Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Lost Streets of Surry Hills

The block of land surrounded by Goulburn, Riley, Campbell and Brisbane Streets in Surry Hills Sydney, now houses the Sydney Police Centre, but in the past formed one of the large population zones of the area.

Settlement began around the 1850's and a network of streets gradually extended across the block over the next 30 years. These are the lost streets of Surry Hills and include List Lane, East Street, Milk Street, Upton St, Hill Street, Lower Campbell Street and many others.

As more and more terrace houses were built, more thoroughfares were laid to service them, until by about 1890 the block had been built out. The area by then consisted of a large neighbourhood jam packed with terraces separated by a spider-web of small streets and lanes. Most of these terraces were rented accommodation with the landlords significantly opting to live in other parts of town.

The Cross Keys hotel on the right in 1928
 City of Sydney Archives(Click image to enlarge)

Breaking the pattern of terrace rows was the Cross Keys Hotel, located towards the north-west corner of the block, and the White Lion Hotel which was situated on the north-east corner, at the intersection of Goulburn and Riley Streets. The Jubilee School was also in the neighbourhood, but certainly the largest building on the block was St. Simons and St. Judes church, which was situated on the south side, opposite to today's Smith St.

The White Lion Hotel at the corner of Goulburn and Riley Streets in 1928.  City of Sydney Archives
(Click image to enlarge)

Most of the houses had been built by developers "on the cheap" and by the late 1890's the block had a bad reputation for houses in poor repair, as well as inadequate sewerage and drainage conditions, and the entire area was briefly quarantined in 1900 when bubonic plague broke out.

It had also developed an unsavoury reputation for crime, and in 1910, it was described by Lord Mayor Allen Taylor as a “blot upon the city” which should be remodelled forthwith. Archdeacon Boyce, of St. Pauls in Sydney, described it as “A network of narrow streets having some respectable people in them, but otherwise having a bad criminal record”.

The City Council became increasingly concerned about the prevailing social conditions and the entire block was eventually resumed, becoming what was known as the Brisbane Street resumption area. Tenants were evicted and most of the houses were demolished in 1927 and 1928, although a small stand of terraces was left in the southeast corner.

Maps showing the evolution of streets across the area
from 1862 to 1980. (Click on image to enlarge)

Council had intended that the land would be taken up for commercial use, for warehouses, factories and light industry. However, this never happened, and the block lay vacant for many years, playing host to travelling circuses, air raid shelters during the war, and temporary buildings housing a variety of government and non-government activities. Where St. Simons and St. Judes had been became the site of a Service Station for many years afterwards.

The Brisbane street resumption in 1928, showing St. Simons and St. Judes church just before demolition. City of Sydney Archives - click to enlarge

Finally, the Sydney Police Centre was constructed on the site during the late 70's and early 80's, and during the construction phase many artefacts were found in the ground including jars, bottles, horseshoes and old building materials. Today there is no sign of the old streets and houses that made up the forgotten neighbourhood of old Surry Hills.

Above - The corner of Goulburn and Brisbane streets in 1928 - City of Sydney Archives
(Click image to enlarge)

Above - The same intersection today
(Click image to enlarge)

The whole resumption exercise was intended to convert a residential area into an industrial area that would have generated more money for council for far less effort. But with the Surry Hills terrace house now very much in demand, it is sobering to think what the area would be worth today as a residential zone. Over 300 terraces were demolished and had these been repaired rather than razed, a tremendously valuable inner city neighbourhood would have been preserved. Now, some 80 years later, can we learn from this?

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