These are not block boys

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 not constructing 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.

Black Santa


Black Santa was an Erskineville man, Syd ‘Doc’ Cunningham, who used to distribute presents to rural children every Christmas. Syd would sit outside the Woolworths supermarket in King Street, Newtown, collecting money and toys throughout the year. Around Christmastime he would give a Christmas card to people who dropped money in his bucket.


After Syd died in 1999 a bronze plaque was installed at the spot where he used to set up his folding table. On it was a depiction in relief of his plastic bucket.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.

King Street repaving, 2000.

King Street repaving, 2000.

Before the works commenced the plaque was removed. But in the place where it had been glued to the footpath, somebody wrote an impromptu memorial to Black Santa in red chalk.

'The Black Santa Claus' hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

‘The Black Santa Claus’ hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

After the repaving was finished, the original plaque was reinstalled, and it’s still there today. The supermarket itself has changed hands a few times. Currently it’s an IGA. And Syd’s plaque has become the focal point for beggars who keep his memory alive by collecting for themselves.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Funny thing though. Just a few days ago, someone wrote a post about the plaque on the Republic of Newtown Facebook page, adding, ‘ Sadly, the plaque was removed when the footpath was resurfaced’. Somehow this person had failed to notice that the plaque was put back fourteen years ago. That Facebook page got many comments and even though several noted that the plaque was still there, quite a few comments demanded that the plaque be replaced. Sentimental indignation prompted by misinformation. It happens.


The plaque in the same spot, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014.

The plaque in the same place, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014. All photos of this spot in King Street are from the Pavement Graffiti archives by meganix.


The demon blacktop

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

Glossy black dance floor or ashen skin or something else entirely? The asphalt pavement stirs the poetic imagination of some writers but the hard truth spoils the romance of the blacktop.

It was Vladimir Nabokov who wrote , ‘Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors’. Australian author Jessica Anderson says of one of her characters, ‘… in her visual memory of Sydney as a city predominantly blue and green and terra-cotta, there had been an element missing. And here it was, this ashen skin covering not only the road, but the footpaths as well’.

Unfortunately that dark covering is making Sydney hotter because it absorbs heat and radiates it back out. Sustainability campaigner Michael Mobbs has the figures to show that suburbs with black roads and few trees suffer badly during heatwaves. It’s called the urban heat island effect, and to counter it the City of Sydney is conducting trials in Chippendale using lighter-coloured surfaces on some roadways. The pale pavement is open grade asphalt filled with concrete slurry.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

Mobbs has been monitoring the trial. He says it reduces the temperatures by two to four degrees on a hot day, and predicts that during heatwaves there may be six to eight degrees difference. Death rates rise in cities during heatwaves, so that difference could save lives. Glary though.

Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. 1955.

Jessica Anderson. The impersonators. 1980.



In an art gallery bookshop recently I came across a little book on a subject that interests me. It has taken me a long time to discover it, since it was first published in 1994. Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers is by design philosopher, Leonard Koren.

It may have been Koren’s book that put the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi on Western curricula. These days most designers will have had some passing acquaintanceship with wabi sabi during their student years, although few have any real grasp of the concept. This is not surprising. Apparently author Marcel Theroux presented a program called ‘In Search of Wabi Sabi’ on BBC Four in 2006. In it he asked people on a Tokyo street to describe wabi sabi, but he was usually given a polite shrug and the explanation that wabi sabi is simply unexplainable. So, while I cannot possibly encapsulate Koren’s elegant little book in a blog post, I can give you an idea of some of the things he says about wabi sabi.


Peripherally associated with Zen Buddhism, and based on the idea that truth comes from the observation of nature, wabi sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; a beauty of things modest and humble; a beauty of things unconventional.

Wabi sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life, and its images force us to contemplate our own mortality. They evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness mingled with bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate.


If things are described as having the quality of wabi sabi, it means that their appearance suggests natural processes. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment, and they record these processes in a language of discolouration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shrivelling and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents and peeling are testament to histories of use and abuse. Koren even says that “wabi-sabi comes in an infinite spectrum of grays”.

Now you can see why I might be interested in wabi sabi. Don’t these descriptions of the material qualities of wabi sabi fit so well the appearance of worn pavements! I am reminded of the chapter on ‘How to look at pavement’ in James Elkins’s book How to use your eyes. “Cracking, distortion, disintegration, ravelling, shoving, rutting – I love the terminology of distressed pavement,” says Elkins, “The utterly ordinary mangled surface of the road … is full of metaphors for human disaster”.

