Two up, two down
Perched on one of the sandstone ledges that gave The Rocks its name, Susannah Place is a typically English ‘two up, two down’ terrace with basement cellar and kitchen transplanted onto Australian soil.
The houses were solidly built, and in accordance with the 1837 Sydney Building Act included party walls that pushed up through the roof to act as a firewall between each house. Number 64, the corner house with two large street-facing windows, was built with a shop that operated from the front room. Owners Edward and Mary Riley, who had built the terrace at a time when housing was in great demand, lived in one house and rented out the other three.
The first tenants of house No 60 were the Cunninghames, an Irish family who came to Australia as assisted immigrants. The museum reflects the lives of this 1840s family in a re-created parlour and bedroom. Official records such as birth, marriage and death certificates and rate and electoral records tell us that the houses continued to be fully tenanted throughout the 19th century. The death of Mary Riley in 1874 brought a change of ownership. Mary’s house and the corner shop (Nos 62 & 64) were left to her granddaughter, Mary Anne Finnigan, while the other two houses (Nos 58 & 60) were left to the Anglican Church.
The ownership of Susannah Place did not change again until 1901, when the state government resumed The Rocks and Millers Point areas following the outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney. The government effectively became the sole landlords.
I have never seen such a miserable class of houses as that on The Rocks. I know two or three houses which are not larger than this room, two or three families living in one house.1
1859 Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Classes
Crammed with houses
The Rocks had grown haphazardly from its early convict days. Land was subdivided and crammed with housing onto ever-diminishing plots. Between 1851 and 1881 the population of the area doubled to around 12,000 people. Existing sewerage and water facilities were inadequate and the largely absentee landlords did little to maintain or improve their rented properties. But for the tenants of Susannah Place it was a different story; by the 1860s their houses had been connected to sewerage and water, and in the 1880s small, enclosed timber verandahs were added to two of the houses.
By the beginning of the 20th century, The Rocks with its overcrowded housing, numerous rowdy pubs, narrow laneways and working-class population was being labelled a slum. The government seized on the outbreak of plague in January 1900 as an opportunity to reshape and renew the harbour foreshores. During the clean-up operations that followed, houses and businesses were inspected, cleansed, photographed and hundreds of houses identified as ‘slums’ were demolished. New ‘Model Worker’s housing’ (like that next door to Susannah Place) was built to provide accommodation for displaced waterside workers and their families.
By the 1900s the majority of Rocks residents, including those who lived at Susannah Place, were waterside workers. Wharf work was irregular (men were only employed when a ship came in), physically hard and often dangerous work with low pay and poor conditions. At home wives and mothers struggled to cope – families fell behind paying the rent, groceries were put on credit at the local shops and occasionally household items were pawned to make ends meet. Children were expected to finish school at age 14 and find a job. For some families the pressures of everyday life took their toll with households shattered by domestic violence. Yet the harbour also offered relief – outings on ferries, cooling sea breezes, a place to swim and fish, and, until the 1980s, tenants enjoyed the magnificent views of all the activity on and around the waterfront.
Life in the laneways
The streets and laneways of The Rocks were an extension of people’s houses and their lives spilled out into them. They were places to talk to neighbours, to hang washing and for children to play. They were also places of business for the street hawkers who plied their wares – Chinese hawkers selling household linens and feather dusters, the clothes prop man, the rabbito who skinned rabbits while his customers waited, the carts selling freshly caught fish and the iceman. Ron Thompson, born at No 62 in 1933, fondly remembered the clever cries of Jacko the fruit and vegetable seller, who would call, ‘peas young and green’ and ‘lettuces with hearts like heroes’.2 For 90 years the corner shop at No 64 was an integral part of the community supplying a range of household groceries and extending credit to its customers. The museum has re-created the ‘cash grocer’ operated by the Youngein family from 1904 to 1930.
The tenants of Susannah Place witnessed and lived through some extraordinary changes to their neighbourhood. Having barely breathed a sigh of relief after the plague clearances, the area was faced with more demolitions to make way for the long-anticipated Harbour Bridge. During the 1920s the progress of the bridge slowly swallowed up all the buildings along Princes Street, a street that no longer exists. Hugo Youngein was forced to close his corner shop when the noise and mess of construction work became too much. During World War II families like the Andersens and Thompsons watched and heard the arrival of American ships and serviceman. In 1955 more houses were demolished to make way for the Cahill Expressway, which by its completion in 1962 had cut Gloucester Street in two.
A new landlord
Skip forward less than 10 years and the area had a new government landlord, the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, whose charter was to redevelop the area with high-rise offices, shops and hotels. Faced with poor property maintenance and pressure to move, the community formed the Rocks Residents Action Group and enlisted the support of the NSW Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF) to oppose the redevelopment plans. By 1973 the BLF, under the leadership of Jack Mundey, imposed Green Bans and halted demolition and construction work. However, by this time, as more and more tenants had left the area, the community that once existed had started to weaken. By 1974 Ellen and Dennis Marshall were the only tenants left at Susannah Place and all the housing along Gloucester Street to the Cahill Expressway was empty. While the Green Bans had saved the historic buildings of The Rocks, the working-class community was lost.
In the 1980s the transformation of The Rocks into a tourist destination saw the working-class character of the area disappear as once domestic buildings were restored and repurposed as cafes and shops and many long-time residents left the area. Susannah Place, with its almost 150 years of continuous occupancy, was a rare survivor which remarkably had changed very little from when it was first built. Recognising the value of Susannah Place, in the late 1980s the then Historic Houses Trust chairman Jack Ferguson, encouraged a joint project between the owners, the Sydney Cove Authority (now Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority) and the Historic Houses Trust to conserve the 1844 building as well as the changes made by generations of tenants. In 1993 Susannah Place Museum opened to the public.
The story of Susannah Place is a shared history of the four houses and the people that called them home from 1844 to 1990. Living side-by-side meant sounds travelled through the shared walls, cooking smells wafted into each others houses and tenants invariably caught sight of each other on the back stairs or over the corrugated iron fences. Despite the limited space, some families took in boarders as an extra source of income. It was rare for children to have the luxury of their own bed, let alone their own bedroom. The government landlords (Sydney Harbour Trust and later Maritime Services Board) were responsible for the upkeep of the houses, installing gas and later electricity and renewing the paint and wallpaper.
Tenants too added their own decorative touches – constructing kitchen shelves and cupboards, choosing paints other than the government-issue ‘maritime green’ and peppering the walls with numerous nails and hooks. Today, visitors can see these traces of people’s lives – the layers of paints, wallpapers and linoleums, the handrails worn smooth, evidence of repairs made and rooms adapted.
A visit to Susannah Place is like opening up a family album – the stories could belong to anyone, from any part of the world. In these four houses people raised families, dreamed of better times – more work, better pay, more space. The stories of Susannah Place tell us who we were, what our city looked like, how we dressed, where we played, how we lived our domestic lives and how our communities have changed over 150 years. Against a backdrop of re-created interiors, the museum tells the real stories of the people who called Susannah Place home.
- Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Classes of the Metropolis, Minutes of evidence, Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, 1859-60, vol 4, p169
- Ron Thompson, oral history interview 2001, Susannah Place Museum collection