MILLER’S POINT – A UNIQUE SLICE OF SYDNEY’S STORY
© Warren Fahey
On the arrival of the 11 ships of the First Fleet in 1788, their cargo of bedraggled transported convicts struggled ashore after a tortuous eight-month journey.
Sydney’s humble beginnings were that of a pathetic penal colony inhabited by 1300 disoriented convict rabble, their military keepers and families, and an equally desperate band of government officials. Many of the convicts were sent away to the western side of the settlement now known as The Rocks and Miller’s Point. Many of the male convicts were told to “Go away, make a life for yourself, build yourself a cottage if you can.”
I am often asked by overseas visitors if many Australians are descended from convicts.
During the convict era approximately 162000 males and 25,000 females were transported to Australia
The records show 83 per cent of convicts were male aged 15 to 30 and 75 percent were unskilled workers.
Seventy per cent were English; 24 per cent were Irish, and 5 per cent Scottish. The oldest was about 60 and the youngest 9.
Although 2 per cent were guilty of serious crimes such as murder or assault, the vast majority — 87 per cent of men and 91 per cent of women – were convicted of minor offences, particularly property crimes. These included stealing fish from a river or pond, embezzlement, receiving or buying stolen goods, setting fire to undergrowth or petty theft.
Let us drink a good health to our schemers above
Who at length have contriv’d from this land to remove
Thieves, robbers and villains, they’ll send ’em away
To become a new people at Botany Bay
There’s nightwalking strumpets who swarm in each street
Proclaiming their calling to each man they meet
They become such a pest that without more delay
Those corrupters of youth should be sent to the Bay
There’s monopolizers who add to their store
By cruel oppression and squeezing the poor
There’s butchers and farmers get rich in that way
But I’d have all such rogues sent to Botany Bay
There’s whores, pimps and bastards, a large costly crew
Maintain’d by the sweat of a labouring few
They should have no commission, place, pension or pay
Such locusts should all go to Botany Bay
The hulks and the jails had some thousands in store
But out of the jails are ten thousand times more
Who live by fraud, cheating, vile tricks and foul play
And should all be sent over to Botany Bay
(Incidentally. today America, founded by religious zealots as opposed to Australia by the transportation system, appears to be the loser as their homicide rate is 400%. higher than ours.)
Early in 1797, the first windmill in New South Wales was completed on what became known as Windmill Hill. Using convict labour 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. This brief slice of history is still echoed in the name ‘Millers Point’, the harbour landing where grain was unloaded. Legend, never the one to get in the way of a good story, has it that in 1826 Jack ‘the miller’ Leighton, an ex-convict, full of some of Sydney’s best (or worst) colonial booze, climbed the tallest of his three mills to look across the harbour, and fell to his death.
In 1803 Governor Hunter ordered a fort to be built on the site of Windmill Hill 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. The proposed fort would have had an excellent sight line down to what was known as ‘French Cove’, where the French ships were made to moor – so a watchful eye could be kept on them. 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. This hill became known as Flagstaff Hill.
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.
Plans for Sydney Observatory began as a simple time-ball tower, to be 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. It was soon agreed to expand the tower into a full observatory. After Federation in 1901, meteorological observations became a Commonwealth government responsibility, but astronomy remained with the states.
It was in the 1850s that Miller’s Point came alive with maritime activity. The port of Sydney was literally throbbing at ship after ship arrived with hopeful gold hunters. The world had heard about the 1851 discovery of gold nuggets and wanted some of the action. Sailing ships queued to berth in Sydney and often their passengers and sometimes most of their crew tumbled ashore with wild thoughts of ‘picking up lumps of gold on the streets’. The reality was far from it. As old-time prospector, Rad Dawson, told me is 1973 – “There was a hell of a lot of gold in Australia, and a bloody lot of earth mixed in with it!”.
