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© Warren Fahey

Sydney’s inner city east suburb, Potts Point, was the target of ridicule around the turn of the 19th century for it boasted many large mansions (which eventually all became boarding houses). The following song appeared in The Railway Worker, a union newspaper, in the early 1930s.

Mrs Potts Point

“While waiting at the Labour Exchange for a ticket or rations, a man, aged ’53, collapsed, and was taken to Sydney Hospital, where he was found to be suffering from the effects of starvation.—. News Item from The Railroad Newspaper 1928;

Mrs. Potts Point has very decided opinions regarding such vulgar happenings, and. appears to have discovered a solution of the problem of how not to be ‘bothered by the “lower orders”;—

The lady threw the paper down with – angry exclamation,
“They make me cross,” she told her lord, “these stories of starvation. –
They have no right to publish them— such rude and vulgar nonsense—
It is a disgrace they should print this kind of correspondence.”

She leaned back in her easy chair to pet her pampered poodle,
And murmured fond endearments, such as “Mummy’s ‘Ickle Toodles!”—
Then gave the dear a dainty cake, and, while its bow adjusting,
Expressed the view that working- folk were “utterly disgusting.”

“Why can’t they go away and starve,” she asked in indignation,
‘Instead of falling in the streets and causing consternation?
The papers ought to cater for Society’s enjoyment—-
Our dinners, dances, parties, bridge—not harp on unemployment.”

“Quite right, my dear!” her fond lord said. “The lower orders really are
Obtaining undue prominence-.ahem! — oh, very much, by far!
It is of quite no consequence that common people should be starved
When we, go much superior, discover dividends are halved.”

“Why don’t you let them all die out?” all eagerly his wife exclaimed.
“They’re always causing trouble, dear; it seems they’ll never be reclaimed.
The motorcar displaced the horse—these people spoil the scenery—
Let them all starve to death, and then replace them with machinery!”

It will come as a surprise to many that Woolloomooloo was once the most desirable suburb in Sydney. Forget Double Bay, Ashfield, Elizabeth Bay, and don’t even think about the north shore, for in the first half of the nineteenth century if you didn’t live in the ‘Loo, you were living in the dump. Woolloomooloo was the home of judges, merchant leaders, politicians and the rest of the hoi polloi. It was named for the first farming station established in the area. By all accounts it was quite a beautiful setting, close to a wonderful bay, in walking distance to the heart of the colony, and a mere stone’s throw to Government House. It was also a safe distance from the rowdy soldiers at Paddington’s Victoria Barracks, and the even rowdier sailors in The Rocks. Grand houses were built, many with spectacular gardens, and, if one were inclined, it was considered relatively safe to engage in one of the popular sports of the day, pedestrianism. There were market gardens and, on the harbour shore of the Woolloomooloo Bay, fresh fish were displayed and sold. In those days the Bay offered sandy beaches and, sadly, unlike today, the fish were edible. Things changed in the second half of the century as better roads, walkways, better communication systems, and later gas and water supplies, encouraged people to move further out.

The city centre was fairly stinky in those days with brickworks, tanneries and either dust or mud creating general havoc. No doubt there was also a desire to get away from some of the more unsavory locals, especially the city larrikins and their donahs. As homeowners moved out small factories moved in to take advantage of the suburb’s close proximity to the city centre and the surrounding seaports. The ports were crucial to the delivery of coal to fire up the mighty steam engines of that era. Labour was also important and alongside the factories came modest worker dwellings.

Woolloomooloo changed again near the end of the nineteenth century as the bulk of Australia’s population packed their ports and took up residence in the cities. Around the time of Federation, in 1901, our population balance changed, with, for the first time, more people living in the cities than bush. The great rural industries, especially sheep and cattle, had seen their heyday and were making room for factories and offices. Thousands of hopefuls flocked to Sydney and its inner suburbs, especially Glebe, Pyrmont, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo. It was around this time that many of the remaining grand homes came tumbling down to make way for squat terrace houses. Corner stores, cafes and drinking establishments were also built adding to the Loo’s ever-changing character. Some surrounding suburbs, particularly Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, appear to have upped their social status around this time. This was possibly because the Point was on an elevated position that allowed residents to look down on the rowdier residents of Woolloomooloo.

Despite this, many large homes, often the residence of one family and their domestic staff, were converted into boarding houses for eager workers. Certainly this move sounded a stay of execution for some of the grander houses on Macleay Street, Potts Point and Glebe Point Road, Glebe, but, one by one, they were pulled down until only a handful remain.

