Despite galloping gentrification, the Newtown-Enmore ‘destination precinct’ of Sydney’s inner west retains remnants of its former underground student activism, most notably in the form of fly-posters promoting leftist and anarchist causes.
Bill posting is illegal, with the local Inner West Council defining posters as ‘visual pollution’, along with other forms of ‘unwanted graffiti’. However, unlike the City of Sydney, which administers the north-eastern end of Newtown, the Inner West Council does not carry out an aggressive program of graffiti and poster removal. This might mean the Inner West has a smaller budget for street beautification, but over the years I have come to realise that it also indicates an uneasy tolerance on the part of Council, and that this tolerance is based on ambivalence.
Inner West Council trades on the image of Newtown-Enmore as a ‘vibrant’ and edgy area where there is always something to see and do. Its arts program, tellingly named EDGE, seeks to reinforce the area’s position as ‘the cultural engine of global Sydney’. It is noteworthy that the 2019 EDGE program was themed Art and Activism and that it included works of pseudo-graffiti, such as a series of giant paste-up illustrations celebrating the Reclaim the Streets activist movement, and trails of animal stencils on footpaths described as a ‘guerrilla pavement art project bearing witness to The Sixth Mass Extinction’.
With this kind of endorsement of graffiti and paste-ups it’s not surprising that unauthorised fly-posters have become an intrinsic element of Newtown-Enmore’s cultural capital. Political posters draw attention to the locality’s history as a seat of activism and this history is encouraged by Council’s arts programs to be regarded as an element of cultural ‘heritage’.
This blog post is an edited excerpt from:
HICKS, M. (2021) Flyposter graffiti and the change in a Sydney streetscape during the time of COVID-19. Visual Studies, 36, 141-146.
For this last journey along Johnstons Creek we take a path not far from Tramsheds, but on the opposite side of the canal. To follow the concrete line of the canal towards Rozelle Bay, we begin beside a skate ramp and an assembly of earth movers standing by to work on Sydney Water’s ‘naturalisation’ project.
Not far along the sandy path I am surprised to see a reed-fringed pond with a signboard, ‘Federal Park Wetland’. The sky to the north is threatening, but above us there are blue patches and their reflections match the colour of the pet supplies barn beyond the trees. Overflow from the pond empties into two basins and, on the other side of the path, we see that it has run underneath us to the canal.
The tide is out, or perhaps it was prevented from coming in. The canal is dishevelled, strewn with pipes, barricades and building site paraphernalia. Water pumped from somewhere upstream pours from a large black hose. This scene is so different from the almost-idyllic autumnal waterway that we looked back on from the sunny Glebe foreshore in April.
The rail viaduct is the next landmark. Built to carry steam trains taking goods to and from Darling Harbour, it has since been modified with overhead electric wires for the Metro light rail. From where Federal Park has widened out into a grassy but soggy playing field we can look back and admire its elegant curve and graceful brick arches.
Further on, after stepping along a temporary plastic path between safety fences, we arrive at the feted and recreated Allan Truss Bridge. This is the spot where we abandoned our foreshore outing in April, which means we have completed our piecemeal exploration of Johnstons Creek proper, from drain to bay. Over the weeks we have encountered twelve bridges across the canal, passed under two mighty viaducts, and walked over countless hidden feeder pipes and drains.
The characteristic salty-muddy smell of a tidal flat accompanies us as we cross the truss bridge. On the other side a large section of Bicentennial Park has also become a reconstruction site, where hard hats must be worn and 1.5 metre distancing observed.
We now return to where we started today, this time taking a route along the eastern side of the canal between more wire safety fences and the trim white picket fence of Jubilee Oval.
Back at the two bridges that cross from The Crescent in Annandale to Harold Park and the Tramsheds food mall in Forest Lodge, I look upstream towards the vast residential development that has replaced the Harold Park Paceway. Before embarking on this last Johnstons Creek excursion I have done some reading and I now realise that this whole area is a broad, flat valley. Although there are acres of open space, nothing is orginal. Not the concrete-confined creek, nor the planted reed beds and grassy slopes in front of me. Behind me, not the little wetland, the tidy playing fields and parks, the Indian mynahs splashing in the canal, nor the neatly walled edges of Rozelle Bay. Not even the trees.
