Hickson Road Heritage Walk
Hickson Road is one of the youngest streets in The Rocks area, having been created in the early years of the 20th century. After the bubonic plague broke out on the Sydney waterfront, a civil engineer named Robert Hickson was appointed chairman of an advisory board on harbour-foreshore resumption in 1900. In 1901 he became first president of the Sydney Harbour Trust and began a programme of improvements which among other things provided a vast wharfage, diverted sewers discharging into the harbour bays and instituted measures for preventing pollution of port waters. He sat on royal commissions on improvements to Sydney and suburbs in 1908-09 and on railway decentralization in 1910-11.
The arrival of the bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900 was cause for alarm on the docks. Shipping operations were shut down for a period of time while Council decontaminated the area and exterminated disease ridden rats. During this time the ownership of the port was shifted from individually owned private wharfs to the Sydney Harbour Trust. The trust dismantled the inadequate and unsafe docks and built finger wharfs large enough to facilitate large modern ships. By the end of the 1930s construction was complete, the wharfs dominated the waterfront from Millers point down to Darling Harbour.
During his twelve years in office Hickson oversaw the upgrading of facilities at Walsh Bay, Darling Harbour, Pyrmont and Woolloomooloo. A key element in the project was the creation of a new road that followed the shoreline linking Circular Quay to Walsh Bay and Darling Harbour, which would be named in Hickson's honour. Previous to the road's creation, access to each wharve area was via roads leading down from the top of the ridge, which made the transportation of goods from one area to another extremely difficult. When Hickson retired on 31st December 1912 he had been responsible for the expenditure of £6,250,000 in capital works on the Sydney waterfront. The Imperial Service Order was conferred on him on 24 June 1910.
In 1909 the huge task of cutting down cliffs, reorganising the pattern of the roads and constructing large finger wharves began. The work was slowed by shortages of materials and labour during World War I but, when the scheme was finally completed in the 1920s, these cutting-edge public works had created a modern industrial landscape. New 'rat-proof' wharves and jetties had been constructed and Hickson Road had been formed, but linking it to Sussex Street was frustrated for years because the gas works stood in the way. Eventually these roads did join, but the planned railway along this road, connecting Walsh Bay with the Darling Harbour goods yards in Ultimo, was never built.
Hickson Road (and this walk) commences in The Rocks on the bend where George Street changes direction towards the Harbour Bridge southern approach.
(1883)Cnr George St and Hickson Road, The Rocks. It was on this site that the famous colonial merchant Robert Campbell, who developed some of the earliest warehouses in Sydney, constructed his Wharf House as a home for himself and his wife Sophia in 1802. From it he oversaw his lucrative trading empire. The Australasian Steam Navigation Company was formed from the Hunter River Steamship Company in 1851 to appeal to a wider market and expand their services. The company approved free or assisted passages for worthy causes, these included Caroline Chisholm going to Moreton Bay to obtain employment for immigrant women and Dr Leichhardt also going to Moreton Bay for an expedition in Queensland, and they shipped plants and specimens for the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne for free. ASN Co occupied the building from 1883 to 1889, when they moved out and the building was acquired by the Bovernment for use as an Ordnance Stores.
While not strictly Anglo Dutch in the true sense, this five storey warehouse building, designed by William Wardell, has many characteristics of the Anglo Dutch style. Its predominant features are its Flemish style gables and campanile topped with a tapered pyramid spire. It was built for the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. on land bought from merchant Robert Campbell. The company operated major ship building and repair facilities at Darling Island at Pyrmont. It only occupied the building for seven years before selling it to the government for use as an ordnance store. Its fire sprinkler system is the oldest such system in Australia and the third oldest in the world. The building underwent a major refit in 1950 and became the last building to be acquired in The Rocks by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority in 1989. Between 1991 and 1993 it was restored to its 1883 appearance, comprising of four open-plan warehouse bays and one of offices.
