Have you ever tried to remember what reconstructed parts of the city looked like before the reconstruction? It is little over ten years since George street, north from Essex street (i.e., towards the Quay), was but a narrow street lined with shops tenanted, amongst others, by Chinamen. Now, what can you remember of that street? So quickly does our memory of street characteristics fail that I think the majority of readers will find difficulty in visualising the street and the celestial merchants of ten years ago. Yet this part of George street was one of the Chinatowns of Sydney for over half a century; the other was the Wexford street area.
A visitor to our shores in 1854 has left us an account of what he saw in this part of Sydney. “I feared I should lose my hearing by the deafening noise,” he wrote, “Jugglers, dancers, and pedlars stop the thoroughfare- -all shouting at the top of their voices, and trying to carry off the stranger by force into their shops and stalls, but each neutralising by competition the attempts of his neighbour. A dispute arises and ends in a row; and whilst they take hold of one another’s tails we escape from the riotous neighbourhood and it furious din.” We lament the decay of the Morris dance, the passing of the old-time customs, but, with the exception of the pak-a-pu bankers and proprietors of the fan-tan houses, there are no regrets for the passing of Chinatown from Sydney.
Sydney Morning Herald
Our last chapter left us standing at the junction of George and Essex streets, opposite Messrs. Nock and Kirby’s. On part of the site of this firm’s stores, the “Sydney Morning Herald” was born. At the rear of the George street shops, stood until 1916, an old store and in this building the “Sydney Herald,” as it was called, first saw the light on Monday, April 18, 1831.
When the store was demolished in December 1916, a small stone jetty with two short flights of stone steps and a wooden mooring pile at the bottom were disclosed. These were much below the present level of the street and are a reminder of the time when the waters of the cove occupied the site of Pitt street north. Before we move from this point, let us look at the sites (for the original buildings have gone) of two buildings associated with an event that startled our forefathers nearly a century ago.
Bank of Australia
In the late ‘twenties, the building which then stood on the southern end of Messrs. Nock and Kirby’s premises was owned and tenanted by one, John Redman, sometimes spelt Redmond. In a memorial to Governor Darling, under date, November 11th, 1829, Redman praying for a grant of the site, states that on it stood a public house with the sign of “Keep within the Compass” and a front two-storey dwelling house and shop.
Next door to Redman’s was the Bank of Australia. One morning, in September, 1828, the teller of the bank opened the strong-room to find what was to him an appalling sight. In one wall was a hole large enough to let a man through; the room was in disorder; and when he recovered sufficiently to count the damage a sum of between £12,000 and £13,000 was missing.
For two and a half years this robbery was one of Sydney’s mysteries, and even to-day some writers assert that it has never been cleared up. This, however, is incorrect. Some two years after the crime a convict at Norfolk Island, undergoing a life sentence, offered, in exchange for a free pardon, a passage to England, and £100, to tell how the deed was done. His offer was accepted, he was carried to Sydney, and three men were arrested and tried in June, 1831. Blackstone, the convict referred to, in giving evidence, said he was approached to join in the robbery.
He agreed, and, being a blacksmith, was given the job of making the tools for excavating. These, he said, in operation made no more noise than a rat gnawing. There was a large drain crossing George street which passed underneath Mr. Redman’s house and emptied into the waters of the Cove, which at this time ran up to Bridge street. This drain carried off, I presume, the floodwaters from the Essex street hill. It has been written many times that the robbers excavated right across George street, but there was no necessity for this; the drain was large enough to crawl through.
A man who had worked on the bank premises gave one of the band the exact location of the bank strong-room, and after taking a series of measurements the men walked down a court on Mr. Redman’s premises to the beach where the drain discharged, crawled up the drain, and started to cut through the wall of that gentleman’s house. This was two and a half feet through, and the bank wall about the same. It required three days to cut the hole, and, all being convicts, they were free only on Saturdays. On one occasion the drain was entered from Mr. Thornton’s land, which was on the southern corner of George and Essex street (i.e., on the other side of George street).
The three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Unfortunately for Blackstone, the informer, on the day before he was to receive his reward he was caught burgling a store, whose contents were worth only £20, and was again sentenced to transportation for life.
Shipbuilding yard “King George”
The buildings from the southern end of Nock and Kirby’s to the southern end of the “Bulletin” office are built upon a grant that was made to James Underwood, who gave his name to Underwood street. The grant ran from George street to the waters of the Cove. On the banks of the Cove Underwood erected a shipbuilding yard, and it was here that the first colonial ship (not boat), named the “King George,” was launched, on April 19, 1805. When excavations were made on the site of Messrs. Crane and Company’s premises, in Pitt Street, at a depth of 15 feet below the surface, a spar of a ship, a marlinespike, and a bayonet were discovered. It was close to this site that King George was launched.