In this valley Johnstons Creek once stretched out as a wide estuarine wetland with tidal mudflats and mangrove thickets, but in the 19th century the valley was filled with spoil from elsewhere in the curiously misnamed process of reclamation.
Over the generations since then, various organisations and departments have argued and compromised and acted to shape the land to their various needs and wants – grassy parklands and avenues of trees, factory sites, warehouses, timberyards, tramyards and a racecourse. Similar wrangling has characterised more recent efforts to restore fragments of the ‘reclaimed’ valley to a semblance of its former self.
So we have reed beds adjacent to a high-rise development, an artificial wetland fed by real runoff, newly planted patches of native vegetation (some already infiltrated by exotic weeds), and a corner of mangroves in an area small enough that it doesn’t encroach on open space. The latest change is Sydney Water’s grand naturalisation project which includes, among other things, replacing the concrete banks of the canal with sandstone and native plants, and expanding the salt marsh around it. The City of Sydney’s concurrent scheme to improve The Crescent and Federal Park will feature less natural works, like a skate plaza and picnic areas with barbecues.
During my walking and reading explorations I have been disappointed not to find specific references to pre-20th century Aboriginal people who might have frequented the immediate environs of Johnstons Creek. Recently written descriptions and histories of the surrounding suburbs usually begin with the obligatory generalised nod to the Cadigal and Wangal people of this area before getting on with the ‘real’ history. But even in serious accounts I have found no mentions of these people that can be pinned specifically to Johnstons Creek, nor can I find any stories handed down through generations, or contemporaneous mentions of Aboriginal people being seen here, or any records of archaeological discoveries.
It stands to reason. The region now covered by the suburbs of Stanmore, Camperdown, Annandale and Forest Lodge was very close to the original colonial settlement of Sydney, so even before the very early land grants were made here, most Aboriginal people had probably gone. During the subsequent periods of farming, subdivision and urbanisation, any traces of the original people would have been dug up, buried, built over or wilfully ignored.
Still, there is enough evidence from nearby or similar areas to suggest how these people lived. They might have hunted in what the colonists called the ‘Kangaroo Ground’ where Johnstons Creek rose. The might have accessed its fresh water. They would have probably frequented the sandstone ridges of now-suburban Glebe overlooking the estuarine valley, staying in overhangs like the rock shelters with associated middens that have been found not so far away in Lilyfield and Birchgrove.
They would not have lived in the watery valley but almost certainly foraged there, just as people did in the long-ago ‘reclaimed’ Blackwattle Bay on the other side of Glebe Point, where archaeologists have recently uncovered several deposits of stone artefacts. Glebe historian Max Solling says there is ‘some evidence of Aboriginal middens – the remains of shellfish – in the narrow strip of remnant salt marsh fringing the lower parts of Johnstons Creek. The ark cockle, scallop and Sydney rock oyster and mud whelk found there indicate that this was a fertile swamp and a rich source of food for the first inhabitants’.
As this stage of my Covid-19 isolation project comes to an end social restrictions in New South Wales have been eased. I am not sure that I could muster the number of friends I am allowed to mingle with, but later in the week we are having lunch with two friends. They are volunteers with the State Emergency Service and so are interested in previous waterways and potential flood zones. Perhaps we will talk about the buried tributaries of Johnstons Creek that I have yet to explore. I want to hear more of their stories about local streets that turn into torrents, and basement pumps, and flooded police cells.
Attenbrow, Val, Sydney’s Aboriginal past: investigating the archaeological and historical records, UNSW Press, 2010.
At the northern end of Smith & Spindler Park in Annandale there is a quaint arched footbridge across to AV Henry Reserve. After passing beneath this footbridge Johnstons Creek flows under a road bridge where vehicles swoop around the arc of The Crescent. The canalside pathway has a separate underpass below the road. I have chosen to follow this section of the canal on a rainy weekday in the hope of avoiding encounters with speeding cyclists on the shared path. I am the kind of pedestrian they hate – slow, meandering, crossing unpredictably from one side of the path to the other to take photographs.
