Stranded Stones of Sydney

Across the city are the solitary remains of grand buildings and structures. They stand like sentinels as the city grows and changes around them, memorials that mark forgetting as much as remembrance. They’re lonely things, firmly planted in places that either you’d not expect or not notice.

Bradleys Head

At Bradley’s Head in Mosman is one such stranded memorial, a column positioned in the shallow waters just off the headland. Once it supported the portico of the Sydney General Post Office, one of six Doric columns added in the 1840s to enhance the grandeur of the building. When it was demolished in 1868, to be replaced by the palatial new GPO building which still stands at the corner of Martin Place, the columns were sold and sent off to varied fates.

Old GPO 2

In 1888 the Illustrated Sydney News described how the columns had been moved to the harbour as steering guides for ships: “The glistening white obelisks can be seen towering above the surrounding foliage, and one after another come into view as a vessel, entering the heads, steers up channel. One of these pillars occupies a very conspicuous situation on the low water rocks running out from Bradley’s Head.”

As curious a thought as it is to imagine a procession of Doric columns along the harbour, the majority of references to the columns trace them thus: one at Bradley’s Head used as a distance marker (one nautical mile from Fort Denison), another at North Sydney, used as a north marker for telescopes from the Observatory, and two (or three, depending on the source) others made into gateposts for the mansion “Melrose” near Centennial Park, then Vaucluse House.

GPO Panel

The Bradley’s Head column has a marooned look, rising up from the harbour waters, like it is the victim of some kind of accident of time travel between ancient Greece and the present day. The days of its use in sea trials – testing newly built vessels for seaworthiness – are past, and now it stands as a counterpoint to the city, an exiled fragment.

One of its siblings can be found in a much busier location, in the Mount Street Plaza at North Sydney.

North Sydney columns

It is on a plinth at the end of the pedestrianised mall, where people sit on benches eating lunch, and on the day I visited, a man at an improvised stall takes advantage of the newly released Star Wars film, and spruiks light sabres (and silk ties – the perfect office combination) for $5 each.

A plaque on the base of the column traces its journey, from the GPO on George Street in the city, to the grounds of Crows Nest House, then Bradfield Park under the Harbour Bridge.

nla.obj-158902543-1

In 1988 the construction of the Harbour Tunnel saw the column move to its current location, and it is now destined to move yet again. As of 2013 Mount Street Plaza has been renamed Brett Whiteley Place, and there are plans to replace the column with a reproduction of the Whiteley artwork ‘Totem’ – an egg atop a pole (but not atop the column). The column has an uncertain fate, beyond its relocation to an as yet unspecified location. The fate of the donut fountains in the centre of the plaza has also been debated. They were designed by Robert Woodward, who made his name with one of Sydney’s best known fountains, the dandelion-shaped El Alamein in Kings Cross. The donuts are a meditative presence in the plaza, with the water spilling and trickling in and out of them – and they seem apposite in this zone of fast food shops and lunch breaks.

Nth Sydney Donuts

At Bradley’s Head the interpretive panel had described the fate of three more of the columns: “Three columns were made into the gateposts for a house, Melrose, on Old South Head Road opposite Centennial Park. Later they were moved to Vaucluse House. The whereabouts of these columns are now unknown.”

No they are not – here they are! Cut down from their original height for use as gateposts, and with one missing, but the columns nonetheless.

Cooper Park 1

These columns mark the eastern entrance to Cooper Park in Bellevue Hill, high on the hill above stone steps that lead into the fern gully of the park below. Etched in one is the name “Melrose”, and on the other, a metal plaque announcing the “Stone columns (3) originally formed part of the General Post Office”. The whereabouts of the third column (and the one extra that has no trace, that made up the six) is still a mystery – keep an eye out for stray Doric columns as you go about.

Gateposts are often the only remaining parts of demolished grand homes and can be found planted here and there around the suburbs, often transposed from their original location. In the 19th century Annandale House, the home of the Johnston family, was a landmark of the area, and upon its demolition in 1905, the newspapers lamented its disappearance: “a matter for never-ending regret”, “a thousand pities”.

Annandale House_crop

The entrance gates to Annandale House

The gates to Annandale House are now in the grounds of the Annandale Public School, in between the boundary fence and the playground.

Annandale House Gates

They were moved here in 1977 after being rediscovered in a council depot after decades of use at  Liverpool Showground. I peer through the fence at them. Each block has patterns chipped into it, vermiculated detailing carved to suggest a worm-eaten pattern, a popular style in the death and decay-obsessed Victorian era. The sandstone wears the stains and erosion from the atmosphere, and the marks of the masons who long ago shaped it into blocks.

Another set of relocated gates are at Richardson’s Lookout in Marrickville, which once were in the grounds of The Warren, a Victorian Gothic mansion built in 1857 for businessman Thomas Holt.

The Warren, Marrickville

The name comes from the rabbits which Holt had brought in for hunting on his estate, which also included such exotic imports as alpacas (though presumably not for hunting). The house was a mixture of castle and homestead, equally grand and eccentric and Holt shaped his estate as a kind of pleasure-ground, with a Turkish bath and landscaped gardens. After Holt returned to England The Warren became a nunnery, and then a military training camp, before being demolished in 1919.

The Warren Columns

The pillars were placed on the hilltop above the Cooks River in 1968 and stand there like two skinny castles among the grassy expanse of the park. When I visit them I find a group of kids clustered around them, using the rough edges of the sandstone blocks as hand and footholds to climb them. One boy is particularly good at it and gets two thirds of the way up, until the smooth upper section prevents him from reaching the top.

Other stranded gateposts have been more recently abandoned, like those that once held the sign to Luna Park on Alfred Street in Milsons Point.