On the opposite corner to the ASN Building are the Bushells Warehouse (former) and the adjoining Bushells Place. In 1888 the site part of the vacant land Robert Campbell sold to Australasian Steam Navigation Company. Being surplus to their needs, ASN sold the vacant land at 88 George Street to in 1886, and the Victorian Free Classic style offices and warehouse was built. It originally had three floors and basement. In 1904, Bushells Ltd., a relatively young Tea Merchants from Queensland, leased the building. In 1912 a taller brick building of 6 floors and basement was completed for the expanding company on the vacant lot adjacent northern site; at the same time a further three floor were added to the earlier warehouse. The steel for the 1912 builidng was supplied by Dorman Long and Co., the later builders of Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was one of the earliest uses of steel in building construction in Australia. The massive scale of 86-88 George Street compared to its neighbours made the buildings distinctive in their setting, and in the townscape of The Rocks. Bushells vacated the premises in 1924, but continued to use the building facade for signage. The buildings were then used as stores for the Department of Education and Labour and Industry. , 86 George Street is one of only a few warehouse buildings known to have been designed by the Government Architect, W. L. Vernon.
The first bay Hickson Road encircles is Campbells Cove. Its name recalls Robert Campbell, a prominent Scottish merchant in the early days of Sydney, who purchased the land in around the cove in 1799. Commonly known as the father of Australian commerce, he constructed a private wharf to house imports such as sugar, tea, and spirits from India. From 1838, he began construction of the 5 sandstone bays (Campbell Storehouses) which are still standing to this day. The first use by the colonials of the land around the cove appears to have been to graze sheep. The land was leased to Henry Waterhouse, commander of the Reliance, in 1794. Two years later he went to the Cape of Good Hope and brought back a flock of sheep from Spain, which were the first merinos to arrive in New South Wales. Australia's wool industry developed from that initial flock of sheep. Take a walk on the watefront around the cove. Beyond the end of the Park Hyatt Hotel, the walkway rejoins Hickson Road near the Harbour Bridge.
These handsome sandstone bond stores Sandstone bond stores built by the sons of pioneer merchant Robert Campbell to house the tea, coffee, sugar, spirits and cloth their family business imported from India. Campbell Snr. began trade with the colony in 1798, taking up residence in 1800 and leading the way for free enterprise in Sydney. Originally a two storey structure comprising of 11 bays, the first 5 bays were completed in 1842, the rest were built two at a time in 1858, 1861. The top storey was added in 1890 along with a new brick bay at the northern end by its new owner, the State Government. Ten of the original bays survive today along with the brick addition, and house a number of shops, galleries and restaurants. The most southern bay was demolished in 1958 to make way for the northern access ramp to the Overseas Passenger Terminal. Attached to one of the walls is the remain of an hydraulic whip, a device fitted in 1890 to enable goods to be raised to the upper levels at great speed. It was powered by high pressure water pumped through pipes from a pumping station at Darling Harbour.
When this former industrial site (maritime warehouses) was being considered for redevelopment in the late 1980s, the Government put stringent conditions on the developers to ensure that the view of the Harbour Bridge was not impeded from Circular Quay and that the new structure blended into the environment. The architect's solution was to create a simple, Post-Modern, ribbon-shaped hotel to fill the corner of Campbells Cove, an objective which was achieved with remarkable success. 7 Hickson Road.
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After passing the Park Hyatt Hotel, Hickson Road curves around to the west and passes under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Here you will see at close range two of the four steel bearings consisting of large hinge pins and massive steel bases which support of the arches of the bridge. The excavations for the foundations of the main bearings and approach span piers commenced in January 1925 while the approach spans were being built. At each end of the arch span of the bridge, and just behind the bearings, large abutment towers supporting the pylons were constructed. The abutment towers with the pylons are not a necessary structural feature of the bridge. They do not support the arch and were built principally to enhance the appearance of the structure. The arch was constructed in two halves, holding each back with steel cables anchored in large U-shaped tunnels dug into the rock. One of the cable anchor points has been preserved and can be seen in the display area under the approach span a short distance away behind the pylons.