The Man Who Walks Ahead drops me at Smith & Spindler Park and will this time drive ahead to meet me at Tramsheds. Before I set off I am drawn to a cluster of small brick building in the corner of the park. It is another Sewage Pumping Station, SPS 4. I am surprised to find the high chain wire gate ajar and I walk right into the compound, as have many graffitists before me. There is an outdoor dunny attached to the main building and inevitable jokes spring to mind. Is it connected to the sewer, I wonder. When I tell him about it later The Man suggests it might house a relief valve.
There is a steep dip in the claustrophobic tunnel under The Crescent. A friend later tells me that when she used to cycle home from Glebe she would have to take a long detour whenever Johnstons Creek flooded because the water in the underpass was too deep to ride through.
When I emerge I’m disappointed to find the creek blocked from view by safety fencing and Sydney Water banners. ‘Johnstons Creek naturalisation’, they read, ‘We’re improving the health of this waterway, creating a better place for the community to enjoy’. I peer through a gap in the screens and conclude that things have got a lot worse before getting better. It was in this stretch of the canal that a confused bull shark, said to be 1.8 metres long, was stranded in a pool when the tide went out one day in September 2009. Happily it escaped back to Rozelle Bay when the tide came in.
I am now in Federal Park. Larger than all the other parks and reserves that edge the western side of Johnstons Creek, narrow Federal Park runs all the way from here to the bay. At a place where two separate bridges cross the canal (one for vehicles, one for pedestrians) two men in high-vis jackets are earnestly discussing ground water and surface water. Beyond them I can see the rail viaduct.
When I walk under the viaduct I will have completed the whole length of Johnstons Creek proper. But that walk must wait for another day. Right now The Man is waiting in the carpark of Tramsheds, where the former Rozelle Tram Depot has been transformed into an eating emporium. Erected in 1904 and preserved by repurposing, the depot was one of several imposing infrastructure projects built near Johnstons Creek around that time including, of course, the canal itself.
If there aren’t too many people we will be allowed to sit at a café for a cup of coffee rather than having to buy takeaway. It’s still raining but a rainbow has come out.
It’s over three weeks since we visited this light industrial triangle between Johnstons Creek and Pyrmont Bridge Road. There have been other excursions in between but now I’m back to find out what happens to the creek beyond the forbidding metal fence where it drops into an open canal behind Water Street. Just a few neatly kept little houses remain here, tucked between hulking factories and warehouses, and we have come on a Sunday hoping to avoid large trucks squeezing into delivery bays. I walk down a driveway between two houses in Water Street and find that it opens onto a gravelled space bounded on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by a thick jungle of banana trees, castor oil plants, convolvulus and asthma weed. With no machete available I can only peer down the steep slope for glimpses of the canal wall, recognisable by its symbiotic graffiti.
Frustrated by the banana jungle we move east to a wider industrial street that leads directly down to the canal. I have never been on Chester Street before but later I will read that there was once a household garbage tip amongst the houses on this side of Johnstons Creek. It was the source of much friction between the adjoining boroughs of Camperdown and Annandale in the late 1800s. For fifteen years countless newspaper column inches were taken up with reports of council meetings and letters to the editor on the subject of the Camperdown tip, whose ‘deadly effluvia’ made the creek filthy and ‘endangered the lives of the residents of North Annandale’. There are no houses here now and no tip. Instead there is a motor repair business with a wild piece of wall art.
We walk down the hill to a newly-built footbridge over the canal. On the other side of the dip the street climbs up between the Federation houses of re-gentrified Annandale.
Everything here looks new, but the two playgrounds are roped off to prevent children from disobeying social distancing rules. This tiny canalside reserve is called ‘Douglas Grant Memorial Park’ in honour of an Aboriginal man whose original name was Ng:tja. The survivor of a massacre, in 1887 he was taken as a toddler from his North Queensland home thousands of kilometres away and brought up in Annandale as a member of his captor’s family. His story is told on two plaques. It does not end well.
