Observatory Hill

Location: off Argyle Street, Millers Point
Observatory Hill is the highest point on the ridge to the west of the Sydney inner city area at its northern end. Sydney's early colonists found it to be the highest point in area around their new settlement on Sydney Cove, and consequently became a lookout point to monitor any ships that might be entering Sydney Harbour.

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From Flagstaff Hill to Observatory Hill
With the development of commerce in the colony, its high location was considered ideal place to erect windmills to grind the colony's grain. Early in 1796, the first windmill in New South Wales was built on what became known as Windmill Hill. It was used to grind grain into flour and was one of the colony's first steps towards self sufficiency. The mill tower was built of stone and the machinery and grindstone were imported from England. But they did not work for long. The canvas sails were stolen, the machinery was damaged in a storm, and by 1800 the foundations were giving way. Before it was ten years old, the mill was useless.

In 1833 the Government Architect, Mortimer Lewis, devised a scheme that allowed for the extension of Kent Street through to Argyle Street. This required extensive work on both the northern and western sides of the hill, particularly the construction of the Argyle Cut in 1843, completed in 1865, which allowed for the full extension of Argyle Street to intersect with the new length of Kent Street.

The newly available lands and the improved access encouraged a new spate of development in this part of the city. These circumstances commenced a process which led to the gradual integration of Observatory Hill with the rest of the city and its immediate environs. From the earliest days of the colony the hill had essentially served as a government precinct fo rmilitary requirements. The nature of this occupation as well as the difficult access afforded by the steep hill encouraged a sense of separateness from the mainstream life of the town even though locals used it as a source of firewood and to dump rubbish.

During the mid-1870s the Government Astronomer was responsible for convincing the Governor to improve the amenity of the land surrounding the Observatory then known as Flagstaff Hill. Fences were erected and the rough surface levelled and formed into a conventional park surface. At about the same time the area, the Flagstaff Hill Reserve was placed under the control of a Trust. The hill was gazetted as a public park in 1884 and a planting scheme was initiated during this decade and into the 1890s.

Fort Phillip

Constructed at the peak of Observatory Hill in 1804, Fort Phillip was ill-conceived, was never uncompleted and never had the potential to be used as anything but a barracks or, as happened, a signal station. Captain John Hunter, who authorised its construction, was a naval man with little knowledge of land-based fortifications. Its armoury of guns were never mounted properly - Gov. Bligh found them in a state of disrepair and on carriages that had been eaten away by termites - and had they been fired, they would in all probability have hit houses and the hospital in The Rocks, which were located in the guns' line of fire on the slopes between the fort and Sydney Cove. It must be said, however, that a convict uprising at Castle Hill in the previous year was the incident which precipitated the fort's construction, so its ability or inability to protect the town from hostile ships may not have been a major factor in the fort's location.

Two of its stone perimeter walls were converted into a signal station in 1825. From here, signals were sent to ships in the harbour and to the South Head Signal Station using flags. The two walls, which have been incorporated into the Observatory Building, are all that remain of Fort Phillip.

Sydney Observatory

In 1803 Governor Hunter ordered a fort to be built on the site of the mill to defend the colony from rebellious convicts and possible French attack. The fort called Fort Phillip, was never fully completed and never fired a single shot in anger. In 1825 the eastern wall of the fort was converted to a signal station. From here flags sent messages to ships in the harbour and the signal station on the South Head of the harbour. In 1840 the fort was partially demolished. A new signal station designed by the colonial architect Mortimer Lewis, was built on the east wall in 1848. This is now the oldest building on the hill.

Sydney Observatory began as a simple time-ball tower built near the signal station. Every day at exactly 1.00 pm, the time ball on top of the tower would drop to signal the correct time to the city and harbour below. At the same time a cannon on Fort Denison was fired. The tower was soon expanded into a full observatory. Designed by Alexander Dawson, the building consisted of a domed chamber to house the equatorial telescope, a room with long, narrow windows for the transit telescope a computing room or office, and a residence for the astronomer. In 1877, a western wing was added to provide office and library space and a second domed chamber for telescopes.

