The Rocks is a district of Sydney situated right next to Circular Quay in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Much of the area is full of fashionable shops, restaurants, café’s and galleries; at weekends there are craft and food markets in the streets. The remainder is covered by the historic houses, shops and street corner pubs which have occupied the site from almost the beginning.
The name of the district comes from the local sandstone which was used to construct most of the original buildings.
Working class people arriving from English and Irish towns and cities would have reconsigned the district as soon as they got off the ship as it had been built by convicts for convicts and was modelled very much on what they had left behind. Many of the convicts opened shops and pubs, running their own businesses from premisses they erected. Even after the Hyde Park Barracks was opened in 1819 married and well behaved prisoners lived in the area, an “indulgence” which became increasingly necessary as the barracks filled to overflowing.
As prisoners completed their sentences they would often stay on in The Rocks and try to earn a living by whatever means was possible. This, coupled with the large numbers of visiting sailors and prostitutes, added to the increasingly seedy reputation of the area.
In 1900 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, largely due to the slum conditions, which forced the state government to take control. More than 3800 houses, buildings and wharves were inspected, hundreds being demolished, but the process come to a halt with the outbreak of World War I. Hundreds more homes were demolished in the 1920’s to make way for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but further redevelopment of the area again come to a halt this time due to the outbreak of World War II.
In 1968 control of the area was handed over to the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority again with the intention of re-developing the entire site. February 1971 saw the formation of the Rocks Residents Group who set out to oppose the plans and protect the area for the traditional residents.
Over the previous four years the Builder’s Labourers Federation had become increasingly active in preventing controversial developments and so the residents groups requested a Green Ban from them which would effectively put a stop to the destruction of the area. The Green Ban stopped any union labour working on the site at a time when, even more than now, the industry was very labour intensive.
1973 saw a “People’s Plan” drawn up and agreed following discussions between residents, the union and the redevelopment authority. However by October of that year it looked as if the original plans would proceed by using non-union labour. Two weeks of demonstrations by residents and unionists saw numerous arrests, but ultimately they one the day as can be seen when you walk through the district today.
However, there is still a problem of urban poverty in some parts of The Rocks. As the housing stock becomes dilapidated the government policy is to sell the now extremely valuable houses to private owners with the expectation that they will restore them and rejuvenate the remainder of the district. This has seen renewed demonstrations as it is seen by many as the destruction of a traditional community as the existing residents are forced to move away from their homes.
The “Millers Point – Dawes Point – The Rocks – Walsh Bay – Residents Action Group“, has been part of the history and protection of the district since the late 1960’s and continue to work today to protect this amazingly historic district for both visitors and the long term residents.
For me the protection of The Rocks district is of paramount importance. The history of the area is such that it must be protected for future generations.
But should this be at all costs? Should it be with indifference to the exiting residence?
A “middle way” needs to be found which would allow private money to be brought in and used to improve the greater environment. Perhaps an option would be to sell the empty houses to the highest bidder and then use the money to repair those currently let to tenants.
What ever the solution it is important that all the properties are renovated to an equal standard so that the area as a whole can benefit and be preserved for generations to come.
- The Rocks, History & Heritage
- The Rocks, Sydney – Wikipedia
- Millers Point – Dawes Point – The Rocks – Walsh Bay – Residents Action Group