By taking a short walk along where this narrow park skirts a series of backyard fences, I can look across to the place where I had earlier tried bush-bashing. The clear band of water that I couldn’t see from the other side reflects the sky, but the graffiti is old and dilapidated, as if the renovation of the area has made the canal too public for spray painters.
This nook in Annandale is a revelation to me. But not to locals of course. Not the cyclists and joggers intermittently crossing the bridge. The two young men casually shooting a basketball. The squealing children doing wheelies on their scooters. Nor the three teenagers sitting at a picnic table and idly chatting not quite 1.5 metres apart.
For the fourth of our piecemeal visits to Johnstons Creek we return to Parramatta Road and plunge into the narrow streets on the northern side where a light industrial triangle is squeezed between the creek and Pyrmont Bridge Road. The streets slope down to a concrete pathway that covers this section of the canal. We turn left and find ourselves at the sandstone bridge on Parramatta Road, where thousands of cars pass Stanmore McDonald’s every day. The creek traces a silvery line through the shadows under the road.
Turning around to follow the flow of the creek we walk between the backs of properties, respectable Victorian houses on one side, factories and derelict houses on the other. The path comes to an abrupt end at a metal grate and fence. Beyond is a deep channel of coolness where we can hear the creek falling. A bird calls from somewhere in the overhanging shrubbery.
We scramble up into a grassy area at the foot of Water Street. I will later read a lengthy real estate advertisement from 1850, when the farm here was subdivided into housing allotments. This grassy area is described as “a RESERVED WATERING PLACE at deep water on Johnstone’s Creek [that] will add materially to the comfort of the occupants”. There are still some residences in Water Street as well as warehouses and the last house before the reserve has a small but unusual garden.
Walking back to the car I spot an abandoned shopping trolley and for a moment think I have come upon a cache of toilet paper. But no, the cartload only consists of styrofoam packaging cylinders.
Near the middle of its course, Johnstons Creek is joined by its main tributary, Orphan School Creek, and that junction is the destination of today’s excursion. There is a small reserve here, strewn with orange rental bikes, and we are able to peer through wire mesh fencing at the water tricking from a large rectangular opening in the side of the canal.
Orphan School Creek runs underground these days, but for some distance its above-ground course has been restored as a dry creek gully and a facsimile of the original eucalyptus forest has been attempted with native plantings. I know this now, because there are information signs at spots along the paths that wind down to the gully from surrounding residential areas in Forest Lodge.
At this stage everyone is confused by the mixed messages about coronavirus precautions emanating from different levels of government. The toilet paper panic is well underway. Social distancing is advised but not mandatory. Keeping children home from school is advised but not mandatory. So it’s perhaps not surprising that late on this autumn afternoon the reserve is populated by people exercising as if there were no tomorrow. Chatty groups of women power stride together. Men walk enormous dogs. Bike riders weave amongst them.
On a narrow path bounded by back walls on one side and a wire fence on the other, a woman shadows us at a distance. I am dawdling and taking photos but she won’t pass because, she says, there has to be 1.5 metres. Eventually we press ourselves into a large shrub and she goes by, but coming towards her is a family group of parents and children all on bikes. She is obliged pass between them and I wonder why she chose to take this route for her walk, rather than the wider back streets nearby.
Meanwhile, we are being bitten by mosquitoes and retreat, resolving to follow more of Orphan School Creek some other time.
It is the beginning of social isolation and I have devised a plan that involves, not staying in, but getting out into the customarily deserted streets of suburbia. To keep me exercised and interested, but distanced, I will try tracing the paths of local waterways, most of them now hidden underground or confined to canals that lurk around back lanes. My Journal of the Plague Year will document a watery wander.
I start with Johnstons Creek, a notable watercourse on the inner western fringe of central Sydney. It is named after Lieutenant George Johnston, who arrived as a marine on the First Fleet in 1788. Within a few years of the colony being established Johnston was granted a parcel of land and this creek formed the eastern boundary of his property.