The southern Harbour Bridge pylons and bridge supports are on Dawes Point, named after Lieutenant William Dawes, a soldier with the First Fleet who established an observatory on the point. He then built Sydney's first fortifications there. The remains of Dawes' fort and latter additions to it can also be seen in the display area under the approach span a short distance away behind the pylons. Dawes was also a linguist, and his friendship with an Aboriginal woman, Patyegarang, resulted in one of the earliest dictionaries of Aboriginal words which is now archived in London.
Hickson Steps are located close to Pier One in the shadow of the southern Harbour Bridge aproaches. The steps link Fort Street to Hickson Road. They were created in the first decade of the 20th century. The name honours RP Hickson, who was Chairman of the Sydney Harbour Trust between 1901-12 when the whole Millers Point wharf area was redeveloped and present day roads and walkways in the area, including Hickson Steps, were created. Originally a path led down the hill from what is now the top of the Steps to wharves on the foreshore in the vicinity of what today is the gap between Piers One and Two. When the land behind Pier One was excavated and flattened to just above water level, Hickson Steps were built at the southern end of the quarry site as a replacement for the walking path.
As you pass under the bridge, in front of you is Pier One, the first of a series of wharves that line Walsh Bay. Work on the construction of Pier One commenced in August 1910. The construction necessitated the demolition of Ives Baths, an Artillery Barracks and portions of Walkers Wharf. Opened in 1912 as a shipping wharf, Pier One was joined by four other finger wharves over the next decade, replacing mostly privately owned wharves that had dated from the 1830s onwards. The wharf area became known as Walsh bay, after the Engineer-in-Chief to the Sydney Harbour Trust, H. D. Walsh, who supervised the wharves construction. The wharf was designed for both cargo and passenger traffic. The upper floor of the shore shed was connected to George Street North by a bridge over Hickson Road. It featured two electric travelling cranes, which were the first of their type. Other machinery included an elevated passenger gangway and hand-powered travelling gantries. The large pavilion provided convenience for people waiting for vessels while its gallery and balcony, offering glorious harbour views, were reserved exclusively for passengers. A key feature was the fact that they could be accessed at two levels - one of the first examples of major road separation planning in Sydney.
A guest's lounge in Sebel Pier One, formerly the Customs Hall of Pier One
The first ship to berth at Pier One was the Orient Line steamer SS Orontes, in January 1913. The wharf at Pier One was converted into an exclusive passenger terminal in 1951 to cope with the increase in passenger ships which came with the post-war migrant boom. The Orient Line and Shaw Saville and Albion Line were its main users. In 1960, the opening of the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Circular Quay marked the beginning of the decline of Pier One as passenger ship berth. Within a decade, as less and less passenger ships carried people to and from Australia, the number of ships berthing at Pier One had fallen to below one a week. In the early 1980s, it was converted into a tourist-oriented shopping centre. Today it is a five star hotel.
Continue following the curve of Hickson Road around the Walsh Bay shoreline. On your left is evidence of the amount of excavation that was neccessary in the early 1900s to create Hickson Road and the flat ground around and upon which the wharves of Walsh Bay were built. The rocky terrain of the Walsh Bay area limited its early use to fortifications (Dawes Point and Observatory Hill), an anchorage for whalers in Walsh Bay, and windmills. More intensive settlement began the 1820s and was extended by a number of Crown grants in the 1830s. The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1900 in the area surrounding the bay led to the resumption of large portions of land for redevelopment. This pre-empted a total re-think of the use of the bay as part of the Port of Sydney.
The Engineer-in-Chief of the Trust was H.D. Walsh, the man after whom the bay was subsequently named. He oversaw the design and construction of a new system of wharves, stores and associated roads and hydraulic systems to service them. A wide service road, Hickson Road, was excavated around the foreshore and the steep topography was used ingeniously to service the wharves at two levels. Overpass Bridges above Hickson Road give access to the upper levels of each shore shed.