Miller’s Point, hosting a number of working wharves, also had taverns, sailor’s pubs, cafes, boarding houses and some rather doubtful characters – all ready to take a ‘green new chum’ down. Many the would-be digger signed off his ship, slept overnight in a seedy boarding house and woke to find his savings gone with the ‘kindly soul who had met him at the dockside’.
Later ‘emigrant guide books’ advised travellers to shun all such guides who touted at the dock.
As gold petered out wheat, beef and wool became the new gold and Australia rode high on the cattle and sheep’s back right through until the 1890s. Miller’s Point was a hive of activity with worker’s accommodation, warehouses and commercial activity associated with this prosperous time. Life for the working class residents, mostly labourers associated with the maritime industries of Miller’s Point was not so prosperous and much of the area was looked down on as a slum.
After two cases of smallpox were reported in 1877 the Brisbane Courier Mail January announced:
‘The surrounding locality has been proclaimed ‘quarantined’ – in other words, a considerable number of the inhabitants of Miller’s Point has been shut out from communication with the rest of the city, and if by chance any person strays unobserved into the prescribed locality – but that is scarcely likely – he has to remain there. Although there are seven or eight infected inmates in the house at Miller’s Point, no other case has occurred yet, and the patient at the Quarantine Station is mending’
‘In January 1900 Arthur Payne, a van driver from Ferry Lane was the first person diagnosed with the Bubonic plague. This triggered a chain of events that would see the peninsula of The Rocks and Millers Point changed forever. Altogether 303 people contracted the disease and 103 people died from it. Although the death toll every year from other diseases such as typhoid and cholera were higher, the plague caused an unprecedented ‘alarm boarding on panic’. The government response was at first slow, perhaps because the shipping companies kept the large numbers of dead rats they were found around their wharves quiet for fear of injuring their businesses. They dealt with the problem by shovelling the rat carcases into the harbour. The City Council increased its rat catching but simple measures such as rat proofing ships ropes and drawing up gangplanks at night were not carried out. However, once the government decided to do something about the plague, its measures were intrusive and invasive.
Not only plague victims were taken to the Quarantine Station at North
Head, but also all those who had come into contact with them. This could include almost a whole street in the crowded inner city suburbs like The Rocks and Millers Point. The suspicion lived on.
Miller’s Point’s architecture grew in proportion to its maritime industries. It was not always well planned but definitely representative. It now features a unique picture of architecture from 1810 through to the 1930s. When plans for the Brisbane Railway Terminus were revealed in 1877 the Brisbane Courier Mail declared that they should avoid ‘the rookeries that grace Miller’s Point’. In 2003 Miller’s Point was officially listed in the State Heritage Register.
The suburb also claims a unique and rebellious social history including the birthplace of the two largest maritime unions.
The Sydney Wharf Labourer’s Union was formed in the fiery days of 1872 and the Federated Seamen’s Union of Australia was established in 1876. Two years later a bitter strike erupted when the Australasian Steam Navigation Company declared they would no longer use Australian labour and would only employ Chinese. The Chinese were to be paid 3 pounds whereas the Australians were paid 8 pounds. It was a bitter battle and eventually, the strike spread to other cities and also gained the support of the mining union. Another national strike erupted in 1900 and eventually supported the shearer’s strike of 1901 leading to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. But that’s another story……..
In 1902 the maritime unions combined to become the powerful Waterside Worker’s Federation under the leadership of that labour demon, Billy Hughes.
Hughes was elected as a socialist and unionist but, as history shows, he was a traitor to real labour and was eventually expelled from the party (over conscription) in 1916.
Many of the workers on the local wharves were Irishmen and Miller’s Point was often referred to as ‘Irish town’. The strikes usually created havoc in Miller’s Point with many families taking in boarders in an attempt to survive. The streets were overrun with street urchins and from the late 1870s onwards – that despised species ‘the larrikin’.
