A Short History of Sydney Cartography


The first map of Sydney I knew was an anachronism, a Sydney street directory so old that my mother frequently cursed its inaccuracies. Some streets pictured in the directory had ceased to exist, replaced by expressways or changed since the directory was printed. Some maps were crossed with dashes, showing the location of expressways yet to be built, and these gave me a nervous feeling. It was the same as the one I felt from seeing the corridors of land left vacant in South Turramurra, the planned route of the never-completed North Western Expressway. Although these corridors were lovely, with tall trees and dappled light, they had a threatening ambience. The plans had been cancelled in 1977 but the dashes were still on the map, and I found the sudden gaps in the suburban streets ominous.

Why this outdated street directory, with its spine falling apart and ragged pages, wasn’t replaced for so long was a mystery to me, though it gave the book a kind of mystique. Within its pages was an alternative Sydney, or, perhaps, the city I lived in was the alternative, a version that didn’t quite match up to the city made up of lines and names and blocks of colour.

Sydney has been mapped for as long as it has been inhabited – mapping being more than its manifestation into a physical object – firstly by the people of the Eora nation, whose maps of their lands took the form of stories. In this respect, no first physical map of Sydney exists, although in lieu of it is the map, compiled in retrospect, of the Eora clans who lived here in 1788.

Aboriginal Groups in the Sydney area

Map from sydneybaani.com.au, click to view the interactive map on the site.

As with all European colonial powers, the British were obsessed with cartography, and mapping was a way of claiming land and rendering it known, even if, as in this map by Watkin Tench from the early days of the colony, much of it was marked as “bad country”. In this early map of Sydney, created in 1789, the shape of the land resembles a benevolent monster, its mouth full of ships.


The monster was soon tamed into districts. By the early 19th century maps of the central region of Sydney began to resemble the shapes and orientations familiar to us today, with grids of streets slotted in between the crags of the harbour.


Sydney grew quickly and different forms of mapping emerged. In 1848, Joseph Fowles created the book Sydney in 1848, a pictorial representation of Sydney streets and principal buildings at the time, accompanied by descriptions. Fowles was motivated by a desire to show Sydney as he perceived it, a busy city of grand buildings, rather than the rough backwater those in London believed it to be.

Fowles Sydney

Other maps showed just how much the city had developed, such as this one comparing 1802 and 1873. It wasn’t just the city that was changing. By 1885 an Atlas of the Suburbs of Sydney had been produced, mapping the rapidly expanding suburbs. The atlas was produced as a series of maps, rather than one book, but by gathering them together as an atlas, Sydney could be envisaged as a territory of detailed regions that stretched far beyond the city centre. The maps from the atlas, as well as other maps significant to Sydney’s development can be viewed at the Historical Atlas of Sydney.

Newtown Atlas of Suburbs

Map of Newtown, from Atlas of the Suburbs of Sydney

Smaller maps accompanied land sales within these suburbs, focussed on the details of the estates now divided up into blocks for housing.

Annandale estate sale

The nineteenth century also saw the rise of maps for personal use, such as this one from the Tegg’s New South Wales Pocket Almanac and Remembrancer of 1837, a directory of city services (with a fantastic name).


Maps were produced as souvenirs and for visitors, such as this comprehensive 1905 map produced by the Oceanic Steamship Company, which shows the layout of the city and civic buildings, theatres, hotels and important places like the United Typewriter and Supplies Company, Arnott’s Biscuits Sydney Depot and the Cyclorama.


Of all city maps, transport maps are some of the most recognisable. I have spent many hours of my life staring at the representation of Sydney on the Cityrail network map adhered to the wall of the carriage, where the waterways are a faded, ghost blue behind the bright colours of the train lines.


The current Cityrail network


The network in 1985

It was only with the introduction of Henry Beck’s map of the London Underground in the 1930s that schematic maps of railways systems became popular – while commonplace today, it was a revolutionary idea at the time and one that initially provoked a fair amount of suspicion. The first maps of Sydney tram and train lines focussed more on their geographic location than their schematic relationship, such as this map of the tramways dated 1907 – 1920.


The city railway stations were opened in the 1930s, and this map of them, borrowing a London Underground style logo, was produced in 1939.

railway map 1939

Of all Sydney tranport maps, my favourite (and probably my favourite Sydney map of all time) is the Icy Trail Network, an anagram reworking of the Cityrail network, of mysterious provenance.

Icy Trail Network

As well as being a transport map, the Icy Trail network is a part of another Sydney mapping tradition. As Sydney and map representations of it became more established, artists and mapmakers began to use greater creative license to produce more whimsical or subjective city maps. In 1935 this Sydney map by Adrian Feint was published in the Home Annual, showing a cheerful Sydney of shrubs, houses, elephants and golfers.


A map I have on the wall above my desk is a similarly cheerful map of “Sydney and Inhabitants”, published by the Grahame Book company around 1950. The bookstore’s logo was the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth standing reading from a scroll – though he would have been chosen for his position as a patron of scribes, rather than his ibis head, as ibis were rare in Sydney until the 1970s. I like this map for the big, sweating sun wearing a straw hat, for King Neptune striding out from between the heads, and the tiny people visible on the city streets and roofs of buildings. On top of the Prudential building in Martin Place (demolished to build the MLC Centre), where Grahame Book Co. was located, a woman lies reading, and on other rooftops little figures sell newspapers, sort mail and sing arias.

