Steps and Stairs
Before the advent of motor transport, the majority of people walked from place to place so it is not surprising that there are some 14 sets of finely crafted stone stairs in and around the inner Sydney area which give access up and over the high ridges which surround Sydney Cove.
Agar Steps, the work of City Engineer Edward Bell, were built in the 1870 to provide a link between Kent Street and Observatory Hill. Their name recalls Thomas Agars, an identity of The Rocks area, who arrived in the colony in 1829. Today they are still flanked by a quaint row of terraces which climb the hillside. They overlook what was once the Kent Street quarry, which provided the sandstone for many of the colonial buildings in The Rocks and Millers Point.
Further along the ridge are High Steps, Windmill Steps and Hickson Steps, all linking Hickson Road at various points around the perimeter of the peninsula with the ridge on which The Rocks and Millers Point was built. The three sets of steps were built in the early years of the 20th Century as part of the redevelopment of the Walsh Bay wharves at that time. High Steps (above) climb the side of the excavated rockface between Hickson Road and High Street.
Hickson Steps are located close to Pier One in the shadow of the southern Harbour Bridge aproaches. The steps link Fort Street to Hickson Road. They were created in the first decade of the 20th century. The name honours RP Hickson, who was Chairman of the Sydney Harbour Trust between 1901-12 when the whole Millers Point wharf area was redeveloped and present day roads and walkways in the area, including Hickson Steps, were created.
The oldest surviving steps in The Rocks, and in Australia for that matter, are Argyle Stairs at The Rocks. They were cut into the cliff face to a height of 9 metres when the Argyle Cut was widened, giving access from The Rocks to Miller's Point and Bunker's Hill. They replaced an early wooden set of stairs. Bunker's Hill was a high class residential area which sprang up along the top of the ridge which disappeared with the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge's southern approaches. Argyle Stairs today give access to the walking above Circular Quay on the Cahill Expressway, and onto the walkway across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Windmill Steps, at the northern end of Kent Street, Millers Point, recall the time when the ridge above The Rocks was known as Windmill Hill, as it was the site of New South Wales' first windmill, built in early 1797. The mill tower was built of stone, the machinery and grindstone imported from England. It was the first of many that would line the ridge and be used to grind grain into flour and was one of the colony's first steps towards self-sufficiency.
Cumberland Place, comprising a series of flights of steps and landings, is one of the oldest known pedestrian streets in The Rocks, and probably Australia, being continuously in use since at least 1808 when it was part of Cribbs Lane. The laneway may have existed earlier as a walking track, however its recorded history begins when convict butcher, George Cribb, purchased a house in 1809 that lay along the alignment of the laneway. By 1825, similar through lanes (e.g. Longs Lane), were well established, and their names recorded on contemporary maps. These maps indicate that the steps and landings that make climbing its steep grade easier were built between 1865 and 1887. The lane's name was changed in 1896 by the Sydney City Council. It is thought that significant archaeological relics may survive under the step's protective layers of concrete and asphalt.
Bethel Steps are located near the waterfront of West Circular Quay. The land the steps are built on was at the northern end of the Government Dockyard site, constructed on land set aside in 1797 for the residence of the Master Boat Builder, Thomas Moore, which was later converted to the Naval Office, the headquarters for the imposition of Customs. By 1854, a Dead House or Morgue was built on the site, at the request of the then City Coroner, John Brenan. In 1863, Bethel Street was built as a response to the proposed building of the Sailors Home. Bethel Street was closed in 1906 and was reduced to a narrow lane running along the wall of the Mariners' Church to accommodate the expansion of the Morgue buildings.
Moores Stairs, which honour Charles Moore, Mayor 1861-1868, were built in 1861 and link Circular Quay East to Macquarie Street. Further around Bennelong Point behind the Opera House, a flight of stairs lead to Government House and the Royal Botanical Gardens via a footpath known as the Tarpeian Way. The pathway and steps give a different view of the Opera House than is generally seen. Further to the east on Mrs. Macquarie's Point, a hand hewn flight of sandstone steps curve gracefully up from the shoreline to Mrs. Macquarie's Chair.
The Fleet Steps, facing Farm Cove, link Farm Cove to Mrs Macquarie Road. The steps are named after the Great White Fleet of the US Navy, and was built for the visit of that fleet to Sydney in 1908. It is the point where Queen Elizabeth II first set foot on Australian soil in 1954, and a commemorative wall plaque marks the event. The base of the steps is often used for large marquee functions with stunning views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The name of the steps recalls the fact that the convicts transported to New South Wales with the First Fleet came ashore in the vicinity in January 1788.
