harrington Street, Cambridge Street, Gloucester Street, Cumberland Street and they were named for the royal dukes. The boundaries are marked by Argyle Street on our right hand side and further up was Charlotte Place, which is now called Grosvenor Street.

One of the interesting things about the development is the fact that the topography of the area or terrain led to a system of social stratification, so the retail and commercial premises and the wharves were closest to the water and to Circular Quay, and as you come up you then hit this particular part of the Rocks and it was largely recognised as working-class residential, and then further up the hill, towards Cumberland Street you then found (towards the 1830s) that they had developed those streets, and there were houses of a fairly substantial nature, built by merchants, civil servants, and there were a number of terrace houses in Fort Street that were designed by John Verge. That was really considered the more salubrious areas – you were away from the noise and the traffic of George Street, and certainly in terms of quality of life, the further you got away from the crowds down here, and also being high upon the hill, there were houses with gardens and better facilities.

What we might do now is walk down and look at the back of the houses. Jumping around a bit in the chronology, certainly by the 1850s, this part of the Rocks had a fairly nefarious reputation. One of the things that we have been relying on heavily are contemporary accounts of the Rocks. A lot of the observers like Alexander Harris and other people, did comment on the Rocks – it was obviously a major feature of Sydney. There were newspaper reports – in the 1850s in the Sydney Morning Herald a series of articles was published about the slums of Sydney and about the unsatisfactory building arrangements and sanitary facilities in this part of town. Subsequently we had 'select committees' of the Legislative Council which investigated working class conditions, and a lot of those reports reveal key information about this area. In a way it provides an interesting context for Susannah Place for the average Sydneysider, even today, it is heavily promoted to tourists that this part of Sydney, from George Street upwards was the haunt of ill repute, dens of iniquity. That is confirmed to a certain degree. The closer it was to the waterfront, you will find that there is an amazing infrastructure of pubs, lodging houses, taverns and then in the midst of all that is the housing for working class people. The working class people are an amorphous group but they were largely the maritime, the people who worked on the waterfront – that would range from itinerant labourers to people who had steady jobs; the sort of jobs that crop up are mariners, stevedores, coal lumpers, unskilled labourers. They sought to live in this area because of its close proximity to their work, and given that 1850s period there were factors like the lack of public transport. A lot of this work was very casual – right up until the early 20th century – you literally turned up on the spot and were given a job on the day, so you really had to have close access to those areas of industry. Similarly, in contrast to what one might believe, rents were astronomical because of that high level of demand. Rents that were paid by working class people were considerably higher than those in the suburbs that were developing at the same time.

Given that characteristic of the area you look back at Susannah Place and wonder what were the lives of people who lived in these houses. We don't have lots of historical documents written by our various tenants, but the actual type of building that these are, the types of facilities, and the fact that they have survived tell us a very different picture to the usual story of this part of the Rocks. There is no denying that these streets were, as we can see from some of the photographs, heavily built up. By this stage this part of the Rocks had been pretty opened up by building speculators, who built large and small houses which were then literally crammed with tenants. The photographs give you some inkling of the infrastructure of the area. Today all of this has disappeared because of the plague. Those reports on working class housing talk about the lack of adequate water facilities, the very poor drainage in the area and the very poor sewerage facilities as well. There is reference to disease and to the uncleanliness of the streets. These are the earliest photographic records that we have of the site, and of the neighbourhood. These were taken by the Public Works Department in about 1901, the plague had occurred in 1900, and we have a lot to be pleased about, that in fact they used photography to record buildings that they were to demolish. At times it is incredibly frustrating because there is no front-on shot of Susannah Place, and really this is a view of Cambridge Street. The (2nd top row) three shots are the most detailed shots that we have of No. 64, the grocery shop. The evidence that is captured there is superb. Looking back here (2nd row, first on left) this is looking up Cumberland Place. The streets in the Rocks area are slightly frustrating, because they have undergone all sorts of changes. Cumberland Place was referred to as Cribbs Lane, and previously was also known as Speers Lane. What the photographs record is fabulous because it does tell us about a neighbourhood that is not here today, and which in some ways is difficult to try and visualise given the modern development that has happened around us. As we know the first house was a grocery shop, but at the bottom of the stairs on the right hand side was another grocery shop, and other research has shown that this particular building functioned as a butchers in 1880 (2nd row left). Opposite was another pub called the Sailor's Return, and then as you come up the stairs, one of the other things was the record of people, the actual residents of the neighbourhood. This is a fabulous photograph of looking down Cambridge Street (bottom row, left) because today it is virtually a laneway. Following the plague a lot of the buildings on both sides of the road were demolished and what has happened is this substantial street with footpaths and gutters has disappeared to what you see today, which is literally a back lane. Similarly other buildings in Gloucester Street were extensively recorded. One of these was another pub called the Whaler's Arms, which was adjacent to Susannah Place.


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