Reading the City

I navigate Sydney by my own set of landmarks, places of mystery or memory that form strings of details. Some of these are obvious things, others unassuming, others link to stories personal or historical, rumours or imaginings. As I watch out a train window, or walk a familiar street, the details are my stepping stones.

One particular stretch I know well in this way is the train journey between Central Station and the entrance to the underground city circle railway. This section of track is elevated and there’s a sensation of gliding above the city, looking across the Surry Hills rooftops, a jumbled landscape of old warehouses and storehouses and steep streets.

View from the Train

In particular I look out for Wentworth Avenue and its row of empty warehouses, once tea merchants, factories and offices. Until recently a number of these buildings were owned by the Wakils, the investor couple notorious for amassing properties which they have left vacant for decades. Recently they sold the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House on Wentworth Avenue and both are in the process of being redeveloped. But nothing as yet has happened to my favourite empty Wentworth Avenue warehouse, Sheffield House.

Sheffield House_Sun

Built around 1916 it is five storeys high with bay windows and rising sun motifs along the top, and originally housed a cutlery and tableware manufacturer. Before Sheffield House was built the area had been a warren of terrace houses and laneways. A sizeable Chinese community lived here as it was close to the Belmore Markets where many worked (the precursor to Paddy’s Markets, then in what is now the Capitol Theatre). After 1905 the area was resumed for slum clearance, the houses and laneways demolished, and wide Wentworth Avenue cut through.


Wexford Street, before it was cleared for the construction of Wentworth Avenue: State Records NSW

Live in any place long enough and you become attuned to particular mysteries, and one I have long considered is the words on the side of Sheffield House. The white paint on the wall has faded to reveal layers of large, ghostly letters underneath. The words painted here must once have captured attention from a fair distance away, but now they are almost unreadably faded. Every time I passed by I made another attempt to decode the riddle, never giving up hope of cracking the code.

Wentworth Sign

The sign kept up its mystery and I kept up my attempts to decipher it, year after year. As the white paint flaked away the shapes of the letters slowly became more distinct and it got to a point where I almost could make them out. I stopped looking at the surrounding details (other personal landmarks: the Brutalist ex-bank building on the corner of Foveaux St; a cluster of 80s office towers that was once the Tooheys brewery, always with offices for lease; the roof where the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House used to be) and directed my full focus towards it. On the train I made sure to sit on the correct side of the carriage for the clearest view. Down on the street I examined it from different vantage points, at different times of the day, hoping the sun would shine at just the right angle to reveal the mystery.


Hmmm, how about from this angle?

The day I decoded it wasn’t a moment of train-ride epiphany – my accomplice and I had decided enough was enough and went out with the express intention of deciphering the sign. Our ghost sign reading equipment was a tripod, a homemade wooden stand with a perspex clipboard attached to it, a piece of acetate paper, and a marker pen. We set up against the sandstone viaduct wall on Elizabeth Street, across from the pub I refer to as “Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab”, after the banner picturing a joyful Harry and a not so happy crab that for years hung above its awning.

We stood there with our contraption, tracing out possible combinations of words. Then we got it! The sloping, cursive script across the wall resolved into the cursive script of “Penfolds” and below it, in block letters, WINES. Underneath it then I could suddenly see the earlier sign for PILLS – and it could only be Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, a patent medicine frequently featured on early twentieth century wall advertisements. After some archive-digging a photograph from the 1920s (below) confirmed my suspicions. To the far left was the ad for Dr Morse’s popular pills, a product purporting to cure biliousness, rheumatism, neuralgia, grippe, palpitation, nervousness and many other early 20th century complaints.

87/1353-4 Photographic print, construction of approach to Central Station for underground railway, silver / gelatin / paper, photograph by the New South Wales Department of Public Works, Eddy Avenue, Sydney, Australia, May, 1923

Construction of approach to Central Station for underground railway, 1923. Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Both Penfolds and Indian Root Pills were common painted advertisements: in a curious parallel, the same ghost sign pairing exists in Abbotsford, Melbourne, as investigated on Melbourne Circle. It is a medicinal pairing: Penfolds wines also began as a therapeutic product. The vineyard was set up in South Australia in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, and produced fortified wines as a cure for anaemia. By the time this sign would have been painted, Penfolds had focussed on producing table wine, no doubt still regarded as medicinal to some.