Woolloomooloo in the first part of the twentieth century must have been one of our most colourful suburbs. It certainly had a reputation for attracting the larrikin element and, just as often, the criminal. It had pimps, prostitutes and plenty of pubs. This dubious business and reputation was gradually handed over to neighbouring Kings Cross. The factories moved out too as rail and road became preferable to troublesome sea freight. This move also had an impact on the Loo as many maritime workers had relocated to the suburb when the finger wharf had been built between 1911 and 1914 as a wool-shipping wharf and then as the departure point for our WW1 soldiers.

In the second half of the suburb’s history some vandals in Macquarie Street decided to bulldoze most of the suburb to make way for low cost housing. What on earth were they thinking! Some of the old streets, houses and pubs remain but, sadly, far too much was lost, and that loss is Sydney’s loss.

Here’s a selection of songs and ditties about the ‘Loo

One of the most popular of the ‘Loo songs concerned how you spelt the suburb’s name. I’d heard half-remembered lines until I finally tracked down the complete song as published in the Imperial Songster No 104. The tongue-twister was written by Herbert Rule and I have collected several variants over the years. It must have been very popular.


Near Sydney Town there’s a place of renown,
Which is well known to you, it’s called Woolloomooloo,
It’s easy to say, I know very well,
But Woolloomooloo is not easy to spell.
Double U double O double L L double O
M double O L double O
Now make that a feature, and I’ll be the teacher,
Let everyone here have a go.

Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
Upon my word it’s true, that’s the way to spell Woolloomooloo,
I’ll bet a dollar there isn’t a scholar can spell it right first go
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO

To spell Woolloomooloo when you’ve had one or two
Then five times out of six you’ll get in a mix
The number of letters not everyone knows
There’s a double U three L’s an M and eight Os
The fun to be got out of this is a lot,
So do not forget it I pray,
If you have a mother, a sister, or brother,
Just try and get them to say –

Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
Upon my word it’s true, that’s the way to spell Woolloomooloo,
I’ll bet a dollar there isn’t a scholar can spell it right first go
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO

Sydneysiders liked parodies and here’s one set to the tune of ‘It’s A Long way to Tipperary’ sung by soldiers as they shipped out to WW1. The reference, of course, is that Woolloomooloo Wharf was the main point of departure for the infantry.

It’s a long, long way to Woolloomooloo
It’s a long, long way to go
Goodbye bully beef, oh,
Hooray cobbler square
It’s a long, long way to Woolloomooloo
But we ain’t goin’ there.

Another ‘how to spell’ song from 1880s ran:

A Legend of Woolloomooloo

I once went to Woolloomooloo,
For I thought that they spelt it untrue;
But I found ’twas the truth,
For a sweet little youth
Explained to me Woolloomooloo

He remarked, gentle friend, you must know,
“’Tis rather too full of the O
‘Tis too burdened with the L”
That is all he could tell
About the place Woolloomooloo

This next one comes from a monthly magazine titled ‘The Sydney Fun’ (Vol 1 No. 15, 1880) and described as a ‘Woolloomooloo Chant’. Butler’s Stairs run from the bottom of Brougham Street up to Victoria Street.

Johnny and Jane, Jack and Lou,
Butler’s Stairs to Woolloomooloo,
Woolloomooloo and ‘cross the Domain,
Round the block and home again.
Heigh ho tipsy toe,
Give us a kiss and away we go.

In the Tivoli Songster of 1901 I found a drinking toast:

Manly for oysters,
Balmain for shams,
Woolloomooloo for big feet,
Waterloo for dams.

In 1973 I recorded Mrs Susan Colley at the Bathurst Home for the Aged for my National Library Oral History Collection. She had been born in the 1890’s and remembered her father singing:


I happened to be born on a very frosty morn,
Quite contagious in the town of Woolloomooloo,
And it was in old Riley street, where folks first heard me bleat,
For at the time I’d nothing else to do.

When I grew up a lad I went straight into the bad,
And I soon became a most accomplished thief,
But the government was kind, they didn’t seem to mind,
For in Darlinghurst they granted me relief.

I was watched with constant care and they used to cut my hair,
And for six months I wasn’t allowed to roam,
But my visits I’ll renew twixt there and Woolloomooloo,
And in either place I’ll find a welcome home.

For my name it is McCarty, I came from the Old Darty,
My father drives a cart-y when ‘e’s nothing else to do,
But he is very lazy, always drunk and nearly crazy,
Gone wrong along with the boozing throng,
That loafs in Woolloomooloo.

Father he’d get tight and then mother and he would fight,
And ‘alf the time they used to spend in goal,
They were known to the police for they always broke the peace,
And not a soul would ever go their bail.