For the past couple of years I’ve been working with the Powerhouse Museum on the Time and Memory project, the book of which was launched at the end of 2018. Soon the project will be finishing up with a public workshop I’m running at the Sydney Observatory, to coincide with the 161st anniversary of the Sydney Observatory. Ahead of this I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes story from one of my visits to the Observatory.
161 years isn’t a very long time in the history of the land on which the Observatory stands, or compared to the history of the stars which the Observatory was built to examine, but until the introduction of timekeeping by atomic clock in the mid-20th-century, the Observatory was central to the city. It was Sydney’s most accurate timekeeping mechanism, keeping the city to time via precision clocks, that were calibrated through the observed movements of the stars.
The Observatory building stands on the highest point in the harbour, on a rocky ridge between the coves of Warrane/Sydney Cove and Tumbalong/Darling Harbour. Now it is on something of an island, the land around it winnowed away by roads, the city grown into high-rise, but when it was first built, it would have been immediately visible to anyone around the harbour. This, indeed, was its purpose, as the Observatory transmitted the time to the city through a simple visual mechanism: the time ball on its roof.
The time-ball is a metal sphere mounted on a pole atop the Observatory’s central tower. It is now painted yellow, although it was initially painted black, which made it easier to see against the sky. Almost every day since the Observatory opened in 1858, at 1pm the ball has dropped from the top to the bottom of the mast. Now this is continued as a tradition, but its original purpose was to communicate the hour to ships in the harbour. This was so that they could make sure their clocks were running to time, for this was essential to accurate navigation.
It was not just important for shipping: the Observatory held the time standard for all the clocks in the city. Before the construction of the Harbour Bridge the Observatory was the city’s most prominent structure, and in the early afternoon, many eyes went to it to watch for the movement of the ball. Errors in the time ball’s precision were noted in the daily newspapers:
It was a late-autumn evening when I climbed up through the rooms of the tower to the roof of the Observatory, following the two of the museum’s curators up the stairs and ladders that lead to the time ball. On the library level I stopped to look over the collection of astronomy books on the shelves. Their spines were mostly plainly bound, although some of the older ones were decorated with gold stars and comets, such as Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens from 1923.
These rooms once held the Observatory’s archives, the papers, notebooks, glass plate negatives and photographs that recorded observations of the sky and the weather (astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell’s beautiful cloud photographs, for example).
The room below the time ball contains its mechanism, a central metal column with a complicated collection of cogs and levers attached to it. Usually, this is as far as people go. It is here, at 1pm, that the gears are engaged, and the button is pressed to release the ball, and there is generally little reason to go up any further. But we keep climbing, up a ladder and then through the hatch onto the roof. It’s a shift in perspective to be standing up beside the ball, knowing that this is usually a place watched from below, or afar.
Up close I see that the ball is as tall as we are, see the bolts that hold the copper panels together and where the paint has faded and peeled (though since I visited it has been refreshed with a new coat of yellow paint). There’s a hatch on the side of it, and when I point it out, the curator tells me the unlikely-but-compelling rumour neighbourhood children would be given a ride inside the ball on their 8th birthday. Looking down over the streets of Millers Point and The Rocks below, I imagine the story taking hold, kids bragging they’d been for a ride in it, others waiting for the day when they’d have their turn.
The whole spread of the harbour is visible from here. In the west, the sun has almost slipped below the horizon, lighting up the low clouds in the east. As the light quickly fades, the white and red lights of the cars travelling across the bridge seem to increase in brightness.
As always when I see the harbour from this perspective, I can’t help but thinking of time differently. The time ball represents the colonial perception of time, as something to be measured and controlled, but the harbour carries the ancestral time of this land’s first peoples, and the geologic time of the land’s formation. The skies have shifted over the harbour throughout all these times – the clouds, the changing elements, the positions of the stars above – and been observed in different ways. I am one of countless observers who have watched the sunset from this hill, as I stand here beside the metallic sun of the time ball, thinking about the day moving into night, watching the scene below me change.
If you’re interested in joining me at the Observatory on June 1st, here is the workshop information. As well as the workshop it includes a copy of the book and a tour of the Observatory.
Big thanks to the curators and editors at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences who have guided me in my research.
In 1950, the Smith’s Weekly newspaper published a series of profiles of city workers titled ‘Men in Odd Jobs’. The first article appeared in July, profiling Mr J.A. Sinclair, who spent his days testing lawn bowls for accuracy. Next readers met a skeleton articulator at the Australian Museum. Then a man who drills holes in buttons: Mr Ern Sheather who confides that “drilling holes in buttons is soothing to the nerves”. In September, under the headline He Frightens Spiders, was the story of an instrument maker who places spider webs in the theodolites used by surveyors for measuring angles.