Penfolds and Indian Root Pills

There has in recent years been an upsurge of interest in ghost signs, those vestiges of previous eras of advertising that remain, fading on the side walls and upper levels of buildings. Sydney with its penchant for demolition is not particularly known for them, but I guarantee that once you start looking you will find them. Surry Hills’ ghost signs date from its manufacturing past, still faintly advertising overalls and workshirts, printers and chemists.

Overalls and Workshirts

Printers_Surry Hills

Key College

I know the answer to my Sheffield House ghost sign mystery now, and when I look at the wall from the train I can imagine the 1920s city of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, when Surry Hills was a busy manufacturing district, or I can imagine a later incarnation, the Penfolds city of the 1940s. The sign is like a window cut into the present-day scene, allowing us to step through into the city of the past.

Photo Nº: 00x08629


27 Comments on “Reading the City”

  1. P says:

    Thanks vanessa Berry, your post today about sign/brand deceipherment is illuminating.

    I spent last night briefing my son about upper Pitt Stret and Elizabeth street explorations, mid 70’s when much of the older businesses were fading and people like Bob Gould were running bookshops and record barns.

    Great fun. Your further contectualisations were just great, fun



    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you P – I love stories of the city in that era, though they do make me wish I could go back and explore! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Cameron says:

    Great story – have you seen the Indian Root Pill shed near Morpeth?
    Dr Morse's Indian Root Pills Sign - Raworth, Morpeth Road, NSW


    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Cameron – I came across photos of it when looking into Dr Morse, but have not seen it in person, I think I might have to take a trip north…

  3. nickgadd says:

    Great detective work Vanessa! Hunting for the meaning of ghostsigns behind a few scraps of faded paint is a fascinating compulsion. Bet you were delighted to find that photo from the 1920s of the sign in good condition, it’s a beauty. And thanks for the link!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      I certainly was delighted, you will know the exact feeling I’m sure! This was the sign I mentioned to you when we were out exploring that day, a Sydney/Melbourne synergy.

  4. John Tipper says:

    Thanks for your interesting article on the Central-underground entrance landscape. I worked for the DMR in the Castlereagh St-Campbell St corner 1965-1989 and when I had the chance took the camera up to the top of the Goulburn St parking station, Central Square and our own buildings. Times and sights sure have changed since then. I always enjoy MIRROR SYDNEY.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you John – good to hear from you, I’ve enjoyed seeing some of those photos on your Flickr site, it’s fascinating to see what has changed in the city over time, as you say, a lot! I have come back to your page on Anthony Hordern a number of times too,it was before my time but I wish it had survived.

  5. Phillip Leeds says:

    Ah, Surry Hills! Fond memories of working there from the early 90s to 2009 – first in Roden Cutler House opposite the Capitol Theatre (my father managed that in the early 70s when Hoyts had the lease before it was restored – it was a wonderful old flea pit then) and later in Centennial Plaza (on the old Toohey’s site). Not much of a building, but what a great location. Right next to Central, just a walk to Chinatown for lunch at the Old Tai Yuen (Richard Wong playing the harmonica for you at lunchtime), or the best roast pork at the Sussex Centre, drinks at Tailors after work (the staff bar) and killer coffee from Steve In the Waratah/Furama/Sebel on Albion Street. My bank account is still at the Commonwealth at Elizabeth and Foveaux – but that’s a Woolies now, what the? Met my wife there (at work, as you do) when she lived in Mort Street and we would go to Erciyes on Friday nights for pide, dips and belly dancing. What a great place it was then. Cheers, Phillip Leeds

    Sent from my iPad


    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Great Surry Hills memories, Phillip, thanks for sharing them, I always love to know people’s special places and routines in the city – when I was researching this story I saw some interesting Capitol Theatre photos from its various stages, though not from the 70s, I imagine it would have been wearing all its layers of history then.