The Brisbane Courier Mail’s Sydney correspondent reported in March 1880:
A larrikin is rarely or never seen in daylight. Indeed, in most cases, it is only after dusk that he becomes a larrikin. During the day he is school-boy, office-boy, errand-boy, factory-boy, or butcher boy, and maintains this disguise with tolerable success until the shades of night have fallen. Beneath their friendly covert, he goes in quest of his fellows. A boy is merely a boy till he meets another. Then he becomes a larrikin. A similar peculiarity may be observed in cats. A cat, whose grave responsibility in the house and during the day makes it a privilege to know her, becomes a howling fiend at night in the society of her relations on the tiles. The pursuits of larrikins are various. At this time of the year, besides smoking in clumps at street corners, spitting on the pavements, insulting females – amusements which are always in season – they are busy with the fruit. In England it is called “robbing an orchard.” There are no orchards here. A colonial larrikin steals your fruit. This he will do at any peril, and in spite of the most sacred obligations of gratitude. A friend of mine thought to buy off the attentions of a band of larrikins established in Miller’s Point by presenting to them a box of oranges. They voted him a brick, and ceased forthwith to throw stones on the roof of his house, but his trees were stripped all the same. When the larrikin is fully grown he sometimes becomes a bushranger’
And Ambrose Pratt writing a decade later in “Blackwood’s Magazine”, July 1901:
Larrikins love dancing above all other human pleasures, and indulge the passion whenever they find opportunity. It is no uncommon thing, indeed, to see twenty young men lolling around the walls of their clubhouse watching one of their number waltz with a “donah” who has chanced to pass, and whose services have been requisitioned for the occasion. The girl will invariably dance without intermission, except for the purpose of changing her partner, to the music of a concertina, until she is weary, whereupon the men who have not been obliged waltz together, unwilling to remain entirely “out in the cold”.
Certain portions of Sydney—notably Miller’s Point, Woolloomooloo, Pyrmont, and parts of both Balmain and Leichhardt—have been for so many years regarded as lawless and disreputable suburbs, that even to this moment few respectable persons would dare to venture there after sundown.
Miller’s Point has also seen its disasters. In 1931 the Canberra Times reported.
DISASTROUS FIRE – BIG WOOL STORE DESTROYED – SPECTACULAR EARLY MORNING BLAZE -AMOUNT OF DAMAGE UNKNOWN
‘A blaze, which is reported to be the largest since the P.F.A. wool stores were gutted at Kirribilli some years ago, broke out at 3.45 this morning at Parbury’s bond and free stores at the corner of Dixon and Windmill Streets, Miller’s Point. The premises were also occupied by Callachor Bros., wool brokers. Two men leaving work on a vessel nearby saw a faint glow and gave the alarm, and soon every available brigade rushed to the scene. In the adjoining building were huge stocks of oil and only a desperate fight saved them from burning. Quantities of resin were on the second floor of theburning building and blazed furiously. Merchandise waiting release from bond was devoured by the flames. Many neighbours narrowly escaped death when the greater portion of the warehouse collapsed, taking with it the telephone electric wires. The fire boat, Pluvius, was summoned and poured water to the fire engines on central wharf. The roof collapsed early and great, tongues of flames shot up 51 feet into, the air, being visible for many miles. A two-storied wall in Windmill Street toppled into the street and sent the fire fighters hurrying. The building was completely gutted, and the damage cannot be estimated for some days.’
In the early 1900s Miller’s Point continued its radical history with many of its residents joining the International Workers of the World – the IWW believing it was the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism as they ‘fanned the flames of discontent’.
The ‘Wobblies’ anthem was ‘Solidarity Forever’
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater …anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.
For the union makes us strong.
The Sydney Twelve were members of the Industrial Workers of the World arrested on September 23, 1916 in Sydney, Australia, and charged with treason under an archaic law known as the Treason Felony Act (1848), arson, sedition and forgery. It was more about the government’s fear of the rise of socialism and communism where there were ‘reds under every bed’.