Reading these articles now is to imagine a city where such obscure pastimes had cause to exist: a man could spend his working days creating bows for ladies shoes, or changing the dates on the stamps used for franking mail. Job satisfaction in these roles was generally high. Mr Desmond Russell found a job that suited him in turning mail bags inside out and, in the final article of the series, in the final edition of Smiths in October 1950, Mr Leslie Stanley, cable joiner, praised the “interesting and absorbing” work he did laying cables underneath the city streets. The job could also be entertaining, as he was able to overhear conversations from the street above through the manholes. The article quotes Mr Stanley:
One day two men were standing outside the Commonwealth Bank in Pitt Street, when one of them dropped his keys down an open grate. He was in a terrible state, and began to wonder how he would carry on his work.
His friend said it would be possible to get police to remove the grate. Just as they began to panic, my mate poked the keys back through the grate with two fingers.
The men stopped talking and gaped at the fingers with the keys dangling. They couldn’t see us below, but we could see them in the daylight.
One man said: ‘Look, a human hand and alive.’ The other snatched the keys with out saying a word and went for his life.
I can imagine this was a story Mr Stanley told often, relishing the description of the fingers poking up through the manhole, working up to the delivery of the “Look, it’s a human hand and alive!” punchline.
There are fourteen “odd jobs” stories in all. Of these, four relate to postal and telephone services. In addition to the Inside-Out-Bag Turner, the man who maintains the machine that produces the dial-tone, the franking-stamp changer, and the man who opens the door of the vault in the Bank of NSW, is the one woman featured in the series, Miss Mary Sprague.
Miss Sprague had the unusual job of reading the time live at the Sydney GPO, which housed the city’s central telephone switchboard. Before the installation of a mechanical ‘speaking clock’ in 1954, the job was done by a group of women who took turns in sitting in front of a clock, reciting the time into a microphone. Miss Mary Sprague explained how the intensity of the task made it difficult to read for more than 20 minutes at a time.
I’d never thought that such a job as time-reading would have been done live, but in the days before digital timekeeping it could be difficult to maintain accurate time on mechanical clocks and watches. When people wanted to check if their watch was correct, they called the service, dialling BO74. Up to 20,000 people would call daily and it was particularly busy around 5pm, as people hoped their watches were running slowly, and the time to leave work had already come.
The article on Mary Sprague was the first of the “odd jobs” series I read. I found it while researching an essay I’ve written for Time and Memory, a new book published by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. A few months after I read the article about Mary Sprague in Smiths Weekly, I was doing a reading at the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I mentioned the essay I was writing to Robyn, the cafe owner.
“Wouldn’t you believe it”, I said, “women at the GPO used to read the time live!”
“You’ll have to speak to our friend Joyce,” Robyn said, “she used to do that job.”
Speak to Joyce I did indeed, and you can read my interview with her at Reading the Time with Joyce Thomson, on the museum’s blog. When I spoke to Joyce, who is now in her 80s, she described how it had felt to move to the city, from Katoomba, as a young woman in the late 1940s. The scale of life opened up for her and there were possibilities all around. By reading the time at the GPO she joined the ranks of those in the city doing an unusual job. Now, like most of the jobs that Smiths Weekly reported on in 1950, this job has slipped from public knowledge, long-since having been technologically superseded. But just enough of a trace of it exists, for it to be remembered.
I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?
Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.
So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.
This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.
Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.
In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):
The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.
Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.
It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.
The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
The gates to Annandale House are now in the grounds of the Annandale Public School, in between the boundary fence and the playground.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
A fence went up around the block on the corner, hemming in a string of houses. A pale green fibro, a house with the front room curving out into a rotunda, a house with tall conifers planted along the length of the driveway. They were unremarkable houses, their greatest distinction being their proximity to the busy intersection of Epping and Lane Cove Roads. The kind of houses that gave you cause to wonder what it would be like to live on such a busy road, beside the endless traffic.
It’s a familiar process. The fence goes up with the sign advertising the new development. The houses languish behind the fence for a while, quickly falling into disarray. Without people to care for them the gutters droop and windows break. Tags appear on the walls as the empty houses are explored. They stay like this for a while, the decaying structures taking on a solemn, ruined look. Then one day the bulldozers move in and the houses are gone. Though this has been expected the land looks bare without them.