  6. Another fantastic piece! Great super-sleuthing too!

  7. Julie says:

    Such dedication to the cause – nicely done Vanessa!

  8. Sam says:

    Fascinating. Thoroughly enjoyed this post (along with all the others), and will be paying extra close attention on my next train trip.

  9. Billy Bob says:

    The Melbourne signs in the post linked to in the body of your article are much better preserved. Melbourne values historical esoterica much more than Sydney, Skipping Girl etc.

  10. A wonderful article!
    The residents of Surry Hills seemed pretty involved in the promotion of Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills too, with advertisements around the country featuring several residents overcoming biliousness and indigestion. In 1909-1910 Mrs. V. E. Morrish of 213 Riley Street claims ‘They were undoubtedly the greatest remedy I have ever tried.’ More here from the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) on 4 January 1910:

  11. […] Wine and Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills appears on a wall in Surry Hills, Sydney – described here by Vanessa Berry in her blog, Mirror Sydney. Vanessa has also uncovered an old photo from the 1920s of a Dr Morse sign in situ. Check it […]

  12. […] The most recent – and the one in best condition – is Penfold’s wine, a popular brand name that appears on painted signage all over the Melbourne suburbs (it’s in Sydney too – Vanessa Berry of Mirror Sydney tracked down a Penfolds sign in Surry Hills.) […]

  13. Michael Deal says:

    Re Wentworth House. If that is the building which wall is clearly visible from the Subway on the right just before you enter towards Museum, I can remember it from the 80s as I did that trip every day. I am pretty sure the sign on the wall read some like “Smart- Eeze House”. It featured a picture of a cat’s head and some sort of writing about Smart- Eeze clothes or fabrics that had some sort of extra strength polyester fabric. It is 30 or more years ago but I think that is what the sign said. Probably not original but I always remember the head of the cat and Smart-Eezze. Or something like that. Sorry I can’t be more specific

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      What a great sign! I think from your description this might be a different building as Sheffield House is not visible from Museum station, but I love the description of Smart Eeze House. I’ll see if I can find any traces of it in the archives!

      • Michael Deal says:

        Thanks Vanessa, the building is visible on the right, leaving Central on the train heading towards Museum station. Big white wall. Appears in your picture above. Is it the same one you detail, ie Wentworth house?

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Yes that’s the one – sorry I got a bit confused there. The white has almost all flaked off now – I’m going to see if I can detect any traces of Smart Eeze when I go past this morning… I can see from the information with this photo that it was indeed once the Smart Eeze building:
        It was, according to this site, a company owned by the Wakils that operated from 1956 – 2005. Thank you for finding another piece of the puzzle!

  14. mccnmatt says:

    Lovely post Vanessa. It’s one of the things that pleases me about coming into the inner city that there are so many bits of wall with their traces of past uses to enjoy. I’m impressed by your dedication to the task. It seems to me that there’s less use of paint for sign-making these days- signs can be shipped off holus bolus now. I wonder what traces contemporary building will leave of their past uses…

  15. […] Closer to home in Surry Hills, Sydney, Vanessa Berry, doyen of Sydney’s overlooked and hidden places and histories uncovers a Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills ghost sign in Reading the City. […]

  16. […] is fading, and its restoration is imminent. A third favourite is the big ghost sign on the side of Sheffield House on Wentworth Avenue. A ghost sign is an old, fading hand-painted advertising sign that preserves […]

  17. […] Vanessa. ‘Reading the City (Links to an external site.)’; ‘Annandale Memory Map (Links to an external site.)’; ‘Macquarie University Treasure […]

  18. jim soulios says:

    Ah , enjoy very much your commentary Vanessa . Just about to sell a pair of 70*s foam lounge chairs having purchased them in Wentworth Avenue CBD about 1978-1980 and took a google view if I could of remembered where the actual shop was . Very familiar with that area , having walked the streets as an apprentice as window shopping was a favourite pastime being on a frugal budget as well as frequenting the record shops nearby that have long gone. The google image search brought me here to your post and again rejoice in your commentary and wallow in my memories . Thankyou ! cheers , Jim

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