After federation in 1901, meteorological observations became a Commonwealth government responsibility, but astronomy remained with the states. Sydney Observatory continued working on the Astrographic catalogue, keeping time, making observations and providing information to the public. Everyday, for example, the Observatory supplied Sydney newspapers with the rising and setting times of the sun, moon and planets. By the mid 1970's the increasing problems of air pollution and city light made work at the observatory more and more difficult. In 1982, Sydney Observatory was converted into a museum of astronomy and related fields.

The Museum of Astronomy includes an exhibit describing the Transit of Venus which in 1769 brought Lieut. James Cook to Australia. Among the other exhibits is a replica of a 15th century Korean hemispherical sundial hemispherical dial. The original bowl-shaped dial is in the court of King Sejong. Another exhibit is a Cooke solar chronometer.
Open Mon - Fri 10.00am - 4.00pm; weekends and public holidays. 10.00am - 5.00pm.

National Trust Centre

It is appropriate that the National Trust, an organisation devoted to the protection of Australia's heritage should itself occupy a building of such significance. As a military hospital built by Gov. Macquarie and designed by JC Watts, the building served the garrison stationed in Sydney. From 1849 as Fort Street School the building saw some famous Australians educated there. The Board of National Education, under which the school was established, stood for 'equal opportunity of education to all colonists independent of rank, class or description of persons'. The Boys High School moved to Petersham in 1916. The Girls High School followed in 1975.

If you think the building does not have the appearance of one from the Macquarie era, you are right. When it was being converted into the Fort Street School, Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis (1796-1879) removed the building's Doric columns and in their place enclosed the verandahs and added the decorated arched facade with Corinthian columns that we see today. The building and those adjoining it were isolated on an 'island' in 1957 when a deep three-quarter circular trench was cut around the buildings to carry traffic leaving the Cahill Expressway and proceeding onto the Harbour Bridge.

SH Ervin Galley

Attached to the National Trust Centre, this gallery is located a short stroll from the Observatory. There is limited free parking available at the gallery. The exhibitions change regularly and their focus is on Australian Art. There is a lovely little cafe attached to the gallery which is not open during full gallery hours (Tuesday to Sunday 11.00 am to 5.00 pm, public holidays excepted). The cafe opens from 11.00 am to 3.00 pm weekdays and 1.00 pm to 5.00 pm on weekends.

Richmond Villa

This gabled sandstone gothic villa was erected for Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis in 1849 as his private residence, but not on its present site. It was built behind Parliament House facing the Domain from local sandstone and there it sat for over a century, during which time it was taken over as accommodation for parliamentary members. In 1976 the land on which it stood was required for additions to Parliament House, so Richmond Villa was dismantled stone by stone and re-erected on its present site.

Today it functions as the headquarters of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Like Glover Cottages next door, it stands on land that marks the original elevation of Kent Street before it was lowered to make the grade of the street easier for bullock drays taking goods to the wharves of Darling Harbour to negotiate. Consequently, Glover Cottages and Richmond Villa stand high and dry above the roadway, which is why the cottages have been nicknamed Noah's Ark.
Richmond Villa, 120 Kent Street, Observatory Hill

Kent Street Quarry

Like just about every rocky hillside around Sydney Cove, Observatory Hill did not escape the saws and picks of the quarrymen. The hillsides on both sides of Kent Street, Millers Point, were major source of sandstone for building constructed in the western end of Sydney during the Macquarie and late colonial eras. The area quarried began in Argyle Street at the foot of Observatory Hill and continued alongside Kent Street for about a kilometre. Most of the surviving sandstone buildings of Millers Point from the early 19th century, such as the Hero of Waterloo and Lord Nelson Hotels, are believed to have been created from sandstone quarried here. These sites were work by a team of quarrymen brought out from Scotland by Presbyterian minister Rev. Dr. John Dunmore Lang in 1831. The quarry continued to be used until the early 1860s.

The quarry wall is visible today from the corner of Argyle Street, Millers Point, behind the homes on the eastern side of Kent Street, and alongside Agar Steps where part of the quarry site is now tennis courts.

Agar Steps

The work of City Engineer Edward Bell, Agar Steps were built in the 1870 to provide a link between Kent Street and Observatory Hill. Their name recalls Thomas Agars, an identity of The Rocks area, who arrived in the colony in 1829. Today they are still flanked by a quaint row of terraces which climb the hillside. They overlook the old Kent Street quarry site, which provided the sandstone for many of the colonial buildings in The Rocks and Millers Point.

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