Anyone familiar with 1980s Pyrmont would find it hard to believe that what had degenerated at that time into a blue-collar area surrounded by derelict industrial waterfronts was once a popular and picturesque picnic spot frequented by the early colonists of Sydney. But after being scarred beyond redemption by five decades of intensive quarrying on its shorelines, Pyrmont was given a new lease of life, and became the focus of Australia's largest urban renewal programme of the 1990s.

Its redevlopment as an inner suburban residential area began with the revamping of warehouses, establishing parks and harbourside walkways, and building the Star Casino, the National Maritime Museum and the Powerhouse Museum, all serviced by light rail which used a long abandoned goods railway line.

During the 1990s, the whole suburb was the focus of one of Australia's largest urban renewal programme. The project was one of a number set in motion around the shores of the waterways of Sydney Harbour that has seen many industrial sites to which public access has been denied for many years being handed back to the people.

Since 1992, the 100-hectare peninsula has been the subject of intensive master planning, large-scale infrastructure provision and property redevelopment that is transforming Pyrmont into a desirable inner city residential suburb. It is expected to result in the residential population reaching 20,000 by 2021.

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The Sandstone of Pyrmont

The Gold rushes of the 1850 s brought prosperity to Victoria and New South Wales and the buildings of the 19th Century reflect the confidence and wealth of the Victorian era in Australia. Whilst brick was the most commonly used building material for homes, sandstone reigned supreme in the construction of commercial and government buildings. By the 1850 s the quarries of Sydney had been built in and it was no longer possible to use them. Not only that, the sandstone now being extracted from Pyrmont, Glebe and Balmain was a far harder rock which did not erode and crumble as easily as stone from sites like Kent Street and Bennelong Point.

When, in 1855, the Colonial Architect Edmund Blackett insisted that the stone for the replacement steps and entrance to the Australian Museum had to come from the best bed of the Pyrmont quarries , Pyrmont s quarries were placed on the map . Blackett gave up his job to build Sydney s new university at Grose Farm, Over half of the 44 quarry men registered as working the Pyrmont sandstone were kept busy for the best part of the decade supplying stone for the Great Hall, Library, Lecture block and early colleges of the university. The rest of Pyrmont s quarry men were by no means idle. Contemporary records show that 130 to 140 loads of stone were being carted off to Sydney each day for use as ballast in ships, in the building of road and railway bridges, and road side kerbing, much of which still lines Sydney s streets.

Many of the quarry men were among the workers recruited from Clyde in Scotland by Presbyterian Minister Dr John Dunmore Lang in 1831. Initially, the settled them in Millers Point where they worked the Kent Street Quarry, but as the superior Pyrmont stone became more widely known and the preferred choice of builders, they moved to Pyrmont. Their stone was to win 1st prize in exhibitions in Melbourne, Amsterdam, India and Chicago between 1880 and 1893. It was some of the best sandstone in the world, and was tested to withstand pressure of up to 100,00 pounds per square inch.

Half Way quarry site - Wattle Street, between Miller St and Pyrmont Bridge Road, now the Fishmarkets light rail station.

Of the quarry men who worked the Pyrmont/Ultimo peninsula, two came into prominence during the 1850s and by the 1870 s had swallowed up most of the smaller operations into their business empires. Devonshire born Charles Saunders had married his boss's daughter when he was a stone mason s labourer before he migrated to Australia with his family in 1852, age 28. At the time, there were 15 quarries operating on the Pyrmont Peninsula, most of which were supplying ballast for ships and the new railway being built between Sydney to Parramatta.

Saunders began working the cliffs above what is now Wentworth Park, supplying railway ballast as a supplement to his income from the Quarryman's Arms, an inn which he operated with his wife. As his quarry was one of the closest to Blackett' University construction site, he became the main supplier of stone for the project. In 1855, the Australian Steam Navigation Company acquired Darling Island upon which it would build one of Australia s foremost slipways and engineering workshops. In preparation for itss construction, they contracted Saunders to level the island and connect it to the mainland.

Sydney GPO building, made from Pyrmont sandstone

The appointment of John Barnet to the post of Colonial Architect heralded the start of a boom era in public building construction in Sydney in which Pyrmont sandstone was to feature prominently. Builder John Young, hired by Barnet to supervise construction of many of the projects, took out a quarrying lease on the escarpment just north of Fig Street so that he could supply the stone for Barnet s projects. Young quickly found himself out of his depth and turned to neighbouring lessee, Saunders, for assistance. He began to establish a dominance that the family business was to hold over the area for a number of decades and to extend their operations from Saunders  original Wattle Street site initially up to Miller Street and in future decades around the peninsula to Johnston Bay. Over the next 50 years, Saunders had 300 men in him employ and enjoyed such financial success he was able to retire early. He passed the business over to son Robert. John, Robert and Thomas McCredie enjoyed similar success though, being builders first and foremost, they had a knowledge to succeed in doing what Young had failed to do.