The redevelopment of the Walsh Bay wharves in the 1990s led to a number of performing arts companies choosing the rejuvenated wharves as their new homes. Consequently the Walsh Bay section of Hickson Road has become an arts precinct where you can enjoy a sculpture walk with works from renowned artists such as Brett Whitely. You can rub shoulders with Australia's theatrical elite with the theatre walk honouring 21 legends of Australian stage and screen. The 21 bronze plaques that have been set into Pier 2/3 as a tribute to the leading lights of Australian theatre such as Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Googie Withers, Barry Otto and Jackie Weaver.
At the Towns Place end of Pier 9 you many be able to see the original 'rat proof' Monier pre-cast concrete seawall at low tide. When rat-borne plague struck Sydney in 1900, decrepit wharves and sea walls were identified as likely breeding grounds for rats. The wall was built by the Sydney Harbour Trust as part of the reconstruction of Sydney s ports, their function being to retail fill. A new concept in sea wall construction, the wall, of pre-cast reinforced concrete, was held in place by L-shaped trestles. The concept offered major advantages in the construction of sea walls, because the only work conducted under water would be the preparation of the foundations. The precast trestles could then be lowered into position by crane. After the success of the Millers Point wall, Melbourne engineer John Monash applied the idea of the L-shaped precast wall unit to his own projects, starting as early as May 1906, in a proposal for a foreshore retaining wall at Queenscliff, Victoria.
An often forgotten corner of The Rocks and Millers Point heritage area, Towns Place played an important role in the establishment of many Queensland ports and the Royal Mail service from Britain. Its name recalls Captain Robert Towns, the merchant and entrepreneur after whom the Queensland city of Townsville was named. The site where the Towns Place Apartments now stand was the location of Captain Towns' Whaling and trading empire of the 1850's and 60's. Archaeolgical investigation has revealed the walls of his stone wharehouse and uncovered artefacts from whaling and south-sea trade. This was also the location of the famous 'bull-ring' where laborers vied to be chosen for a day's work on the wharves during the great depression when Hickson Road was part of the notorious 'Hungry Mile'.
If you walk to the end of Towns Place you will reach the Moores Stores. This historic waterside warehouse was built of local sandstone (quarried on-site) in 1836-37 by William Long and James Wright using convict labour. It was sold to Captain Joseph Moore and his son Henry who, in the early 1840's, added a fourth segment at the western end of the store to accommodate their expanding business as the colony's first agents for the P&O shipping line. During the 19th century the store was the scene of many first occasions. In 1851 the clipper Phoenician loaded the first shipment of Australian gold to England from Moore's wharf.In 1852 the first P&O screw steamship to arrive from England, the Chusan, berthed there with the first mails brought out under contract.
Millers Point and the Barangarro Reserve site, March 2011
Beyond Towns Place and Moores Stores is what used to be the tip of Millers Point. During the 1960s, it would be deeply scarred by excavations, leaving an abrupt, sheer cliff face where half the point was razed to sea level to make way for extended wharfage on Cockle Bay. The whole of what is known today as South Barangaroo was turned into a massive concrete apron, the northern end followed similarly in the 1970s. Flaws in the site's modern shipping capability started to show. The lack of a heavy rail link or a b-double capable road limited the port's capacity in processing in and outbound cargo. As container ships got bigger this problem only got worse. The ultimate demise of commercial shipping in Darling Harbour, and ultimately Sydney Harbour as a working harbour, was the construction of Port Botany in 1979 and the expansion of port facilities at Port Kembla and Newcastle Port. With excellent rail, road and air connections to the port, along with massive capacity for expansion and the ability to handle large container ships, it progressively became the main port of Sydney.
