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A Commentary on Sydney





© Warren Fahey


Sydney, even by its most pronounced admirers, is generally admitted to be a dirty town. Certainly, to see it during a spell of wet weather, when the mud is churned up on the macadamized roads, by the throng of vehicles, quadrupeds, and pedestrians till the streets are covered foot deep in places with the sloppy deposit, would not favourably impress a stranger.

The villas in the suburbs of Sydney, those of the better sort, may well excuse a pardonable feeling of exultation on the part of the native-born New South Welshman. These villas, many of them, would do credit to any capital in Europe. Those of stone are built of the magnificent white sandstone for which the Sydney quarries are famous. It hardens by contact with the air, and assumes a rich warm yellow tint which is very effective and pleases the artistic eye. Even the less pretentious structures bear many marks of good taste, and an advanced order of embellishment. Indeed, the suburban villas of Sydney inhabited by the well-to-do tradesmen, the highly- intelligent, quick witted, practical, money-making, middle classes, give one a high opinion of the material prosperity, and the solid domestic comfort which their appearance implies.

When we come a step lower and look at the workmen’s dwellings, and speculators houses, the picture is not without its shadows. The great aim of the well-to-do mechanic is to run up a house of his own. By aid of the building societies he is enabled to indulge his laudable hobby; but in his haste to become the possessor of this house of his own, he is not so particular as he ought to be as to solidity of construction and excellence of material. As a result of this desire of the artisan to become a householder, the land has acquired an abnormal value. Building sites are, therefore, enormously dear. Societies, speculators, jobbers have bought up all the estates and vacant blocks around Sydney; and they divide and sub-divide, and cut up these into little-hutch patches and the houses spring up like bee-hive cells.

Our “Cornstalk” cousins are keenly sensitive to criticism. They do not love adverse comment, and are rather jealous of anything savouring of [critical] remark.

If one thing more than another detracts from the beauty and symmetry of the Sydney streets it is the verandahs in front of the shops. In the
construction of these every shopkeeper consults his own will, and is a law unto himself. In such a climate where, for weeks at a time, blinding sunshine pours down on the dusty streets, awnings and verandahs are most grateful to the pedestrian, and at other times, in the cold weather, the shelter of these adjuncts to the shop fronts affords welcome protection from the pelting rain ; but their beauty would seem to be in a directly inverse ratio to their utility. The principal streets are lined at intervals with porticos, verandahs and awnings, on both sides from end to end. Each structure is more hideously ugly than its neighbour.

The shop windows of Sydney are, indeed, smaller and meaner looking than those of most capitals.

Another feature which is almost certain to strike the stranger with not a little wonder is the very common habit of hitching up horses to posts or pillars in the principal streets. At first sight it would seem peculiar, to say the least of it, and decidedly against London notions, to leave a horse unattended and unattached to stand by the crowded pavement and remain there, unfastened, often for a considerable time. Sometimes the tired animal gets a little impatient and plants his forefeet on the pavement. The newcomer feels a tremor of apprehension as he passes [by] the heels of Rosinante Ladies and children have sometimes to leave the causeway to the steed on possession and make a detour into the mud of the roadway.

As I am on the subject of horses I may, in passing, mention the cabs of Sydney. These vehicles are about the best I have seen in any city. They are, as a rule, elegant in make, light in draft, roomy, clean, springy, and comfortable. The interior fittings are much above the average. The horses are generally sleek and well groomed. On the whole [the cabmen] are an intelligent, hardworking body of men. Many of them own the cab they drive. They have a hard life of it. Constant exposure, frequent over- reaching by unscrupulous fares, and disbelief in their honesty [do not produce] geniality of temper.

The cab tariff is looked on by strangers as very excessive. The regular charge is four shillings an hour for the first hour, or ninepence for every additional quarter of an hour.

The matter of public parks for our colonial towns and cities has only lately begun to attract attention and arouse intelligent discussion. The necessity for having these health giving resorts would not seem to have been even faintly realized by the original founders of our colonial cities, for almost no reserves were made, or lands dedicated for the purpose.

A formal hot lunch of three courses—soup, joint, sweets, with cheese and salad to follow, seems to be [the accepted thing] with the Sydney mercantile or professional man. There are no chop-houses after the London plan. There are depots for the sale of fried fish or oysters, but the Sydney eating-houses are not appetite-inspiring as a rule.

The Sydney populace can be seen best in all its glory, on a Saturday night. Tis then they turn out in countless swarms, and throng the streets in thousands till nine or ten o’clock. It is a merry good-tempered, orderly crowd, [for] the Sydneyites are as fond of a street promenade, as Parisian or Neapolitan. The markets are crowded, shops flare with the garish glitter of gas. Cheap Jacks shout till they are hoarse. Barrel organs and even more objectionable itinerant musicians load the air with doubtful melody. There is a densely-packed slowly surging mass of people occupying all the breadth of the street. Young fellows banter young women, with more vigour than refinement of expression or manner. Most of the house- wives carry the family basket, and make purchases here and there, as flesh, fruit, vegetables, clothing, groceries or luxuries come before them. The men are comfortably dressed, so far as slop suits admit of comfort. Nearly all of them smoke. The whole population is out of doors. It is the working man’s weekly festival. On the whole it is a pleasant sight, and rarely marked by scenes of violence, drunkenness, or misbehaviour. It is rough, doubtless, but it is a hearty, jovial, good-humoured roughness, and everything speaks a rude plenty, a vigorous, well-contented, well-fed, well-housed, well-clad, well-paid, working population. When we can add well-governed and thoroughly well-educated, we shall see a magnificent race, and [a] future [that] is not without signs of hopeful promise.

The Sydney larrikin, as the street Arab, the [local equivalent] of the London rough, or Liverpool loafer, or New York hoodlum, is called, is the most detestable creature on the earth’s surface. Devoid of respect for age, sex, or rank he is an unmitigated nuisance, a hateful thing, abhorrent to every right-minded citizen. The larrikins are numerous in Sydney. They are brutal cowards, who would not hesitate to rob a sick child, or steal the letters off a gravestone. they insult women, assault unwary pedestrians, defy the police, haunt the parks at night, and are up to every villainy and outrage.