My interest in wabi sabi extends to the aesthetic appeal (or otherwise) of run-down parts of the city – old alleyways, derelict industrial sites, shabby shopping strips, crumbling houses. But I’ll save that discussion for another time.


Elkins, James, How to use your eyes, New York, Routledge, 2009.

Green, Penelope, At home with Leonard Koren: an idiosyncratic designer, a serene new home, The New York Times, 22 September 2010.

Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers, Point Reynes, California, Imperfect Publishing, 2008.

Wabi-sabi, Wikipedia,

What lies beneath

New trees have been planted in Cavendish Street, Enmore, but for pavement fanciers the interest lies in the method used to install them. The process was far more complex than simply plonking a tree in a hole. It involved such things as ‘in-road planting’ and ‘structural soil’ and ‘plastic cells’ and ‘permeable paving’ – all designed to address ‘multiple issues, including impact of trees on infrastructure, safety of footpaths, enhancement of the urban tree canopy, landscape amenity and urban water management’.* And preventing the road surface from cracking or caving in.

Marrickville Council seems pretty pleased with the project, which is the first of its kind for this municipality, and maybe for the whole of Sydney. It’s been interesting watching the process, but I have some misgivings.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, June 2014

It all started more than three years ago, when Marrickville Council began removing very large fig trees from the footpaths on the street. Although enjoyed by birds and bats, these trees broke up the paving and invaded underground pipes. I wrote a blog post about local mourning when the first tree was removed.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

‘Tree replaced by cement!’, Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

The story resumes in April this year, and here’s how it goes. The Council excavates three huge rectangular pits in the street, digging deep down into the clay beneath the surface of the road.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Underground infrastructure, including gas pipes, is adjusted and gravel is spread in the bottom of each hole.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Next, a layer of large plastic cells is positioned in the pit and ‘structural soil’ is tipped in between them. Another layer of cells and soil is added, this time with a rectangular hole in the centre fenced off with plywood formwork. As I understand it, the plastic cells act as support for the roadway above; the structural soil is a mix of gravel and loam that resists being compacted and allows tree roots to spread and grow.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Over the soil comes a layer of geotextile then another layer of gravel.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Concreters build retaining edges around the central tree hole to form a ‘blister’. This will prevent cars bumping into the tree trunk.

Cavendish Street, June 2014

Cavendish Street, June 2014

Permeable pavers are laid. Rain falling on the road will flow towards this area of porous paving. This means that street run-off will infiltrate the tree pits instead of gushing down the gutters and into stormwater drains.

Within a day or so, on a nice rainy morning, advanced trees are lifted into the central hole, the formwork is removed and more soil is tipped around the large root ball. The three trees are Waterhousia floribunda ‘Green Avenue’, a cultivar of the rainforest Weeping Lilli Pilli that is expected to grow to 16 metres.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.


The project is not quite finished. A garden will be planted inside each blister. But the safety fencing has been replaced by witches’ hats and the official photographer has been sent to take photos for Council publications. As the unofficial photographer and busybody I’m rushing into e-print with this blog post.

In my next post I will talk about how my admiration for this aboricultural and civil engineering feat is tempered by reservations about the push and pull of local council policies.


*Marrickville Matters, December 2013, p.9.

Hard rock

Service lane off York Street, Sydney.

Service lane off York Street, Sydney.

The remnants of asphalt and concrete, and the old paving stones underneath, give this laneway in central Sydney a pleasingly shabby appearance. The stones are not cobblestones – as I have been known to mistakenly call them – but pitchers, and in this case pitchers of trachyte. A pitcher is a rectangular stone paving block about 22 cm wide, 30 cm long and 15 cm deep. Trachyte – like granite – is a hard, impervious, igneous (volcanic) rock.

I learnt this from a recently published book, Sydney’s hard rock story: the cultural heritage of trachyte. With its many beautiful illustrations, the book tells a fascinating story.

Quarried from Mount Gibraltar (the Gib) near Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands, trachyte was first used in the 1880s for paving cubes and for kerb and gutter stones in Sydney, replacing the sandstone flagging that was too easily worn away by the city’s increasing traffic.