In the Kings Cross / Woolloomooloo area, Butlers Stairs, Hordern Stairs and McElhone Stairs link Victoria Street and Brougham Street at various points along the ridge. Hill's Stairs give access to McElhone Street from Brougham Street below Butlers Stairs. Beares Stairs in Darlinghurst, built in 1887, link the two levels of Caldwell Street. Other steps are in Forbes Street (cnr William Street), Berwick Lane and Kings Lane. All were created during the Victorian era, their names honouring City Council aldermen of the day.
In 1878-82 John McElhone represented Fitzroy Ward in the Sydney Municipal Council. John Beare was a city Alderman from 1881 to 1899. Hordern Steps Hrecalls Edward Hordern, a local resident, to commemorate his term of office with the Sydney Council. George Hill (1802-82), a butcher and publican, was Mayor of Sydney in 1850.
McElhone Stairs is one of three sets of stone stairs that link Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross. McElhone Stairs recalls John McElhone, a Sydney Municipal Councillor. Near the bottom of the stairs on Cowper Wharf Road is Harry's Cafe de Wheels, a pie cart that s been a Sydney late-night institution for over 50 years. Its walls are festooned with photos of famous patrons, mostly politicians and pop stars, enjoying a meat pie at Sydney's most famous outdoor eatery.
Butlers Stairs has a memorial plaque to Mick Fowler; while on the eastern side, house No. 202 Victoria Street also has a plaque revealing it was the home of local identity and publisher of the newspaper, NOW, Juanita Neilson.
These two sites are reminders that Victoria Street in the early 1970s was the scene of one of Sydney's most sustained and vicious development battles. Locals like Mick (who lived at No. 115 Victoria Street and camped on rooftops, defying police and demolition teams) and Juanita were joined by the Building Labourers Federation and other unions, and urban conservationists, using green bans, protests, site occupations, squatting and blockades to save the street from being completely redeveloped into high rise.
By 1974, frustrated developers, often with government support, were resorting to massive intimidation and force, launching assaults on squatter-held buildings. Neilson, who had come to be a strong supporter of the protests in her publication, disappeared without trace in July 1975. Arrests were eventually made, linked back with the developers, but her body was never found. Mick died in 1979. In the end major development on the Woolloomooloo escarpment went ahead, but most of the Victoria Street homes were retained in something like an original streetscape.
High above street level and clinging to the rockface that lines Hickson Road around Millers Point is a sequence of stairs to nowhere, with the entrance and exit long bricked-up. There s no way in, there s no way out. It just sits there embedded in the sandstone. The base has been bricked in in such way as to ensure no-one can climb into the section in the middle, which presumably would ve taken too much brick to warrant fully enclosing.
Hickson Road was cut out of the sandstone of Millers Point to provide a link between the wharves on Walsh Bay and those being built at Darling Harbour. It required the excavation and creation of a sheer cliff face which curves right round the contours of Millers Point, all the way to the Harbour Bridge. The stairs cling to this extraordinary sandstone wall and lead up towards the deck of one of a number of bridges built across Hickson Road. A photo taken in 1911 shows the wall and the bridge being built, the cavity in the sandstone cliff face where the steps would be added later is clearly visible. The stairs as they exist today end some 4 metres below the bridge deck, meaning it would never have been possible to reach the upper road level from the stairs in their present state. A close examination of the underside of the bridge reveals the cut of the rock beneath the bridge points to the bridge having been widened in the 1950s, as the photo below confirms. Widening the bridge would have involved cutting into the cavity for the stairs. For the stairs to remain functional, they would have to have been moved further east so that they extended beyond the cavity (the cavity today is much shorter than it was in the earliest photos).
Part of the rock face beyond the cavity above the bricked-in area has a cut line, but the rock below the line has not all been removed. This, and the steps falling short of the roadway above, indicates that the project was abandoned midway through. Perhaps the rock beyond the cavity was found to be unstable, leading to the stairs being abandoned totally before the modifications had been completed. In 2010, someone with a sense of humour planted a few palms on the abandoned steps, strung up rope in the shape of a spider s web and placed a big black spider on it. A hand painted sign read Guerilla Gardens .
The Queen Victoria Building's Grand Staircase is recognised internationally as one of the top 10 Grand Staircases in the world. This building, now affectionately known as the QVB, was designed by George McRae and completed in 1898, replacing the original Sydney markets on the site.
Queen Victoria Building was built as a monument to the long reigning monarch, construction took place in dire times, as Sydney was in a severe recession. The elaborate Romanesque architecture was specially planned for the grand building so the Government could employ many out-of-work craftsmen stonemasons, plasterers, and stained window artists during a time of economic recession.
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First Fleet Steps