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We found Chippendale before it was ‘discovered’

Nowadays, Rose Street even has trees and gardens on the pavement

Sydneysider: A personal journey

My wife Ruth and I moved into 77 Rose Street Chippendale sometime in late 1968 or early ‘69.

It was the first time we’d rented an entire house. We thought moving into a real terrace house was just the duck’s guts. It’s a very old, cheaply-built terrace, quite possibly dating from the 1860s and the iron lacework is of the early, restrained, Victorian designs. Once, I got up into the ceiling and discovered to my astonishment that the original she-oak shingle roofing was still in place under the later corrugated iron.

The kitchen had, I think, been renewed in the 1950s but there was no indoor toilet and one had to trek up the backyard to the little brick outhouse. Nor was there much of a garden. The backyard was just ill-kept grass and concrete. There was a single tree fern in the tiny front garden.

But to us, the place was wonderful. It was a short walk to Sydney University, which we were both attending, or into the city, and there was Victoria Park just across City Road.

I painted the interior in the then-obligatory flat white plastic and Ruth’s parents paid for her upright player piano to be moved in. It was a heavy beast and it sat rather uncertainly on the rickety floor, just inside the front door. From time to time, various student friends boarded in the second bedroom.

There was a run-down pub diagonally across the street (now the Duck Inn Pub & Kitchen) where elderly locals propped up the bar, but we didn’t drink at pubs. If we ever splashed out on our own money it was at a cheap Chinese restaurant called the Kip Fong – we dubbed it the Rubber Thong – on City Road, near the Broadway corner.

A few doors up there was a cavernous second-hand furniture store known as the Old Ark we loved poking around in it (it’s now the Broadway Supermarket). It was run by a gruff old man and there were no prices marked on the stock, just a code: a few capital letters scrawled in chalk on the back. If you were interested in buying something, the proprietor would come and look at the code and then he’d give you a price – presumably based on what he thought you might be able to afford.

One day, to his great surprise, the struggling students actually bought something. It was a fine 1870s cedar chest of drawers, with only one flaw – a small burn mark on the top. We paid $22 – a whole week’s Commonwealth Scholarship Living Away From Home Allowance – about $250 in today’s dollars. I’ve used the chest ever since. Similar cedar pieces now fetch around $2500.

In spite of my Commonwealth Scholarship allowance, and the money I earned training with the University Regiment, we were poor. To supplement this income we’d go to the student employment office and pick up odd jobs. Much of this was helping young professionals renovate inner city terraces. We really liked this work which involved painting, landscaping small gardens and much stripping of old varnish from staircases, doors and other joinery.

Sydney was rediscovering its run-down inner city heritage – the streets of beautiful terrace houses, corner shops, and small pubs in neighbourhoods that had slid into neglect and decay since the Great Depression. The middle class was starting to return. Very slowly at first, and beginning in suburbs like Paddington and Balmain, they were buying the inexpensive terrace houses and restoring them. The process was pretty rough at first and there were many atrocities. The worst of which was chipping off the original plaster render on the facades to reveal the badly-laid sandstock bricks underneath.

But Rose Street hadn’t been “discovered” – wouldn’t be for many years – and none of the residents were of the new, cashed-up demographic. Our next door neighbours at No. 75 were very, very poor indeed. The lady of the house was old before her time. She was struggling to raise three children and scuttlebutt had it that her husband was in gaol for robbing the local funeral parlour. Her ancient mother used to sit outside on the back step drinking methylated spirits.

One night, the police raided the house. Our neighbours must have been tipped-off, because just before the cops staked out Maze Lane at the rear of the property and knocked on the front door, the mother and her three kids scooted out the back gate, across the lane, and into one of the big houses fronting City Road, where we knew they had relatives living. Old grandma distracted the cops with a big scene. I think they eventually “asked her to accompany them to the station”, as they say. It was a few days before mum and the kids moved back home.

A few doors south was an old shopfront – No. 87. A very old lady lived there alone. We only ever saw her slip in or out after dark, and no lights showed at night, probably because the electricity had been turned off for non-payment. Occasionally we noticed the dim glow of a candle flickering inside.

Nowadays the old street even has trees and gardens on the pavement. Most of the houses have been renovated to some degree or another, but the exterior of No. 77 hasn’t changed much in 45 years.


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