My first excursion takes me to Parramatta Road, which crosses Johnstons Creek part the way along its course. Peering over a railing I can see the creek still flowing way down in the bottom of its ovoid stormwater canal. Before writing up this journal entry I learn from someone close to me that her graffiti crew used to spray here. But that was many years ago. I doubt there’s anything of hers visible now.
A Bicentennial plaque set into the concrete footpath tells me that a wooden bridge was built here in 1839. There are remnants of a subsequent sandstone bridge on the other side of Parramatta Road. More graffiti, including the name of a well known street artist who’s just recently been charged with sexual assault.
There are still people in Sydney who pine for the line painted down the centre of city footpaths to separate pedestrians moving in opposite directions.
Much has been written about the
historical battle between pedestrians and motorists when the car took over from
horse-drawn vehicles and commandeered the road. And in contemporary times, with
the resurgence of bicycle riding, much is being written about the battles
between cyclists and motorists on the road, and between cyclists and
pedestrians on the footpaths.
But I have been interested for a
while in the civil war amongst walking citizens, and the boundary lines that
have, from time to time, been drawn up in an attempt to keep the peace. Turning up photographs of these lines has
been difficult but, in a current museum exhibition I found what I have been
Street photography at the Museum of Sydney displays photographs
taken by the men who, from the Depression 1930s to the Post-war 1960s, used to stand
in licensed positions and take snaps of city footpath walkers then press upon
them a ticket with the address of a nearby studio where they could purchase
For people who bought them it was perhaps the best photo they had of themselves, the best photo their families had to remember them by. But the exhibition’s curators also invite visitors to see what else they can find beside the main subjects of the photos – items of clothing or accessories that date the pictures, figures in the background, still-recognisable locations in Sydney. I looked for and found the centre lines.
A by-law requiring foot passengers to ‘keep to the right’ on footways existed in Sydney from around 1900 but it was largely ignored. In a letter to the Mayor in 1902 a Mr George Richards fumed that ‘the people walking in our city are like a lot of cattle that has got into a barn and wander about looking for a place to get out. Surely you can do something to prevent this sort of thing’.
The City of Sydney Archives and clippings books reveal that Mr Richards was not the only one infuriated by the unruly users of Sydney’s footpaths. One columnist in 1911, for example, complained about there being ‘no visible admonition to keep to the right’.
Somewhere along the way the rule
changed to ‘keep to the left’ so that pedestrians did not have their backs to
the traffic if they stepped off the footpath onto the roadway. By the mid-1920s
authorities in Melbourne had not only copied this rule but had painted white
But it was not until 1948, after two
years of to-ing and fro-ing between Sydney City Council, the Police Department
and the Department of Motor Transport, that Sydney had a trial of centre lines on
parts of George, Market, Pitt and King Streets, along with the stencil ‘KEEP
LEFT’ at appropriate locations.
The trial was a success and the area of the city with lines down the middle of footpaths was extended. They were regularly repainted by the Department of Motor Transport but the KEEP LEFT stencils were not maintained because they were considered to be of little value.
In 1961 the Council wanted to extend
the scheme further from Sydney Central to Haymarket and Railway Square, but the
Department of Motor Transport had had enough, thanks to restricted finance and
a heavy volume of work. The existing lines, which by then were painted yellow,
were allowed to wear away.
They were not re-introduced and,
in justification, the City Planner pointed out that ‘pedestrian traffic by its
nature is unpredictable and it is not considered feasible that pedestrians can
be controlled in the same way as vehicular traffic, nor is it considered
desirable that they should be’.
Nevertheless, in the following
years a steady stream of letter-writers pleaded for the return of the centre
line. Mr Byott of Belfield’s 1974 letter was typical: ‘After suffering another
Christmas shopper’s charge on the footpaths in the City its about time
something was done about it. Please bring back the “YELLOW
LINE” that adorned Sydney City footpaths a decade ago, so at least the
poor employees in the city area (like myself) get a bit of a “fair go”
at all times’.
Council toyed with the idea of
reintroducing the centre lines but, apart perhaps from a period in the 1980s
(something I’ve been unable to confirm) they never have.