Purgatory Quarry site  Wattle Street (northern side) between Fig and Quarry Streets.

In 1868, Thomas leased land on the northern tip of the peninsula from Edward Macarthur and from the quarries he established there was able to supply the family company with stone used for the many buildings erected during Sydney's 1860s public building boom. these included the General Post Office and offices of the Colonial Secretary's and Public Works Department. Not all the stone for their building projects came from McCredie s however. Even working at maximum capacity, their quarries could supply less than a quarter of the stone needed, so great was the demand.

When the CSR began moving into Pyrmont in 1877 they turned to the quarry men to level their land and provide building materials for their refinery. Robert Saunders began introducing new technologies which led to the re-opening of many quarries which had been abandoned where all the rock to ground level had been extracted. By using steam-powered cranes and specially imported sawing machines with steam driven iron blades, Saunders was able to extract the harder stone found below ground level from the abandoned sites.

Paradise Quarry site - north Bank Street to the west of Miller and Jones Street.

He began with his father's quarry at the foot of Miller Street which was nicknamed Paradise  and its neighbour Half-way  because of the degree of difficulty encountered in extracting the harder rock. Officially known as the Saunders Quarry, it operated from the mid-1800s until the 1920s and provided the building blocks and decorative carvings for the GPO, the Queen Victoria Building and Sydney Town Hall, among others. It was called Paradise  because its stone was strong enough to use as structural material but could easily be manipulated into any shape the mason wanted for intricate, decorative work. It cut easily when it was soft and grey out of the ground but hardened and turned a golden brown over time. Purgatory , to the south between Fig and Quarry Streets in Wattle Street, was an old family site. It was more recently used as a Council works depot. Hell Hole  was the quarry where Young had attempted to work the rock more than two decades before, which produced a similarly high quality stone.

By the beginning of the 1880s, Saunders had abandoned quarrying sites on the western side of the peninsula and he moved on to the harder stone to the north, leaving gaping holes in the landscape which filled with stagnant water. Eventually he worked practically the whole of the north east end of the peninsula which produced stone blocks used in the construction of many of Sydney s sandstone buildings of the late Victoria era. In 1883, when the McCredie brothers purchased stone from Saunders for the Pitt Street extension of the General Post Office, he employed 27 cranes, 100 men and over 50 horses at work in the quarry on their project alone.

The activities of Pyrmont s quarryman began to lessen as steel and concrete became the preferred building materials and industry quickly enveloped Pyrmont. Off the rock extracted in the early 1900s, much was fashioned into kerbstones for Sydney s streets and for trimmings like window sills and doorsteps. After the Great War, quarrying projects were more often for site clearance and levelling than for the extraction building material. Saunders  last major quarrying project was the levelling of Glebe Island to make way for grain silos. In 1905, the City Council leased from him a hole at the corner of Wattle and Fig Streets for a tar distillation plant. It was from this site that Saunders had supplied them with most of their kerbstones over the previous four decades.

John Street Railway Tunnels

John Street Tunnel

The Glebe and Pyrmont railway tunnels, now used by Sydney's Light Rail, are important relics of the inner city rail freight system, having remained virtually intact as the line was never electrified. The double track tunnels and associated cuttings were created in 1919 as part of the Western Goods Line between Darling Island and Balmain Road Jctn. The 4.1 km long section of track which passes through them was opened on 23rd January 1922 and closed to goods rail traffic 74 years later to the day.

The brick-lined Glebe Road tunnel is 744.8 m long and runs from Pyrmont Bridge Road to Jubilee Park, passing below Glebe Point Road. The western portal is adjacent to the former Rozelle Tram Depot. Both portals now frame Metro Light Rail's Glebe and Jubilee Park Stations.

Pyrmont's John Street Tunnel was built, opened and closed for traffic simulatanous to the Glebe Road tunnel. A curved brick-lined 123.8 metre long tunnel, its takes the line under the sandstone heart of the Pyrmont peninsula. The line's corridor lay dormant until it was brought back into use by Metro Light Rai which operates a service to Lilyfield using the goods line s tracks, viaducts, bridges and tunnels. John Street Station was created within the cutting beyond the eastern portal of the John Street Tunnel.

Pyrmont Bridge

The first Pyrmont Bridge was a privately owned timber structure which was opened on 17th March 1858. A toll was charged to use it, and needless to say, it made its owner very rich. Following the adoption of the Five Bridges Plan, the bridge was purchased by the government in 1884 for $52,500 and the toll was abolished. As it was a major traffic bottleneck, plans for a replacement bridge were quickly approved and construction commenced.

