The Campbell Street Horse

The row of 19th century buildings at the start of Campbell Street are surrounded by more recent, taller buildings, like a piece has been cut out of the modern city to reveal a past version.

Campbell Street 1

The row is a miscellany, each building different. On street level there is a string of Thai groceries with displays of pickled grapes and dried bananas, and posters for the grand opening of a new Crocodile Junior restaurant (Crocodile Senior is around the corner on George Street). Number 14 Campbell Street is a butchery, with cuts of meat laid out in the window. If you find yourself here, stand back and look up, above the butchery and the two levels of barred windows on the upper storeys. The building is painted a liverish red, with white details. It is further decorated by three entwined letters – PRL – in a crest and, at the very top, a wild-eyed horse.

Campbell Horse

The Campbell Street Horse is captured in motion, ears alert, nostrils flaring, mane tossed by the wind. Its eyes are spirals of black paint against the pale, verdigris green, and it watches the city around it warily. It looks over at the outlines of the claw machines inside Purikura Photoland across the street. The horse has seen plenty of amusement fads come and go. Beside Photoland is the Capitol Theatre, a building the horse would have known in its days first as a market, and then a Hippodrome in the 1910s. Under a retractable stage the Hippodrome, run by Wirth’s Circus, had a concrete pool for aquatic shows, sometimes featuring seals and polar bears, other times King Neptune and his attendants.

2012/104/1-3/61 Photographic print, b&w, internal view of the Hippodrome building, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, during a performance of Wirths' Circus, unknown photographer, used by Wirths' Circus family, Australia, c. 1920

Powerhouse Museum: 2012/104/1-3/61 Photographic print, b&w, internal view of the Hippodrome building, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, during a performance of Wirths’ Circus, unknown photographer, used by Wirths’ Circus family, Australia, c. 1920

The horse’s presence on 14 Campbell Street is something of a mystery. Myself and fellow Sydney scrutineer David Lever have puzzled over it again anew in the past few weeks, wondering what could have led it to be the mascot of this building. We followed the building’s previous identities, beginning around 1888 as a pub called the New Haymarket Hotel, then becoming the Nottingham Castle and then the Capitol Hotel. I found plenty of stories of interest, none of which were about horses. There were various accounts of woe and misfortune that took place at the hotel over the years: a man’s death after a fire caused by him smoking in bed, the death of a lion tamer named James Lindo, the arrests of swindlers and rogues. The heritage report on the row of terraces has plenty of information, describing Number 14 as “highly unusual” with “no comparable examples within the City of Sydney”. As compelling as this is, there is still  no mention of the horse.

The initials in the crest were of the man who’d had the buildings constructed, P.R. Larkin. Larkin was known as a publican and liquor wholesaler on George Street. There are plenty of cheerful turn of the century descriptions of the “huge casks filled with spirits fit for the gods” at Larkin’s, but no mention of horses. In those days, though, horses were everyday creatures. The streets were full of horses and carts, people travelled by horse bus, and “block boys” had the dangerous and unenviable job of dashing out into the busy streets to sweep up the horse manure. They would have been busy: at the peak of Australia’s horse population there was one horse for every two people.

Horses and carts outnumbering motor cars at Paddy's Markets on Quay Street, Sydney, ca, 1920s [Source: NLA]

Horses and carts outnumbering motor cars at Paddy’s Markets on Quay Street, Sydney, ca, 1920s [Source: NLA]

The Campbell Street horse is one of a small number of city horses, statues most of them, of the bronze, memorial kind, as well as the weirder, rooftop kind.

Hermes Horseman

Look up at the corner of King and Castlereagh Streets!

But back to Campbell Street, and our mystery horse. Campbell was once one of the boundary streets of the market district of Haymarket. In 1929, a newspaper article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which a man named Mr Alfred Byrne remembered the days in the 1850s when wild horses would be brought in for auction. Alfred would join the crowds who clustered around to watch the men trying to catch the horses, especially if it were rainy, and “the men holding on to the horses would be dragged ingloriously through thick mud”.

So perhaps the Campbell Street Horse is the last of Sydney’s wild horses, captured in perpetual vigour, turning a fierce eye to the ever-growing city.

6 Comments on “The Campbell Street Horse”

  1. Phillip Leeds says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    I really enjoyed reading your latest post as it brought back lots of memories of that part of Sydney.

    I worked in the taller tower building – Roden Cutler House – on the right of the picture in the early 1990s. The (then) RTA had its corporate head office there before everyone moved into Centennial Plaza in Elizabeth Street Surry Hills. A fairly typical office building of the time, except that the first six floors contained a major electricity substation for the southern CBD. The lifts went from “G” to “6” with nothing in between and visitors often asked why they were missing – we had fun telling them it was top secret.

    The picture of the pool in the old Hippodrome I had not seen before and brought back other memories of Campbell Street from even earlier.

    My late father, Lyle Leeds, managed the Capitol Theatre for a while in the mid 1970s when Hoyts had the lease as a cinema and sublet it for the seasons of Jesus Christ Superstar and other variety shows. This was well before its restoration and it was very run down to say the least. The only money spent on it in ages was the Mission Brown paint job Harry M Miller did on the facade for Superstar.

    Not many people knew that that pool – known as the “elephant pit” – was still there under a later floor and stage extensions. Dad was there the day a major rainstorm flooded streets around Central (1974 or 1975 I think) – and filled up the pit. Dad was checking the theatre out for water damage when a trapdoor on the stage collapsed under him and the only reason he did not disappear into the depths was his throwing his arms out as his feet went under. Soaked from the waist down, however. Once the flooding in the streets subsided, the show went on, albeit with a tank full of water just under the floor. Took days to pump it out.

    I don’t know if the pool or pit still exists in the restored theatre, although there is plenty of room for it under the raked floors. Who knows?

    Once again, thanks for a most interesting post. I’ll check out the horse’s head next time I am in Campbell Street (and my initials on the building, too)!


    Phillip Ronald Leeds

    Sent from my iPad


    • Vanessa Berry says:

      What great stories Phillip, and I love it that you have the matching initials to those on the building. It is certainly a part of town you are connected with in many different and interesting ways. I peered into the Roden Cutler building and indeed wondered what was inside, and I of course love the idea of the top secret floors.
      According to the Capitol Theatre website, the pit is still there, covered by the new floor. What a day at work that must have been on that rainy day for your Dad! Fantastic story and I’m sure he must have come home with many more, working as the manager there. Thank you so much for sharing these stories.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks Vanessa,
    A wonderful post that had me trawling through old newspapers at trying to find out more about the history of this building and the horse!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story Michael – and it’s a compelling mystery, hopefully we can work it out!

  3. Julian says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    In reading the history of the building, it appears it was occupied by a Saddler. This may have something to do with the horses head?

    “In 1882 the site now known as No. 14 Campbell Street, then known as No. 12 Campbell Street, was previously occupied by a single-storey wooden shop with an iron roof (also owned by P.R. Larkin) and occupied by Thomas Cook. Dove’s plan and Sands’ Directories record his occupation as a saddler.”

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Julian, I wonder – I did come across the saddler detail in the heritage report, and had a bit of a look for evidence of an ongoing connection, but there was little I could find about Thomas Cook. I wonder if it does indeed have something to do with it?

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