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Pyrmont: founded on corruption, divided by disease, united by industry

Pyrmont has developed from rocky outcrop to high-density living, sometimes at the expense of its residents. Photo: Alec Smart

by ALEC SMART

The Pyrmont peninsula is a sandstone-based outcrop bordered either side by two navigable coves, Blackwattle Bay and Darling Harbour. The region has gone through boom, bust and boom again as it transitioned from abattoirs to quarries to docks to slums and is now a hub for technology and tourism.

Although inhabited for millennia by Aboriginal peoples and known as ‘Pirrama’, the rocky region at the western end of Warrane (Aboriginal name for Sydney Harbour) came to the attention of the Sydney penal colony experiment not long after Britons settled New South Wales in 1788.

This was due to its two main sources of drinking water – a mineral spring and a freshwater creek – and close proximity to a deep bay that would become the epicentre of Australia’s agricultural exports and shipbuilding industries.

High quality sandstone also underpinned Pyrmont’s development. Resistant to erosion, it was extracted from 15 quarries and used for a range of major building works as well as ballast for shipping and railways.

Pirrama peninsula
To the west of Pirrama is Blackwattle Bay, a former tidal inlet known as Blackwattle Cove Swamp that European settlers originally crossed via a bridge, before the swamp was filled to form Wentworth Park.

A freshwater creek – Blackwattle Stream – fed into the swamp, a source of drinking water. Named after the versatile black wattle trees, Acacia mearnsii, once abundant in the area, they were felled for timber and the tannins in the dark bark extracted for leather production.

Subsequently, tanneries, abattoirs and wool and leather merchants were established alongside, utilising newly constructed wharves to import machinery and export their produce. However, the processing plants leached foul-smelling, toxic pollution into the swamp and bay, which in 1854 necessitated moving the main abattoir to Glebe Island. Accessible by a timber bridge from the northern tip of Pirrama, livestock were herded or carted there for slaughter, their blood flushed into the harbour, attracting hungry sharks.

To the east of Pirrama, the bay of Tumbalong – an Aboriginal word for ‘place where seafood is found’ – was renamed Long Cove by European settlers due to its shape. Later, it was called Cockle Bay because of large shell middens (dumps) left by generations of Aborigines.

Then, from 1826, tyrannical Governor Ralph Darling named it Darling Harbour after himself. Darling introduced a law banning drama performances and requiring the Colonial Secretary’s approval for all public entertainment, although he personally ensured most applications were rejected. It’s a strange irony two centuries later that major entertainment venues are now situated in the Darling Harbour environs.

The name Cockle Bay has been repurposed since the Darling Harbour redevelopment (completed in 1988 Bicentenary year) and is given to one of two bays in Darling Harbour.

Parcels of rogues
in 1795 the tip of the Pirrama peninsula, 55 acres including a mineral spring, was granted to Thomas Jones, a private in the NSW Corps, an incorrigibly corrupt military unit that ran the colony as a private fiefdom under Major Francis Grose.

In the first two decades of Sydney’s development by colonists, many grants of land were given to soldiers of the NSW Corps, from ranking officers down to lowly privates. A significant proportion were quickly sold on or traded for rum and other valuable goods.

The Pirrama peninsula at the time was shared between the Gomorrigal and Wangal peoples. ‘Gal’ means ‘tribe of’ and Gomora and Wanne were the names attributed to bodies of water on the southern shores of Warrane (Sydney Harbour) where those tribes lived.

Although first governor Arthur Philip referenced the Gomorrigal in his reports, little is known of them and social anthropologists have placed them collectively under the umbrella of the Cadigal (aka Gadigal) peoples that inhabited the southern shores of what is now central Sydney.

The Pirrama land grant required Private Jones to clear and cultivate the peninsula for farming, but the rocky outcrop had poor potential for agriculture or raising livestock, so Jones sold it on to Sergeant Obadiah Ikin, also in the NSW Corps, for £10.

Ikin, recalled from Norfolk Island by Governor King for his involvement in the NSW Corp’s brutal bullying of convicts, was no friend of the Aborigines. At the turn of the century they were still prevalent in the Pirrama area, despite the devastating effects of smallpox on their communities from an outbreak in 1789, which occurred within a year of the First Fleet’s arrival and completely bypassed European settlers.