By the turn of the 20th century, what was once the busiest port area in Australia had fallen silent, apart from the occasional cruise liner which berth at a hastily built cruise ship terminal. The opportunity to return this section of Millers Point to somewhat near its original state was seized upon by the authorities. In a major redevelopment around the Point, the giant whole left by past quarrying was filled in, allowing the land to slope gently down from the ridge top to the shoreline as it once did. Barangaroo Reserve now occupies the site of the concrete apron provides space for recreation, and features grassed areas, lookouts, walking and cycle paths, and a new harbour cove.
Returning to Towns Place, Hickson Road sweeps left and passes through a cutting which separates the actual geographical feature - Millers Point - from the rest of the suburb. Before continuing along Hickson Road. The three bridges which carry Argyle, Munn and Windmill Streets over Hickson Road are rare Monier Arch bridges. They were constructed along with the cuttings and other civil works in the area between 1910 and 1914 as part of the redevelopment of Walsh Bay by the Sydney Harbour Trust. They are some of the few bridges to be built in Sydney using a new material called ferro-concrete (now known as reinforced concrete). A Monier arch bridge over the Hawkesbury River at Windsor was the first bridge to be built in New South Wales using the new material. Other examples are at Marlborough Road, Flemington, and Bridge Road, Hornsby. Being new technology, Monier arches were always associated with controversy and doubts about their safety, and went as quickly as they came.
High above street level and clinging to the rockface that lines Hickson Road around Millers Point is a sequence of stairs to nowhere, with the entrance and exit long bricked-up. There's no way in, there's no way out. It just sits there embedded in the sandstone. The base is totally bricked-in, ensuring no-one can climb into the section in the middle, which presumably would've taken too much brick to warrant fully enclosing. The stairs cling to the extraordinary sandstone wall above Hickson Road and lead up towards the deck of one of a number of bridges built across Hickson Road.
Darling Harbour 1968. The wharves of the Hungry Mile are in the foreground
From the 1850s to the 1880s the docks and shipyards in East Darling Harbour multiplied tremendously, going from a coal and ferry drop off point to a hub of commercial shipping activity. During the gold rush, labour shortages plagued the docks as most poor labourers headed out to the gold fields in Victoria to strike it rich. In the 1860s storage facilities and warehouses had to be built out on Millers Point to accommodate the massive number of bulk goods flowing through the port. The waterfront became covered in warehouses and storage depots, mostly holding the treasured export of the time, wool. From 1880 to 1900, specialisation of the area occurred. Shipyards closed down in favour of storage facilities and bigger wharfs to accommodate contemporary ships with larger cargo loads were built. The skilled ship builders were therefore out of a job and had to find work elsewhere, while more unskilled workers were needed to fill stevedoring positions. This shifted the demographics of the area significantly, turning it from a mix of skilled and unskilled workers to a working-class neighbourhood.
The wharves at the northern end of Cockle Bay along the western shores of Miller Point are inclusive of The Hungry Mile, the poignant name harbourside workers gave to this docklands area where workers would walk from wharf to wharf in search of a job, often failing to find one. During the Great Depression great masses of workers would line up down the mile long stretch of wharfs and wait for work. Clerks chose the workers based on the a system where the fitter men were chosen over the weaker, and where socialist troublemakers were sidelined in favour of willing workers. This brutal system made for a very adversarial environment which polarised the community at large. They erupted occasionally in protest, most famously refusing to load a boat with scrap metal bound for Japan on the eve of World War II.
High Street on the upper level (left), Hickson Road on the lower level (right)
Quarrying to sea level along the Darling Harbour stretch of Hickson Road resulted in the creation of High Street, which runs along the top of the man-made cliff face beside Hickson Road. The High Street development included the erection of flats along it to house the wharf workers along it. The flats occupied the site of the old Kent Street quarry at the foot of Agar Steps. A platform was carved into the exposed bedrock, making a new urban terrace, a 'high street', with an arresting V-shaped form that pitched symmetrically to a point on the axis of the Observatory dome.