Milsons Point Sign

The sign was constructed in the 1930s by Luna Park and went through a number of different designs: the one I most remember being “Welcome to North Sydney” which I’d look for from up on high as the train approached Milsons Point station. While these columns haven’t been moved around, they do appear rather lonely, the proposed restoration of the sign stalled since 2004, perhaps forgotten.

Once I got to thinking about it there are plenty of stranded columns or stones around the city. The walls and gates from demolished grand houses in Darling Point still form the boundaries of apartment buildings, here and there you might come across an old milestone (for the location of these consult the comprehensive: Discovering Australia’s Historical Milemarkers and Boundary Stones by Robert and Sandra Crofts).

Of all of them, my favourite resting place for stranded stones is at the edge of the Botanic Gardens, on a hill sloping down from the Cahill Expressway, the area known as the Tarpeian Way. Here bits and pieces of city buildings and structures lie half-buried in the grass.

Memory is Creation

This is an artwork, called “Memory is Creation Without End” by Kimio Tsuchiya, constructed in 2000. Despite knowing this the fallen stones and columns appear to have been organically, rather than deliberately, placed. This quiet spot at the city’s edges has the tall buildings of the present-day city rising up in the background. But here fragments of the Sydney of the past sink and settle into the earth. These pieces form their own discontinuous story, created in the thoughts of those who wander among them.

Memory is Creation_@

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21 Comments on “Stranded Stones of Sydney”

  1. Emmalinna says:

    Fascinating, thank you!

  2. Thanks for this fascinating information Vanessa.

  3. Annie Kavanagh says:

    Enjoyed this, thank you Vanessa – I will being searching for the lost columns forever more however!

  4. Cindy says:

    What a lovely and informative story, thank you!

  5. Aydan Casey says:

    There are actually another two towers of Thomas Holt’s The Warren in existence, as of 1988 they were in a private residence in Hunters’ Hill\

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Aydan, it’s good to hear there’s some more traces of the warren around. It was such a striking building.

  6. luke folkard says:

    The sandstone pieces I suspect may be from a junkyard in St Peters. On Campbell St since I was a child there has been a lot full of decorative sandstone from many different buildings. The only sandstone I have identified are the baubles from the old Pyrmont bridge. Years ago I noticed a piece in that park near the Botanic Gardens. Recently I moved back closer to the St Peters lot and it is now much smaller. It will not be there muvh longer at all as Campbell St is the centre of the new westconnex pathway. The sandstone should be researched and documented.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks for your comment Luke, Campbell St is an interesting place, it has long intrigued me! And yes – the provenance of the sandstone pieces should be documented. I do love the artwork in the Botanic Gardens but I would like to know where the pieces are from.

  7. Kerry Edwards says:

    When you cross the Ryde Bridge, there is a set of gate posts on the left. They were the entrance to a house on an early grant. They survived the Wisdom Teeth factory. Will they survive the multi storey flats that are being constructed there now?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Kerry – I’ll have to look out for them. Last time I went past the factory was still there so it was some time ago. Hopefully the gates are still there despite the construction.

      • elhumo says:

        Sorry Kerry, but they are another old fence that has been moved. That triangle of land used to be part of Church street when it went directly to Ryde Wharf. Ryde Council moved it there from the council house in Bereton Park, Pittwater Road,, North Ryde. The house at one stage belonged to a well known builder (whose name escapes me right now) who apparently salvaged it from one of his jobs. I have photos of the fence in both locations. Vanessa, really enjoyed your presentation. You have solved a bit more of the mystery of the Doric columns. You have missed the Sydney town hall gates now preserved in all their glory at several entrances to Joey’s college Hunters Hill, Check out google street view for a quick squizz.

  8. Morgwn says:

    Great post! For the sake of clarity, wouldn’t the original GPO columns be Tuscan, rather than Doric?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Morgwn – all references to them I have found refer to them as Doric – but I’m certainly no column expert!

  9. Jan Evans (nee Holt) says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m a great, great, great grand daughter of Thomas Holt, and have visited the gates in Marrickville as part of my family historic journey. Glad to hear the children are enjoying them. Will look out for all the others.

  10. Vanessa Berry says:

    Thanks Jan, how wonderful that you’re a descendant, I enjoyed finding out more about Thomas Holt and his wonderful Warren when writing this. Yes kids love the columns – I got the feeling they regularly attempted these climbing feats when I encountered them that day.

  11. Geoffrey Ostling says:

    Thanks Vanessa, for a most interesting story, however you might add the gateposts at the entrance to Petersham Park. They stood outside the original Petersham Town Hall but were moved to the park to become the memorial to all the local men killed in the First World War..

  12. Barry Kneen says:

    Not stones but the Man O’ War Gates migrated from the Man O’ War Steps at the Naval Jetty at Farm Cove, Sydney to Bicentennial Park, Tamworth NSW.
    http://www.tamworthrslsub.com.au/Memorials/manowar.html

  13. Robert and Sandra Crofts says:

    Congratulations Vanessa for your extensive research on our disappearing history. Also we are glad that you have a positive comment on our book. We enjoyed researching the milestones and of course cannot stop looking for more!!! Robert and Sandra Crofts

  14. James says:

    Heard about this blog on 702 – it’s fascinating – thank you. Some other old gates in Sydney include the former gates and driveway of “Thornleigh House” (now the site of the Uniting Church) on Concord Road in North Strathfield, which are sadly about to get ripped up for Westconnex construction; and the old St Andrews Cathedral gates from George Street which are now the main gates of Trinity Grammar School in Summer Hill.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks James, and I’ll have to seek out these gates you mentioned (quickly in the case of Strathfield – so much demolition going on for Westconnex…). It makes for quite an interesting tour of Sydney to track these down!


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