Atlas of New South Wales NSW Government Land & Property Information

History and Exploration

Sydney 1879 - 2010

By 1879, Sydney was a major city in world terms, and the CBD was the focus of a metropolitan area with over ten times the 1836 population.

At the time represented by the earliest map in this series, c.1836, Sydney Cove still had its more or less original shoreline, now marked on the eastern side of the modern Circular Quay area by a series of small bronze plaques. Furthermore, the Tank Stream still flowed from the southern end of the modern CBD to enter Sydney Cove in its south-western corner.

Much of the street pattern of the northern section of the CBD, covered in the other three maps and the two aerial photographs, had to await reclamation of the head of the Cove. Some other features beyond the area covered by those maps, but included on the c.1836 map, are worthy of note.

First, there was still a large amount of open space within the town, used for storage, gardens, horse stabling, and the like. Sydney was in this respect more like a moderately sized country town of the 20th or 21st century — its population was, after all,
only approximately 20,000.

Secondly, much of the street pattern shown, apart from the section still to be reclaimed, already had its modern form. This was certainly true of The Rocks, allowing for the later superimposition of the Sydney Harbour Bridge approaches.

Thirdly, some of the key public buildings on the eastern and western ridges on either side of the Tank Stream valley were present: Fort Macquarie, built in 1817 and later replaced by tram sheds (1903-59) and then the Opera House; the Government Stables (1819-21), that became the central part of the Conservatorium (1913-15); Fort Phillip, on what has variously been known as Windmill Hill, Flagstaff Hill and Observatory Hill, begun in 1804 but never completed; and St Phillip’s Church, since replaced by a new building. A large area on the eastern ridge is open space, preserved as the Government Domain, part of which became the Botanic Gardens. A mill, specifically a windmill, is located to the south of the Stables. Government House remains on its original site at the modern corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets, now site of the Museum of Sydney. Finally, it should be noted that very few wharves are shown on this earliest map.

By 1879, the date of the first larger-scale, detailed land-use map, Sydney was a major city in world terms, and the CBD was the focus of a metropolitan area with over ten times the 1836 population, reaching 225,000 in 1881.

The northernmost section of the CBD had changed in keeping with this general city growth and the greater commercial, government and cultural activity required of its central areas. Most obviously, the head of Sydney Cove had been reclaimed and Semi-Circular Quay formed in a massive public works program in the 1840s and 1850s.

A series of ferry wharves had also been built by 1879, while larger commercial ships used wharves on the two sides of the Cove further north, particularly on the eastern side. A large plaza area, however, had been retained adjacent to the ferry wharves and was used extensively by horse-drawn forms of transport to transfer ferry passengers and goods from both the ferry terminals and commercial wharves to the CBD proper, and to other parts of the city and the broader colony. Perhaps related to this were a number of stables. More obviously related were the large number of storage facilities, including warehouses and bond stores to house imported goods, or those awaiting export.

The modern street pattern on the reclaimed area had been formed by 1879 and, apart from some lane development, remains essentially unchanged in the early 21st century.

A number of important government buildings had been constructed along Bridge Street, particularly on its southern side and at its junction with the new Macquarie Street. Further north, the first Customs House on the present site, a two-storey building from 1844, and the Water Police Court of 1856, both obviously associated with the port, are on reclaimed areas.

A significant public gardens area has been formalised in Macquarie Place, but there is also much space left as ‘yards’ in the street blocks located on reclaimed land bounded by Pitt and Macquarie Streets and Bridge and Alfred Streets, but also on the area further west to George Street.

There are also considerable areas still classified as ‘vacant land’, showing that the reclaimed land had not been fully utilised after twenty years or more. These areas north of Bridge Street and east of George Street are otherwise a mixture of commercial, professional and financial uses, with retail businesses, often associated with either residential or office uses on upper floors, concentrated along George Street.

There are also many small-scale manufacturing establishments. Apart from the western side of George Street, which is almost continuously retail with an admixture of hotels and dining establishments, The Rocks is largely a densely packed residential district. No buildings in the entire mapped area were yet more than four floors in height.