This time the sign advertises “Live Next to the High Tech Village”, referring to the nearby business districts of Macquarie Park and North Ryde. There’s an artist’s impression of the proposed development, a collection of neat blocks of varying colours and textures. Behind the sign droops the remains of a brick cottage.
Most of the houses have been demolished now and the cold smell of plaster and smashed bricks floats out from behind the perimeter fence. The rubble has yet to be cleared and where each house once stood is a twisted pile of bits and pieces, bricks and tiles, wood, metal, the hairy wedges of insulation bats. The view from the overpass is a pattern of these house-sized piles. There’s no way to walk up onto the overpass, so this sight is only visible in glimpses while driving. From this aspect it looks less like demolition than a kind of weird magic, like the air has been sucked out of the houses until they collapsed inwards.
Closer to the road the fences and letterboxes remain as if nothing beyond them is out of the ordinary. The trees have been left also, arranged in seemingly odd patterns now the houses they once surrounded are gone. There are two big oak trees, their leaves turned golden for autumn. Leaves drift down to cover the churned-up ground below.
Further inside the site an excavator digs into a pile of debris and I watch it through a gap. The shadecloth that blocks the view has sagged in places and it’s here I look through at the piles of rubble that once were houses. Although the destruction makes me uneasy the demolition site is fascinating, how quickly familiar places can be reduced to nothing. The excavator claws up another bite.
Last year I went to Shanghai, a city which has been transformed by large scale demolition and reconstruction. I’d pass by huge blocks where hundreds of old houses were in the process of being torn down. One of the blocks where this was taking place had a fence around it made up of front doors, each a different colour and shape. Though the demolition was on a much greater scale to what occurs in Sydney it provoked the same feeling, a mixture of melancholy and curiosity, a tangible sense of time and change.
So much of what we know of cities are buildings. Even in Sydney, where the waterways divide up the land and the city’s natural setting is strongly apparent, we traverse the city by its structures. In the suburbs, the view out the car window of house after house becomes a memory game, a rehearsal of particular details. Most powerful are the signs that mean you’re almost home: mine are a fruit and vegetable shop with garishly painted signs, a weedy vacant lot, an apartment building with a big guava tree out the front. It is easy to regard these things as permanent and a shock when they are shown not to be.
The demolition site changes a little every day, but there’s one constant. At the western corner of the block a house remains. It is a solid red brick with white ironwork railings along the veranda. The lawn is meticulously kept, and along the front fence there are dahlias and rose bushes. The roses are flowering and large dark red blooms weight the ends of the branches. Here the concrete and plaster smell of demolition disappears underneath the scent of the roses.
Buildings are demolished, new ones are built. The process continues. The development takes shape and the construction site is busy with workers assembling the new apartment buildings. Once finished the blocks have a raw look, but with time the stark new surfaces take on a comfortable patina. They have an established look and there’s little reason to imagine what might have been there before. Until the cycle begins again. The run down apartment blocks are vacated and a fence surrounds the empty buildings. They quickly turn to disrepair. Then, one day, they too are gone.
Waiting to cross Redfern Street, I look up at the post office clock tower. Since writing about suburban clocks I’ve been noticing them everywhere. Once you start paying attention to an element of the urban landscape, whatever it be – house names, closed-down video stores, boarded-up buildings – they appear with sometimes alarming frequency. It’s all there, waiting to be noticed.
The most common lamentation about old post office clocks around Sydney is that they are neglected and many have stopped, the hands fixed at a permanent 3:45 or 9:20. I’d had it in the back of my mind that the clock on Redfern post office was one of these. The building no longer houses the post office, which has relocated to a small shop across the street, leaving the grand Victorian building to other, more profitable businesses. Things have changed a lot in Redfern over the last decade, cafes and mid century modern furniture stores have appeared along Botany Road, houses on Eveleigh Street, once a no-go zone for the young professionals and middle class families now said to be attracted to the suburb, rent for more than $1000 a week. With all this change the post office clock, under its verdigris dome, is struggling to cope.
I check the time on my phone – it’s 3:30. I don’t expect the Redfern clock to be correct, rather to be halted at a random hour. I get a surprise as while it doesn’t show the right time it is not stopped at all, the opposite in fact. The minute hand is moving fast, keeping pace with the seconds. I watch as it races through 1 o’clock, then 2, then 3, onwards into the future. Like in the 1960 film of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, days and night passed me by, the sun arced across the sky, flowers opened and shut, snails raced past, small buildings were replaced by tall ones, then inexplicably all the people fled, the buildings fell into disrepair, wild creatures took over, and Redfern turned into a forest, as the hands of the clock continued to spin.