However newspaper letter writers like
Ms Alicia Dawson of Balmain have not forgotten. In 2015 she complained about
the ‘very frustrating pace of stop/sidestep/duck and weave’ on city streets and
cried, ‘Bring back the white line up the middle of the footpath or otherwise I
might well be driven to march around the city carrying a large hot dog
smothered in tomato sauce on a stick while yelling “keep left, keep
left” at the top of my voice.
In 2017 Ms Dawson was still
harping on the subject and others agreed, urging the City of Sydney to
‘reinstate the system of the 1940s and 50s, when Sydney footpaths had a painted
line down the centre’. Yet others were incredulous: ‘Are you serious? What a
waste of time and money to paint lines down the centre of footpaths. Will we
have to use hand signals if we wish to overtake?’
Ms Dawson may consider that ‘other
people’ on city streets lack manners, but letter writers and columnists who
hold similar sentiments are not particularly polite themselves. Mobile phone
zombies, they growl about fellow footpath users. Self-absorbed texters. Oblivious
to the swirling tide around them. Cursing into mobile phones. Smombies. Large contingents of residents
walking shoulder to shoulder. A phone-twiddling human wall. Dopey dawdlers. The
swayer describing a zigzag path. All over the place. Crisscrossing. A free-for-all. Dawdling tourists. Heel steppers. Sudden
stops and turns. Slowcoaches. Slow old people with huge, boxy Volvo bums.
Running groups and other pavement irritants. Window shoppers. People who bash
into others with a backpack. Gophers that nearly run you over. And the worst
pavement tyrants, those mothers with bigger-than- Texas prams.
So the indignation, the jostling and the sledging continue, and the keep-left rule is all but forgotten. There are some who still believe that the thin yellow line would have a calming effect but probably, as the City Engineer said back in 1974, the reintroduction of marked centrelines on footways would be of doubtful value.
The photographs were all taken by a street photographer in Martin Place,
Sydney, between May and December 1950. The
have been reproduced courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research
Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Brown-May, Andrew, ‘The highway
of civilisation and common sense’, Urban
Research Program Working Paper No.49, ANU, 1995.
City of Sydney Archives 1902/0068
(1902); 268/60 (1960-1978); CRS 1083/14/70 (2011)
Sydney Morning Herald letters to the editor and columnists
2003-2017 (details available)
This is going to take a lengthy search. I am looking for images and mentions of graffiti that pre-date the explosion of informal public writing in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m concentrating on Sydney, but even within that narrow scope it won’t be easy.
Before the mid-1900s the term ‘graffiti’ was used for writing that had survived on walls found at ancient archaeological sites. It hardly ever referred to contemporary inscriptions in public places. So there’s not going to be much point in using Trove to scan the newspapers for references to ‘graffiti’.
Nor will it be much use searching through the catalogues of digitized photograph collections. When cataloguers are annotating images of buildings and streetscapes they note all sorts of things that might be used as search terms, but they hardly ever notice graffiti.
So I will have to look at images one by one in the collections at, for example, the Mitchell Library and the City of Sydney Archives. In the meantime I scrutinize the blow-ups of historical photographs that are currently being used to decorate building-site hoardings around town.
These blow-ups are not quite as they seem. Each of them is an element of an artwork called Double Take. Artist Rachel Harris has doctored the photographs by adding “unusual details”. There is a pair of them in King Street, Newtown. Look carefully and you’ll see that, alongside the shabby building and the stepload of kids, there is a modern bicycle, a basketball hoop, and … (no I’m not going to give away any more of the “hidden treasures”).
But what about the scribbles on the house and the paling fence? I am right to be excited because I’ve spotted historical examples of childish graffiti, or is this just another of Rachel Harris’s interventions?
Nevertheless, I’m on pretty solid ground regarding the graffiti on the accompanying photograph of the Hero of Waterloo Hotel. I’d say that pink scribble is definitely an early 21st century tag. And it post-dates Rachel’s digital trickery.
