The Quarries of Pyrmont

By the 1850's the major quarries of Sydney from which stone was extracted had been built in and it was no longer possible to use them. Not only that, the sandstone now being extracted from Pyrmont, Glebe and Balmain was found to be far harder rock which did not erode and crumble as easily as stone from sites like Kent Street and Bennelong Point. When, in 1855, the Colonial Architect Edmund Blackett insisted that the stone for the replacement steps and entrance to the Australian Museum had to come from the 'best bed of the Pyrmont quarries', its quarries were placed 'on the map'. Blackett gave up his job to build Sydney's new university at Grose Farm. Over half of the 44 quarry men registered as working the Pyrmont sandstone were kept busy for the best part of the decade supplying stone for the Great Hall, Library, Lecture block and early colleges of the University. Contemporary records show that 130 to 140 loads of stone were being carted off to Sydney each day for use as ballast in ships, in the building of road and railway bridges and road side kerbing, much of which still lines Sydney's streets.

Many of the quarry men were among the workers recruited from Clyde in Scotland by Presbyterian Minister Dr. John Dunmore Lang in 1831. Initially, he settled them in Millers Point where they worked the Kent Street Quarry, but as the superior Pyrmont stone became more widely known and the preferred choice of builders, they moved to Pyrmont. Their stone was to win 1st prize in exhibitions in Melbourne, Amsterdam, India and Chicago between 1880 and 1893. It was some of the best sandstone in the world, and was tested to withstand pressure of up to 100,00 pounds per square inch. Of the quarry men who worked the Pyrmont/Ultimo peninsula, two came into prominence during the 1850's and by the 1870's had swallowed up most of the smaller operations into their business empires. Devonshire born Charles Saunders had married his boss' daughter when he was a stone mason's labourer before he migrated to Australia with his family in 1852, age 28.

At the time, there were 15 quarries operating on the Pyrmont Peninsula, most of which were supplying ballast for ships and the new railway being built between Sydney to Parramatta. Saunders began working the cliffs above what is now Wentworth Park, supplying railway ballast as a supplement to his income from the Quarryman's Arms, an inn which he operated with his wife.

As his quarry was one of the closest to Blackett's University construction site, he became the main supplier of stone for the project. In 1855, the Australian Steam Navigation Company acquired Darling Island upon which it would build one of Australia's foremost slipways and engineering workshops. In preparation for it's construction, they contracted Saunders to level the island and connect it to the mainland.

Paradise Quarry, 1883

The appointment of John Barnet to the post of Colonial Architect heralded the start of a boom era in public building construction in Sydney in which Pyrmont sandstone was to feature prominently. Builder John Young, hired by Barnet to supervise construction of many of the projects, took out a quarrying lease on the escarpment just north of Fig Street so that he could supply the stone for Barnet's projects. Young quickly found himself out of his depth and turned to neighbouring lessee, Saunders, for assistance. Saunders established a dominance that the family business was to hold over the quarrying industry for a number of decades and extended their operations from his original Wattle Street site up to Miller Street and in future decades around the peninsula to Johnston Bay. Over a 50 year period, Saunders had 300 men in his employ and enjoyed such financial success he was able to retire early. He passed the business over to son Robert. John, Robert and Thomas McCredie enjoyed similar success though, being builders first and foremost, they had a knowledge to succeed in doing what Young had failed to do.

In 1868, Thomas leased land on the northern tip of the peninsula from Edward Macarthur and from the quarries he established there was able to supply the family company with stone used for the many buildings erected during Sydney's 1860s public building boom. These included the General Post Office and offices of the Colonial Secretary's and Public Works Department. Not all the stone for their building projects came from McCredie's however. Even working at maximum capacity, their quarries could supply less than a quarter of the stone needed, so great was the demand.

When the CSR began moving into Pyrmont in 1877 they turned to the quarry men to level their land and provide building materials for their refinery. Robert Saunders began introducing new technologies which led to the re-opening of many quarries which had been abandoned where all the rock to ground level had been extracted.

By using steam-powered cranes and specially imported sawing machines with steam driven iron blades, Saunders was able to extract the harder stone found below ground level from the abandoned sites. He began with his father's quarry at the foot of Miller Street which was nicknamed "Paradise" and its neighbour "Half-way" named after the degree of difficulty encountered in extracting the harder rock. Officially known as the Saunders Quarry, it operated from the mid-1800s until the 1920s and provided the building blocks and decorative carvings for the GPO, the Queen Victoria Building and Sydney Town Hall, among others. The Saunders family operated other quarries throughout the metropolitan area. Their Bondi Quarries were at Curlewis St. The site is now occupied by blocks of units.

It was called "Paradise" because its stone was strong enough to use as structural material but could easily be manipulated into any shape the mason wanted for intricate, decorative work. It cut easily when it was soft and grey out of the ground but hardened and turned a golden brown over time. "Hell Hole", to the south between Fig and Quarry Streets in Wattle Street, was an old family site. It is now a Council works depot. "Purgatory", appropriately located between the two other quarries, was where Young had attempted to work the rock more than two decades before and produced a similarly high quality stone.

The streets and tracks of the peninsula at Pyrmont became rutted as the bullock and Clydesdale teams carried sandstone blocks to such famous building sites as Sydney University, the Colonial Secretary's Office, the Department of Lands, the Australian Mutual Provident Society and the Australian Joint Stock Bank.

St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne and public buildings in New Zealand, Fiji and Canada also used Pyrmont sandstone. The Saunders also provided stone for nearly 50 workmen's houses and shops in Pyrmont. Among these are the Union Square buildings, the finest of which is perhaps the three-storey bank.v By the beginning of the 1880s, Saunders had abandoned quarrying sites on the western side of the peninsular and he moved on to the harder stone to the north, leaving gaping holes in the landscape which filled with stagnant water. Eventually he worked practically the whole of the north east end of the peninsula which produced stone blocks used in the construction of many of Sydney's sandstone buildings of the late Victoria era. In 1883, when the McCredie brothers purchased stone from Saunders for the Pitt Street extension of the General Post Office, he employed 27 cranes, 100 men and over 50 horses at work in the quarry on their project alone.

The activities of Pyrmont's quarrymen began to lessen as steel and concrete became the preferred building materials and industry quickly enveloped Pyrmont. Of the rock extracted in the early 1900s, much was fashioned into kerbstones for Sydney's streets and for trimmings like window sills and doorsteps. After the Great War, quarrying projects were more often for site clearance and levelling than for the extraction building material. Saunders' last major quarrying project was the levelling of Glebe Island to make way for grain silos. In 1905, the City Council leased "Hell Hole" at the corner of Wattle and Fig Streets from him for a tar distillation plant. It was from this site that Saunders had supplied them with most of their kerbstones over the previous four decades.historic Kurraba Point workshops were closed by the end of 1964; the State Government purchased the Kurraba Point site and in 1974 the site was cleared and the present Kurraba Reserve was created.

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