The Great Strike of 1917 gave the union movement an opportunity to flex its muscles. The general strike started in the NSW Railways workshops at Everleigh and Randwick over a new system to register the productivity of workers. (time and motion). The railway workers dropped tools and many unionists followed them. The strike lasted six bitter weeks and had some extraordinary twists.
CAUCUS “SECRETS” DIVULGED MORE EXPULSIONS LIKELY. Pledge to Release I.W.W. Men,
The New South Wales executive of the Australian Labor Party at a special meeting on Saturday afternoon, decided to expel all selected Labour candidates if they agree to sign the NSW Labour Councils pledge for the unconditional release of the twelve IWW men now undergoing long terms of Imprisonment. The executive of the ALP has been considerably perturbed by the alleged secret divulged by Mr P J Minahan, one of the elected candidates at a meeting at Millers Point. Mr Minahan declared that arrangements had been made by a section of the people to defeat the enforcement of conscription had the referendum been carried. He declared that had conscription been agreed to there would probably have been a republic Australia today.
ARGUS MARCH 1920 “PÍCKING-UP” DISPUTE. ACTION IN SYDNEY.
Men Leave Communist Hall.
-The high handed stand of the Seamen’s Union in connection with the ‘picking up’ dispute was carried a step further today when the Assembly Room was changed from the Communist Hall to the Coal Lumpers Rooms at the Mechanics Institute, Argyle place, Miller’s Point, without reference either to the Arbitration Court or the employers The decision was reached at a meeting of the union held this morning and was the result of pressure from members who objected to the Communist Hall because it was inconvenient.
ARGUS Nov 1925
It was during the Great Depression that Miller’s Point was hit the hardest. These were mean times and the maritime industries were brought to a standstill. It was not unusual to see men lining up for the soup kitchen hand out.
Up & Down the Hickson Road
In and out of the ‘Eagle’ (pawn shop)
That’s the way the money goes,
Half livin’ down in Sydney.
Those who had fought in WW1 were the most bitter.
My father despised Robert ‘Ming’ Menzies who he repeated ly referred to as ‘that rotten bastard Pig-Iron Bob’ – and my father was in scrap metal!
There were strikes too in 1949 when Lance Sharkey, chairman of the CPA was sentenced to 3 years for sedition. The Government kept getting further and further into this donnybrook and even sent the troops into the Maritime union to confiscate its finances – the unionists beat them to the money and it quickly disappeared.
(Parody on My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean)
Judge Kelly first asked for the money
Judge Kelly then asked for the key,
Dovey said: ‘Come, don’t be funny
Brig back that money to me.
Bring back, bring back,
Bring back that money to me.
Harry was a good friend of mine for several years. We often had Christmas lunch together and I was always fascinated with his stories about the wharfies at Miller’s Point. Harry was a firebrand wharf labourer and a great storyteller. Here’s a few of his stories and colloquial expressions.
A wharfie nicked off early from the job – the boss came down to ask ‘who’s missing?”
“Burke & Wills.” Came the dry reply.
“Okay” he says, “tell ’em they’re fired!”
The boss and his deputy were not the brightest men.
They were always referred to as ‘the close finish’
There was only a half head between them!
Two steel workers were celebrating one of their birthdays.
Jack said “here’s a toast to long life for you – Maybe you live to be 120 and three months.”
“So what’s the extra three months for?”
“Well, I wouldn’t like to see you die suddenly”
NICKNAMES OF SYDNEY WHARFIES
The undertaker – always sizing people up
Captain Sardine – he came from Norway
Alligator – always bites you for a loan
Barrister – spends most of his time at the bar
Singlets – was never off the worker’s backs
Judge – always sitting on a case
Surgeon – a boss how was always out to knife some one
Doug the Dog – used to call everyone Pal
Preserved peaches – always in the can
All suburbs have a story to tell – these have been a few from Miller’s Point.