I would like to set the record straight about this picture of young boys taken by Sydney photographer Sam Hood in the 1930s. It is one of a set of three in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales all of which have been titled by the Library ‘Block boys at St Peters’. Because the boys are handling wood blocks, perhaps the label was originally written as some kind of pun, but it is entirely misleading. These are not block boys. That term belongs to another class of Sydney youths and I will come to them later.
The unfortunate labelling of this picture has been repeated by other cultural institutions (here and here, for example) and has even been expanded into erroneous explanations about what the boys are doing, which have then been broadcast – and not only on internet plagiarists’ sites. I was provoked into writing this blog post after seeing a beautifully mounted blow-up of the picture hanging in The Henson in Marrickville with a credit to the State Library of NSW. Nice addition to the décor but a pity the hotel has been provided with an incorrect description, which states that the boys ‘… are helping to build roads using a method called woodblocking’.
The real story is just as interesting, but without the connotations of child labour. The boys are notconstructing a road. They are hanging round with their push carts and hessian bags to collect discarded wood blocks, which they will take home as fuel for the family fire or stove. Wood blocks were once widely used in Sydney for street paving. Until the late 1800s the city’s roads were generally unsealed but the 1890s saw woodblocking come into widespread use by municipal councils, with hardwood blocks steeped in tar being laid like bricks, hammered close together and top-dressed with more tar. But by the early 1930s this method of road building was no longer used and councils started ripping up the worn wood blocks on some roads and replacing them with asphalt or concrete, often in large-scale Depression-era programs that provided employment for out-of-work men.
Those tar-impregnated woodblocks would have burnt well. They were prized by householders as free fuel and were quickly purloined as soon as the road workers dug them up. The Sam Hood picture was taken during the hard times of the Great Depression and the local boys are contributing to their families’ wellbeing in a practical way. The two other pictures taken by Hood in St Peters at the same time have been damaged a little, perhaps while the negatives were in storage but, with a bit of staging for the camera, they clearly show what is going on. In both of these there is also a girl collecting blocks alongside the boys.
And just to prove my point I searched for and found the photograph in question published in a contemporary newspaper. Sam Hood had his own commercial studio but also took press photographs, working full-time for a while in the 1930s for the Labor Daily. On 4th April 1935 that newspaper printed his photo on page 8 under the heading Its an Ill Wind — with the caption:
Cement is replacing wood blocks on Cook’s River Road, near St. Peters station, and the boys of the neighbourhood took advantage of the occasion to collect cartloads of fuel for the winter.
St Peters, by the way, is an inner suburb of Sydney and what was Cook’s River Road is now part of the Princes Highway.
So who were the actual Block Boys? In the early 1900s the City of Sydney employed a small army of youths to sweep up the tons of manure deposited by horses on the city’s streets. Equipped with long-handled brooms and scoops, these block boys, or ‘sparrow starvers’ as they were jokingly called, were each assigned a city block to keep clean. But by the 1930s motorized vehicles were outnumbering horse-drawn vehicles in the city and street cleansing was subsumed into the more generalised duties of Council’s other outdoor workers. The coveted job of block boy was phased out.
Not many photographs were taken specifically of these youths, but they often turn up in photographs taken for other purposes. The picture below is a detail from a photograph in one of the Demolition Books kept at the City of Sydney Archives. The block boy leans on his broom in Sussex Street to watch as the photographer documents the building behind him, which is slated for demolition.
I have a large, framed copy of this picture hanging in my house. Left over from an exhibition at Sydney Town Hall, it was given to me by the city’s archivist some years ago as thanks for a small job I had done. I chose this particular photograph because it is a double exposure. The boy’s doppelganger is lounging beside him.
Davies, Alan, Sydney exposures: through the eyes of Sam Hood and his studio, 1925-1950. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, 1991.
Fitzgerald, Shirley, Sydney 1842-1992. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1992.
Fitzgerald, Shirley, The sparrow-starvers: block boys 1890-1930, catalogue for an exhibition of documents from the City of Sydney Archives, Sydney Town Hall, June 1997.
Shepherd, Allan M., The story of Petersham 1793-1948, Sydney: The Council of the Municipality of Petersham, 1948.