But when the durability and imposing appearance of the Bowral trachyte was recognised it was soon incorporated into the design of many grand buildings and monuments, complementing Sydney’s characteristic golden sandstone and investing the buildings with a sense of strength, solidity and permanence. A special feature of Sydney’s hard rock story is its trachyte walk through central Sydney, which takes the curious ambler past over 30 buildings in just a few city blocks.

In parts of Sydney, such as the service lane I photographed, trachyte paving can still be found. And despite the efforts of recent City Councils to remove it, much of the original, roughly-dressed trachyte kerbing and guttering remains as well.

You can find out more about this lovely book at the website, Sydney’s Hard Rock Story. Here are a couple of photographic excerpts:


The Sydney City Council began to use trachyte for kerbs and gutters in the 1880s and the kerbs at the edges of York Street, the ‘frames’ of the drainage inlets and the stormwater lintels are all made of cut trachyte blocks. Similar kerbs, still displaying the textures made by the masons’ tools, can still be seen in almost all of Sydney’s streets.


The former Bank of Australasia (now ‘Paspaley’), on the Martin Place and George Street corner. It was the American architect Edward Raht’s second Sydney building, designed in 1901. The entire building is faced in trachyte, with walls of rock-faced ashlar. The coat-of-arms and the sea-shell motif at the corner pediment represent some of the most detailed trachyte carving in Sydney. The building has two large basement levels which extend outwards for 5 metres beneath Martin Place.


Sydney’s hard rock story: the cultural heritage of trachyte, by Robert Irving, Ron Powell and Noel Irving, published by Heritage Publishing, Sydney and Leura, 2014.

The year in asphalt

All around the world the pavement has a symbolic role as well as a functional one so that, for example, during natural disasters or mass acts of civil disobedience broken asphalt is often invoked in words or pictures to depict the havoc created. Similarly, news services and bloggers publish images of pavement stains to represent the unpublishable and they scan pavement graffiti to capture the feelings of ‘the person in the street’.

Here, then, is a chronological catalogue of major news events of 2011 as told via the medium of the pavement. None of the images in this blog post is mine. I wasn’t there; I was too busy hunched over in my computer corner getting on with the Pavement Graffiti project.

 Queensland floods

“One of the few silver linings to the devastating Queensland floods could be an eventual stimulus to the economy as major repair work begins … It is still a matter of some conjecture as to which individual companies might profit. One likely candidate is Boral, which has market-leading positions in asphalt and other material for road.” (The Age, Melbourne)

 Cyclone Yasi in Queensland

Cyclone Yasi“That stretch of asphalt you see there, buried under the remains of the beach? That’s the Bruce Highway, the main (and virtually only) road to communities up the coast, and the main tourist town of Cairns. It will be a long time before Queensland has recovered from this.” (Must Use Bigger Elephants blog; ABC News, Australia)

 Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan

“Workers told how the earthquake ripped through the plant, immediately knocking out the main power. A ghastly boom was heard in the suppression chamber of reactor 4, said Kenji Tada, who was there at the time. Cracks started ripping in the asphalt and the sides of the building. They fled before the tsunami arrived and did its worst.” (The Telegraph, UK)

 Christchurch earthquake

“This is the closest I have seen to skating in post-apocalyptic world, which is my fantasy.” (Skateboarding

 Osama bin Laden killed

“Days after Osama bin Laden’s demise, America’s burning concern—the most urgent outstanding question, at least according to Google search trends—had nothing to do with al Qaeda, terrorism, or torture. No, the death of the world’s most-wanted man has the country thinking about something else entirely: how to get buff. ‘Navy SEAL training’ followed closely by ‘Navy SEAL workout’ were the only bin Laden-related search terms in the Top 10 … SEAL training is the most ferocious workout in the free world … The best are eventually tapped for the elite Seal Team Six—the squad that got bin Laden … On the ‘grinder’, a black asphalt courtyard, would-be SEALs spend hours doing mass calisthenics. In the pool, they are ‘drown-proofed’ by swimming with bound arms and legs. On the shore, they experience ‘surf torture’ …” (The Daily Beast, USA)

 Cadel Evans wins the Tour de France

“ ‘Relief, for sure,’ says Cadel Evans’s mum, describing what is was like to watch her son on TV during the early hours of Sunday finally set himself up to become the first Australian to win cycling’s Tour de France.” (The Australian; Herald Sun)