High Street, 1950
High Street had the largest concentration of Sydney Harbour Trust residential buildings, which began to take shape from 1910, all with views across the harbour to Balmain. These 'flats', along with a kindergarten and playground, a group of red brick shops in Argyle Street and numerous hotels such as the large red brick Palisade provided a coherent set of modern buildings which contrasted boldly with the surviving pre-Hickson Road sandstone cottages, pubs and painted terrace houses built in the nineteenth century. Access to the wharves from the houses was via a bridge (since removed) and High Steps. These steps were cut into the cliff face at the southern end of High Street where they lined up with Agar Steps, with the right-angled section of High Street linking the two.
As the Sydney Harbour Trust had created enough comfortable housing to maintain its own workforce, twentieth-century Millers Point, despite its village atmosphere, became something akin to a company town, with the company being the state. As everyone worked on the wharves, Millers Point became a very close-knit little community. The practice of informally inheriting housing continued until the end of the 1980s, when the work of the port had been wound down and the houses were passed to the Department of Housing.
201 Kent Street, cnr Napolean Street and Hickson Road, Sydney. The Grafton Bond Store Building, which is today part of the Maritime Trade Towers complex, is claimed to have been the largest bond store complex in Australia. It is an excellent example of urban commercial utilitarian design, by an eminent Australian architect, William Wardell and its design displays the Northern European influence. Its recent refurbishment and well contrived juxtaposition with modem glass towers is a most successful conservation project. The building stands monument-like in Hickson Road below the glass towers in Kent Street; a juxtaposition of new and old which, when seen from the west across the water, is one of the most engaging views in Sydney. The building is long and narrow, four and five storeys high at Hickson Road, and three above the rock shelf behind.
The image above shows the workings of the busy docks on Darling Harbour in the 1890s. The area pictured is of Sussex Street and Grafton Wharf which was used by the Clarence and Richmond River Steam Navigation Company. The building in the centre was used as offices by the steamship companies. The building on the left facing what is now Hickson Road is the Grafton Bond Store . This area now forms part of the Barangaroo site. Grafton Wharf was established in about 1835, its timber jetties, wharfage, warehouses and stores were constructed to service the various businesses that had been established on the waterfront. By the 1870s, most of the site was known as the Grafton Wharf. The actual wharf by that name was used by the Clarence and Richmond River Steam Navigation Company, and named after its main port in Northern Rivers region of NSW. During the later 1870s and early 1880s the whole area underwent redevelopment, with a range of stone and brick buildings erected along the northern boundary, and the construction of new jetties and warehouses along the wharf. A substantial sandstone seawall retained the reclaimed land. It was constructed in the 1840s and was at least 45m in length. The base of the wall was constructed on rubble fills that were located at least 1m below low tide level.
36 Hickson Road, Sydney. In 1845, the iconic Australian Gas Lighting (AGL) Company built its landmark headquarters at 36 Hickson Road, at a time when Sydney was entirely dependent on gas for lighting and heating. It would occupy the key site on the Western parameter of The Rocks until the Sydney Harbour and Maritime Services Board acquired the building in 1921. Carved into harbourside cliff face and built upon the original colonial sandstone structure, 36 The Bond is today one of Australia's most innovative office and retail spaces.
Millers Point Gasworks operated on this site for close to a century, providing millions of hours of light and generations of employment before the onset of the age of electricity.
The gasworks was decommissioned in 1921 and its aboveground structures were removed by 1925 as part of efforts to combat the bubonic plague. In spite of this, the gasworks stood in the way of linking Hickson Road and Sussex Street, a source of frustration for project engineers who could not finish the task of linking Darling Harbour to Walsh Bay via Hickson Road for many years until the waterside structures of the gasworks were eventually removed. The Sydney Harbour Trust used the main building as a store and renovated the top floor to include offices in 1923 and again in 1950s.
Millers Point Gasworks
1836 map showing Kent Street. At port facilities in the area expanded, the shoreline beyond the end of Sussex Street was reclaimed. Hickson Road was built on this reclaimed land and was joined to Sussex Street as a continuation of it.