1950 Sydney

1950 map detail

From the 1950s, Sydney residents became increasingly dependent on cars, and the street directory became Sydney’s most commonplace map. Gregorys published the first edition of their street directory in 1934, but earlier directories such as “Wilson’s Authentic Director”  were published as early as 1902. Last year the final, 75th edition of Gregory’s was published and Gregory’s was amalgamated with UBD.

Robinsons Street Directory

Robinson’s were another early street directory publisher.

I’ve always liked street directories for the fact that they enable you to hold the entire city, in all its detail, in your hands. The complex networks of suburbs is reduced down to the grid of the key map on the opening page; millions of people live within these numbered squares. Yet set out like this it all seems discoverable.

Key Map from 1958 Gregorys

Key Map from 1958 Gregory’s

As well as street directories, Gregory’s and UBD also produced wall maps of Sydney, and on my UBD wall map from the 1970s I rediscovered the menacing dotted line crossing the Lane Cove River Valley and South Turramurra.

Kissing Point

As well as being a representation of what is, maps show what is to be and, in retrospect, what never came to be. The North Western Freeway was a part of a wider plan for Sydney, devised in the 1940s and known as the Cumberland Plan. The Cumberland Plan encompassed the whole of the Sydney region, proposing a different zones for suburban development, industry, and, most contentiously, a “green belt” surrounding the city. The plan failed and what was to have been the green belt today forms a large part of the western suburbs of Sydney.

Cumberland Plan Scan

Other plans that never came to be are on a smaller scale, from developments never built or transport schemes that never arose. Some were only built in part, such as this 1974 plan for a Pedestrian Network in the centre of Sydney, with a combination of below ground walkways and moving footways.

Pedestrian Sydney 1970s

For all the maps of the city we do know, there are plenty of hidden systems that, shown over the familiar shape of the Sydney area, provide a different way of thinking about a familiar space. Sydney can be divided up in endlessly different ways, whether by its parking spots, or sewerage mains.

City Parking Map 1960s

Parking Guide to Sydney from 1963

Sewerage Map

The city can also be mapped in less functional ways. In the last decade a particular type of cartography has emerged, influenced by psychogeography and map art, but without the randomness of the former, nor the exclusive art-object status of the latter. Creative cartography is increasingly becoming a form used to write stories of the city and represent unexpected aspects of it. In 2009, the exhibition Mapping Sydney, curated by Naomi Stead, produced a collection of maps subtitled “experimental cartography and the imagined city”. Among the maps included was Kate Sweetapple’s Map of Avian Surnames (in a series which also included fish and celestial surnames in Sydney) and Jane Shadbolt’s map of Enmore, in which the street map has been filled in with autobiographical stories in tiny text, relating to past events on the inner west streets it pictures.


With this Mystery Map of Sydney by Simon Yates, you can navigate both Sydney and Paris at the same time with this tissue paper map printed with hand-drawn maps of both cities. This is based on a psychogeographic mapping technique, of using the map of one city to navigate the other.

Mystery Tour of Sydney

Other maps, such as artist Noel McKenna‘s painting of public toilets in the Sydney CBD, form a curious amalgamation of map, landscape painting, guidebook and autobiography, as McKenna reviews each of the city’s public toilets in turn.


One creative map of Sydney which has received recent attention, including an entry on the eminent cartography blog Strange Maps, is Here be Bogans, showing the relative attitudes of Sydney residents to each other.

Here Be Bogans

Whether or not its reflections are accurate it, like the experimental maps of Sydney in Mapping Sydney, attempts to fill the map of Sydney with something other than what can be readily perceived. The function of any map is to reveal aspects of territory not otherwise visible, and there is much potential for subjective mappings of Sydney, both analogue and digital, to broaden our understanding of this place.

* * * *

Do you have a favourite map of Sydney? Please comment and add other maps to this short history.

8 Comments on “A Short History of Sydney Cartography”

  1. Hey Vanessa, very interesting piece. Incidentally, I’m the creator of the Icy Trail Network Map (Cityrail anagram map), and I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    It took a couple of weeks to put together, and was a gift for my partner (adorable geek that he is), and we decided it had to be shared with the world. I originally posted it on reddit.com/r/sydney, and shared it with friends on facebook.

    At any rate, very cool to see something I made being enjoyed. Hope you had a good laugh.


    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks for your comment Nathan, I love the Icy Trail, it never stops being funny! It’s really clever and I love it that you made it as a gift for your partner, what an awesome gift. Thanks for sharing it with the world!

  2. Jason Chatwin says:

    I used to ‘read’ the good ol’ Gregory’s as a child. In the car or at home, it would keep me entertained for hours. Especially loved the “proposed” developments – except the one that threatened to cut my suburb in three…

  3. […] En la foto podéis ver un mapa de Sydney de 1789, con algunas de las naves británicas representadas. Tomado de Mirror Sydney. […]

  4. Hi Vanessa
    Really enjoyed this blog. I am wrapping up research for a short story set in 1920 and having awful trouble finding out where maps would have been bought in Sydney. I’ve been trolling trove with maps for sale, mapmakers and printers and hoping to find ads for them and a street address. Descriptions of Dymocks at the time seem to be books only. Just wondered if you had any idea? Strange question I know.

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