Lost Sydney: Sandstone Quarries

Long before the arrival in Australia of the white man, the soft sandstone of the Sydney basin was used extensively as a canvas for the art of the native population. With no written language, they recorded their tribal heritage in the form of figures carved into the overhangs and rocky hillsides.

The new settlers, who came from a land where stone was used to build dwellings, soon found in the Hawkesbury sandstone a raw material that was perfectly suited to building. The first fleet's lone stonemason, Samuel Peyton, a Londoner who was transported for larceny, was put to work training a number of unskilled convict labourers in his craft. He established the first quarry on what was to be known as Bennelong Point, and over a period of some 40 years, the hillside would be slowly chiselled, creating the sheer rock face we see today. When more stonemasons arrived with the second fleet, quarries were established in Kent Street in The Rocks, on George Street near Cornwall Lane and later at Cockle Bay. By the 1860s, Pyrmont would become the main source of sandstone for Sydney and whilst its quarries left deep scars on the area's landscape, its stone was used to create some of Sydney's finest 19th Century buildings.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, stonemasons came into their own in and around Sydney and today there remain many examples of their outstanding workmanship in the form of buildings, steps, walls and monuments.

Stone was extracted by the quarrymen by drilling along the back and sides of the stone with guttering machines. Wedges were then inserted into the base of the block and sledge-hammered in one at a time until the bed gave. After machinery was introduced into Sydney quarry sites in the 1860s, the large chunks of rock were removed with steam cranes, broken into smaller blocks and then send to dressing sheds where stonemasons worked them into their ultimate shapes and sizes. In the dressing sheds machines were used to plane, saw and turn the stone blocks into roughly the finished shapes before the masons would take over and complete the final dimensioning, shaping and finishing. Carving of ornamentation, statues etc. was done on the building site itself.

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