According to Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins, the colony’s principle legal officer, a letter sent to him by Obadiah Ikin admitted he and his associates had “destroyed many of them [Aboriginals].”

Judge Atkins, a chronic alcoholic, fled to Sydney in 1792 after changing his name from Richard Bowyer to escape debts in Britain. Governor King sought his opinion on the colony’s legal treatment of Aborigines. Atkins concluded they were “at present incapable of being brought before a Criminal Court … and that the only mode at present, when they deserve it, is to pursue and inflict such punishment as they may merit.”

In 1799, Ikin sold the Pirrama peninsula for a gallon of rum to John Macarthur, wealthy wool pioneer and, later, proponent of the notorious Rum Rebellion – the 1808 armed insurrection when Governor Bligh was deposed by the NSW Corps and Major Johnston ruled under Macarthur’s guidance.

Also in 1799, Thomas Jones and wife Elizabeth were found guilty of murdering a Methodist missionary, Samuel Clode, and hung for the crime. A bay on the north-western tip of Pirrama, spanning the channel to Glebe Island, was named Jones Bay after the murderous private.

In 1803 the rest of the Pirrama peninsula and 14 acres of what is now Ultimo was granted to John Harris, a military surgeon and magistrate.

From Pirrama to plague town
John Macarthur renamed Pirrama ‘Pyrmont’, after Bad Pyrmont, a spa town in the district of Hamelin-Pyrmont in Germany, renowned for a mineral spring where people ‘took waters’ during an era when mineral springs were believed to have medicinal qualities.

The Pirrama spring, about 30 metres above sea level on the upper north-west, was a vital source of fresh water to indigenous communities in the area. It trickled through mosses and ferns and dripped into a cave formed by a large overhang. The water was captured in a bowl carved into the sandstone cave floor by Aborigines, later widened by British quarrymen to hold about 2 gallons (7.5 litres) and named Tinker’s Well.

The flow of water reportedly never ran dry, even in periods of drought. Because of its guaranteed availability, and the need to arrive early to collect it in buckets before long queues formed, a settlement of squatters in tin humpies established themselves nearby, known as Tin Pot Town.

Tin Pot Town remained for over a century, eventually dismantled when the land was acquired in 1935 for a garbage incinerator. The incinerator building was designed by husband-and-wife team, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney (1912 winners of the international competition to design Australia’s capital, Canberra).

Pyrmont Incinerator was one of many built to deal with tons of rotting garbage accumulating on a daily basis, which NSW health authorities identified contributed to Sydney’s outbreak of bubonic plague at the turn of the century.

Sydney’s plague occurred during a global pandemic, arriving January 1900 via Darling Harbour on fleas carried by ship rats. The first recorded death was sailmaker Captain Thomas Dudley of Darling Harbour, probably infected whilst removing dead rats clogging his outdoors toilet.

Squads of rat-catchers were formed and tens of thousands of rats were killed and incinerated in an attempt to stop the plague’s spread. Councils paid six pence per corpse, so vermin extermination became a lucrative enterprise. In late August 1900, the plague was contained with 103 deaths among 303 recorded cases.

The NSW Govt compulsorily reclaimed ownership of almost the entire western foreshore, from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour, and used the plague as justification to evict and destroy shanty-town slums all over Pyrmont and The Rocks. Their impoverished occupants had no legal right of appeal. Authorities also demolished many small jetties in order to better regulate the main wharves.

There have been several other clearances of people from the lower socioeconomic scale in Pyrmont, including:
* 1875 construction of the CSR sugar refinery at Elizabeth Macarthur Bay.

* 1970s start of freeways criss-crossing Pyrmont. Freeways were eventually curtailed by green bans enacted by the Builders Labour Federation working with community action groups.

Many historic buildings and parks across the city, which today are major tourist attractions, would have been lost forever to carparks and high-rise if it weren’t for courageous green bans. The word ‘green’ to describe environmental-awareness came from this era.

* 1980s police clearance of squatters in Pyrmont and Glebe (who moved in while the area was severely run down) to make way for new high-rise apartments and renovated wharves under the Urban Renewal program.

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