The new Pyrmont bridge was opened to traffic on 28th June 1902. The bridge and its neighbour at Glebe Island were the world's first electrically operated swingspan bridges. Driven by power from the Ultimo Power Station which now houses the Powerhouse Museum, they follows the design of Percy Allan, who achieved international acclaim for them and went on to design 583 more bridges worldwide. John JC Bradfield, who masterminded the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was a junior member of Allan's design team.

Twelve of the bridge's 369 metre spans are made of ironbark; the two opening central spans are made of steel. The opening spans are still driven by their original motors which are in fact tram motors as used by Sydney's trams. The bridge was closed to traffic in 1981 following the completion of the Western Distributor but was restored and opened to pedestrian traffic on the opening of the Darling Harbour precinct in 1988.
Elizabeth Macarthur Bay

The changes that have occurred over the years to this once pretty bay closely reflect the changes that have occurred on the peninsula as a whole during the same period. Before the arrival of colonists from England in 1788, the bay would have had a small beach from which the local Aboriginal population would have caught fish and then shared it for dinner. So serene was the area when the first colonials arrived, it quickly became a popular spot for family picnics. So picturesque was this part of the peninsula, colonial farmer John Macarthur bought the whole peninsula and named the little bay at its head after his wife.

CSR Refinery in the 1950s. Elizabeth Macarthur Bay is in the top right of the photograph

Half a century later, a sugar refinery and associated industrial plants were being built around its shores and would remain there until well into the 1980s. Elizabeth Macarthur Bay then became the temporary home of the Water Police, with the service's move to Camerons Cove making possible the redevelopment of the bay area. The 10 metre wide foreshore promenade linking Pyrmont Point Park to Elizabeth Macarthur Bay has brought the State Government another step closer to realising its vision for continuous foreshore access between Wooloomooloo and Blackwattle Bay.

Darling Island

Darling Island is one of a number of islands in Sydney Harbour that have been reclaimed and are now a part of the mainland with little or no evidence remaining as to its former disposition.

When the first fleet arrived from Britain in 1788, Darling Island was a rocky inhospitable place on the western side of what is today known as Darling Harbour. In the first forty years of European settlement, Darling Harbour was known as Cockle Bay, because of the abundance of shellfish on its shore, and the island was subsequently called Cockle Island.

In 1855, the Australian Steam Navigation Company acquired Darling Island upon which it would build one of Australia's foremost slipways and engineering workshops. In preparation for its construction, they contracted Pyrmont Robert Saunders, son of Pyrmont quarryman Charles Saunders, to level the island and connect it to the mainland. The contract time for excavation, quarrying and removal was two years. It was completed in one year. Robert Saunders was listed in the Australian Men of Marks Vol. II for the work he completed on Darling Island.

Darling Island as we know it today began to take shape in the 1890s with the construction of coaling jetties from Pyrmont Bridge to Darling Island. Ongoing reclamation work saw the harbour foreshores reduced by more than 70 kilometres since colonisation. By the turn of the 20th century, Darling Island was totally lined by wharves that were in continual use by overseas ships. After World War I, an influx of European migrants saw the wharves of Darling Island reserved for passenger liners. After World War II, the Pier 13 shed was demolished and a passenger terminal built in its place.

The terminal remained in use until the 1990s when a fall-off in passenger shipping saw it converted to a temporary casino until Star City Casino was built. The former terminal was demolished in 2004 and replaced by new apartment buildings, by which time the sheds around it had been demolished and replaced by parklands, car parks, apartment buildings and a waterfront function centre. The heritage listed former Ordnance Stores of the Royal Edward Victualling Yard, built between 1902 and 1912, remains.

Jacksons Landing

A major showcase development in the redevelopment of Pyrmont has been Jacksons Landing, a waterfront village located on the shores of Sydney Harbour on the site of the old CSR Sugar Refinery on the north western corner of the Pyrmont peninsula. Key features of the 12 hectare Jacksons Landing development include a choice of housing style, from refurbished warehouses to terrace homes and luxurious waterfront apartments offering 24 hour security. Almost 40% of Jacksons Landing is parklands and landscaped areas which includes 600 metres of foreshore promenade with facilities such as pools, spas, gyms and tennis courts, a Community Clubhouse and a marina.

Distillery Hill before redevelopment

Distillery Hill during redevelopment

  • Get Directions

  • How to get there:
    From the city, Walk across Pyrmont Bridge. Pyrmont is on the Dulwich Hill Light Rail line which terinates in the city at Central Railway Station.

    The Name
    Glebe is an old English term for land devoted to the maintenance of an incumbent of the Anglican Church. The land now bearing this name is part of a much larger tract of land which was set aside for church purposes by Gov. Phillip in 1789. The Glebe remained largely unused until much of it was sold off and subdivided into large estates in 1828. These estates became fashionable and many residences for the rich and famous were erected during the early years of the Victorian era. By the 1880s most of these estates had been further subdivided into suburban housing lots now occupied by working class terraces and cottages.

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