 Explosion and massacre in Norway

“Blood smears the pavement, as a victim is treated outside government buildings in the centre of Oslo, Friday July 22, 2010, following an explosion that tore open several buildings including the prime minister’s office, shattering windows and covering the street with documents.” (; AP photo)

 Riots in England

“After the rioting every night this week, the news headlines told a bleak story of communities under attack. But hours later locals wearing wellies and washing up gloves were reclaiming the streets with brooms, bin bags and dustpans … The main problem was broken glass from shopfronts … The hardest thing was cleaning up the remains of burnt-out cars … A community is forged on shared values. So, it’s understandable that local residents are keen to mobilise for a clean up, says Tony Cassidy, a psychologist at the University of Ulster … the immediate urge is to remove the damage that resembles an ‘ugly stain’ on their neighbourhood.” (BBC News Magazine)

Royal wedding

“To encourage more Australians to visit the UK British street artist Joe Hill has created dazzling 3D image showing the iconic Royal Wedding of Princess Catherine and Prince William. The bird’s eye view of Prince William and Princess Catherine’s nuptials can actually be seen on a Sydney pavement.” (Prince William Wedding News blog)

 Steve Jobs dies

“Ahmed Shafai, of Palo Alto, writes ‘Steve, you made our lives easier’ on the pavement outside the Jobs home in Palo Alto, California” (BBC News World)

 Occupy Wall Street

“In a tense showdown above the East River, the police arrested more than 700 demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street protests who took to the roadway as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday afternoon. The police said it was the marchers’ choice that led to the enforcement action. ‘Protesters who used the Brooklyn Bridge walkway were not arrested,’ Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, said. ‘Those who took over the Brooklyn-bound roadway, and impeded vehicle traffic, were arrested’. But many protesters said they believed the police had tricked them …” (New York Times)

 Muamar Gaddafi is overthrown and killed

“In Benghazi, on the main square where it all started, they were slaughtering camels in celebration … And in the cafes, people were watching TV pictures – more graphic than any shown in Britain – of a bloodied Gaddafi dragged along and beaten, feebly protesting, before a gun was put to his head. The picture then cut to the dead ex-leader being rolled onto the pavement, blood pooling from the back of his skull.” (The Telegraph, UK)

 Protests in Egypt continue

“Fresh clashes erupted in Cairo between police and protesters demanding the end of military rule … A pitched battle between hardcore protesters and armed riot police has been going for five days straight. The fight turned a few-block radius of downtown Cairo into a virtual war zone. Police and protesters formed ever-shifting battle lines delineated by torched-out car skeletons and blackened sheets of corrugated metal, along a street littered with broken bottles and chunks of asphalt.” (Global Post)

 Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal

“Sheryl Gascoigne, the ex-wife of former England footballer Paul Gascoigne, is now giving evidence to the inquiry … Gascoigne says journalists who followed her ‘hoped I would give birth on the pavement’ … She is speaking about the effect of the media pursuit had on her family. She says it was especially tough on her children, who often could not go out and play.” (The Huffington Post, UK)

 Conference on Global Warming, Durban

As the year neared its close this conference gave commentators the opportunity to trot out a collection of familiar pavement metaphors.

 “Perhaps it was Yogi Berra, the great baseball player, who best summed up the results of the latest fraught round of climate talks … ‘When you come to a fork in the road,’ he said, ‘take it.’ For the past two years, ever since the disappointing Copenhagen climate summit, the 194 negotiating nations have stood indecisively at just such a junction. In one direction leads a steep and rugged pathway to a global agreement – legally binding on developed and developing countries alike – to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. In the other lies a gentler and more beguiling roadway, paved with voluntary measures and good intentions, which looks like leading to an ultimately hellish climate.” (The Telegraph, UK)

“Durban Platform Paves Way for Global Climate Treaty by 2015 … By the end of the meeting, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was agreed to by 190 nations …  In addition to a roadmap for a more comprehensive climate treaty, the EU and nine other nations also pledged to take new emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol …” (Carbon Capitalist)

 Occupy Wall Street movement continues

“Yep…  Occupy pavement…  Works for me…  What a lost cause…  I have news for these idiots:  Wall Street never missed a step.  And they were up there in their glass towers looking down and laughing.  Absolutely wasted effort on the part of these street people…” (Burton Blog)

Not a good note to end on, I’m sorry. But to all my readers, thank you for your support and encouragement. I hope the coming year is a fulfilling one for you.