Considerable change had taken place by 1940, the date of the second detailed map. In the first decade of the 20th century the ferry wharves were enlarged and rationalised, resulting in the shoreline becoming squarer, while the name changed from Semi-Circular Quay to the even less appropriate Circular Quay. A roadway and, more significantly in terms of change, a tramway traversed the area between Circular Quay and Alfred Street. The tramway joined the busy George Street lines and those running north along other streets to the depot on the former Fort Macquarie site on Bennelong Point.

A great deal of development of government offices had taken place since 1879: by 1940, the Customs House had been extended both horizontally (essentially rebuilt in 1887) and vertically (top floor added in 1903); the new Department of Lands building (1876-94) had replaced a group of smaller buildings; the equally large and impressive Department of Education building (1912-14) had replaced the old Colonial Secretary’s Office and surrounding gardens; and the Colonial (later Chief) Secretary’s Building (1869-75) had been refurbished and the Colonial Secretary’s Offices had taken over the section formerly used by the Works Department. Only the Treasury Building (1849, 1896) remained relatively small and less than five floors in height.

While much of The Rocks west of Harrington Street remained predominantly in residential use, the area east of George Street had developed a very complex mixture of uses. At the same time, most of the ‘yards’ and ‘vacant land’ had been built on. Overtly office buildings, sometimes combined with a residential use, had become much more common.

There were also many examples of retail, wholesale and manufacturing uses, and also many examples of the new category of ‘mixed use’ premises. While the western side of George Street North remained largely intact, the block behind this facade had seen densely packed residential buildings replaced for storage and other commercial uses. A number of port-related storage facilities occurred in the north-east corner of the mapped area, closest to the commercial wharves of Circular Quay East. Most notable of these was the impressive, multi-storey Farmers and Graziers Building, originally built for Mort & Co. in the 1860s and 1870s, and on the site now occupied by the northern AMP Building. It was only one among many non-government buildings of five or more floors, though none had reached twelve.

An even more thorough transformation took place between 1940 and 2008 (the third land-use map). While the ferry wharves and the immediate waterfront of Circular Quay remained much the same, the trams had ceased to operate and much of the area between the ferry wharves and Alfred Street was taken up by the overhead Cahill Expressway (1955-62), although Alfred Street had been brought further north and pedestrian plaza areas created between it and the building frontages.

Many major redevelopments had involved consolidation of sites into much larger building footprints, although with very few street or lane closures, and the new buildings were frequently of twelve or more storeys. These high-rise buildings were largely for offices, including banking and finance offices, but there were also a number of large hotels and some residential blocks among them. The Inter Continental Hotel (1985) controversially incorporated the old Treasury Building beside its tower block. These changes had even affected the portion of The Rocks included on these maps, with the main reminder of earlier times being the archaeological site in Gloucester Street. The Customs House was converted in the late 1990s to serve a combination of community uses, including housing a branch of the City Library.

Another interesting conversion is that of the former Water Police Court, as shown on the 1879 map, from its 1940 use as a storage facility, to the Justice and Police Museum, almost completing a reversion to its original character.

Another story that involves coming almost full circle is that of the Museum of Sydney, built in 1993-95 at the foot of yet another high-rise office tower, but preserving beneath its forecourt the remains of the first Government House, in use from 1788 to 1846, and, also in the forecourt, commemorating the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the Sydney area.

Dr Graeme Aplin, Macquarie University






Circular Quay 1895

Photo: Kerry & Co., National Library of Australia View: 2.29 Mb image.

Circular Quay 1895

Sydney Central Business District 1940

View: 0.34 Mb image.

Sydney Central Business District 1940

Sydney Central Business District 1943

Photo: Land and Property Management Authority View: 1.04 Mb image.

Sydney Central Business District 1943

Sydney Central Business District 2008

View: 0.27 Mb image.

Sydney Central Business District 2008

Sydney Central Business District 2009

Photo: SKM / Land and Property Management Authority View: 5.41 Mb image.

Sydney Central Business District 2009

Sydney Cove 1788

View: 1.15 Mb image.

Sydney Cove 1788