History of Sydney

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Aboriginal Sydney

Sydney has always been characterised by waves of migration starting with the first Aborigines who reached the area approximately 20,000 years ago. It is estimated that their population had risen to 3000 when Captain James Cook, briefly visited Botany Bay in April 1770. The 'Eora' display at the Museum of Sydney provides a sensitive, contemporary interpretation of their complex and sophisticated culture.

'The Coming of the Strangers'

In 1787, The First Fleet sailed from England commanded by Captain, later Governor, Arthur Phillip. On 26 January 1788, the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove - now known as Circular Quay. This date has since been celebrated as Australia Day.

When Phillip returned to England in 1792, officers seized control and were permitted to pay convict labourers and other accounts with rum rather than hard currency. Battles for social standing and economic power emerged between such groups as land grant holders like John Macarthur who established Elizabeth Farm near Parramatta and those newly-emancipated convicts who had served out their term. The settlement soon outstripped its original site and extended west towards The Rocks and Observatory Hill and as far south as Brickfield Hill (near present-day Central Station).

Matters came to a head politically with the Rum Rebellion of 1808 and when governor, William Bligh, was recalled to England. His successor, Lachlan Macquarie, gave the city its grand, early nineteenth-century vision that can still be glimpsed among the high-rise developments of the late twentieth century. He worked with convict architect, Francis Greenway, to erect such edifices as Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church. But Macquarie's extravagant expenditure angered the British government and in February 1822 he reluctantly returned home.

Urban Consolidation

During the early 1830s a number of officials made the decision to take up land grants on prestigious Woolloomooloo Hill, establishing villas like Elizabeth Bay House. Between 1837 and 1845, a Tudor-style Government House arose near the site of the present-day Opera House. Large-scale, assisted immigration was characteristic of this period and when transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840, inhabitants finally began to shake off their convict 'stain'; significantly, this was followed two years later by an act which declared Sydney's status as a city.

The Gold Rushes

In 1851, gold was found near the central western town of Bathurst. Thousands of prospective diggers arrived by ship, many of whom later settled permanently. However, when more substantial holdings were discovered in Victoria, the excitement dissipated and Sydney embarked upon a new period of civic, cultural and social development. Elegant sandstone buildings like The Australian Museum and the University of Sydney were constructed and in 1855 the first train line opened between Sydney and Parramatta.

Late Nineteenth Century

The 1879 International Exhibition placed Sydney squarely on the map. Major public buildings erected during this period include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the General Post Office, Sydney Town Hall and the Queen Victoria Building. The suburbs continued their inevitable sprawl, fuelled by the expanding rail network and the Australian 'dream' of owning a quarter-acre block.

Early Twentieth Century

On 1 January 1901, the six Australian colonies united to form a Commonwealth and Sydney became the state capital of New South Wales. The opening of Central Station stimulated commercial development in the south, electrification replaced gaslight, women received the vote and mixed bathing became acceptable during daylight hours. Agitation also began for an alternative crossing of the Harbour, which was still serviced exclusively by ferries. However, further expansion was put on hold with the outbreak of the First World War when thousands of Australians departed to assist the British cause.

Between the Wars

After the troops came home, expansion and development continued until the onset of the Great Depression in the late 1920s. Many found themselves unemployed, political unrest swept Sydney and the popular Labour premier, Jack Lang, was removed from office. Nevertheless, the wonderful engineering feat known as the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932.

World War II

At the outbreak of World War II, Australian troops again left to support the British in Europe. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, Australia's own national security became paramount. Four Japanese midget submarines were destroyed when they entered Sydney Harbour in May 1942. Shortly afterwards, the 'mother' submarine bombed the waterfront suburbs of Bondi and Rose Bay. Fear of invasion heightened rapidly. Rationing and blackouts were introduced, and many residents fled for safety to the Blue Mountains.

Post-war Development

This period was characterised by wide-scale immigration especially from Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe. Major modernist buildings such as Rose Seidler House challenged the norm and a distinctive local school of architecture gradually evolved.

During the 1960s, American influence saw Australia being drawn into the Vietnam War. The introduction of conscription provoked widespread civil unrest. At the same time, the city embarked upon a period of unabashed, rampant development and older buildings were demolished or overshadowed by new skyscrapers. The Sydney Opera House opened in 1973 and previously-maligned suburbs such as Paddington, with its distinctive terrace house architecture, suddenly became fashionable. Ethnic groups began to colonise Leichhardt (Italians), Lakemba (Lebanese), Redfern (Greeks) and Marrickville (Portuguese). The end of the Vietnam War also saw large-scale immigration from South-East Asia.

Rampant Development

The last two decades have seen even greater change - thousands of apartment buildings now punctuate the skyline and fierce battles continue to rage over 'The Toaster' at Circular Quay, the Monorail, Fox Studios and the future of the Walsh Bay Wharves. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find traces of the past within the city apart from Macquarie Street and the touristy Rocks area. The advantages associated with hosting the 2000 Olympic Games are being balanced against the cost the taxpayers will have to bear. The Harbour has been cleaned up, the Homebush Bay Olympic Site provides international-class facilities and Sydney is poised to offer a breathtaking welcome to the thousands of tourists who will visit the city during September 2000.