By 1900, the wharves of Millers Point had developed haphazardly, the lack of an overall plan had created an unhealthy precinct where one substandard and unsanitary wharf could affect others nearby. After one hundred years, the wharves were no longer adequate, especially as the focus of trade moved towards wool, and great new warehouses were needed. An outbreak of plague provided the impetus for the government to take control, not only of the wharves but also of all homes and commercial properties in the area.
The government renewed the wharves, built new roads along the shoreline and planned a bridge across the harbour to the north shore. It erected bond stores and warehouses, and provided new housing for maritime workers. Even the names of places changed. Moore’s Road became Dalgety Road, and it led no longer to Moore’s Wharf but to Dalgety & Co.’s.
Crown Road and the carriageway of Victoria Terrace, both named around 1837 when Victoria ascended the throne, disappeared, and soon the grand marine villas to which these roadways led were also gone – Victoria Cottage and Moorcroft in the centre and right of the photo above were demolished and only Talbot’s townhouses at the left survive. Continuing around the point, Spencer Lodge, Kelso Villa, Darley Villa and Jones’ townhouses came down, as did Albion House and the last of the post-mills that had given the area its name – Millers Point. (The section of the 1875 Holtermann panorama near the top of this page shows the marine villas and wharves of Millers Point with the original Pyrmont Bridge in the background. Click on the image to enlarge it.)
Millers Point was being transformed. Modern, efficient wharves with dual-level access replaced the privately owned wharves. Before 1900, there had been access to the harbour from streets that ran parallel to the shoreline – Lower Fort Street, Windmill Street and Kent Street. These access ways disappeared as new roadways to service the new wharves were carved out of the rock face. West of Kent Street, rock was excavated to a depth of twenty metres to form Hickson Road, and above it were built the Workmen’s Flats of the High Level Road.
At the top of this page is a 1903 map of Millers Point and below is a map about fifty years later, by which time Lower Fort Street, Windmill Street and Kent Street had been cut off from the harbour by Hickson Road and Millers Point divided from The Rocks by the Harbour Bridge approaches.
The photos below show the Workmen’s Flats of the High Level Road (High Street – designed 1909, constructed 1911–17). Other Workmen’s Flats were built on Dalgety Road, Munn Street, Lower Fort Street and Windmill Street. Further below is a photo of the wharves in a similar style, showing how these flats were an integral part of the redevelopment of the wharves and storehouses, and the photo from one bridge to the next in the middle of High Street shows the massive amount of excavation beneath these newly-built bridges that was required to form Hickson Road. This road was created to provide good access to the new wharves, but this was not fully realised until decades later when the old gas works on the waterfront were demolished and Hickson Road was connected to Sussex Street.
There is a common misconception that this redevelopment can be attributed entirely to an outbreak of plague in 1900, with the government acting benevolently as it demolished homes as well as wharves, and not for the last time decimated a community, while presenting their actions as ‘slum clearance’:
‘To outside observers, the lives and values of the working-class denizens of the “slums” were as alien as those of the Chinese or the Indians. The term was used pejoratively to describe a way of life and a group of people utterly unknown to the people who used it… The plague outbreak united two fears held by many people: fear of the slums and fear of “Asiatics”.’ (from The Rocks and Millers Point chapter, pages 5–27 of Harvey Volke’s PhD thesis, The Politics of State Rental Housing in NSW 1900–39: Three Case Studies.)
Below are the original drawings for the Workmen’s Flats built on Victoria Terrace above Moore’s Road (Dalgety Road). Below are for these flats and an early photo. Notice that the roadway that became Dalgety Road is being constructed simultaneously.
Below is a photo of the first ship docking at Dalgety’s new wharf. Note the architectural style of this wharf is similar to the workers flats as all were part of the same reconstruction.
Around the corner at Dawes Point, the same massive reconstruction occurred in the early years of the 20th century. The rockface was carved away to construct Hickson Road, and bridges provided dual-level access to the new shoresheds and wharves of Walsh Bay. The other major aspect of this redevelopment was the building of the Harbour Bridge and its approaches, and between these redevelopments was left a narrow strip of the grand old houses of Lower Fort Street, now perched on top of a cliff face, and now owned by the Harbour Trust and run as ‘residentials’ for waterside workers. The 1949 photo below is from the NSW Archives. Note the architectural style of the shore sheds which is similar in style to many of the other flats designed by the Government Architect and Sydney Harbour Trust as part of the redevelopment of the area.
A fine example of these flats were the Workmen’s Dwellings on Lower Fort Street designed by Government Architect Walter Vernon in 1910. Below are photos of these flats and Vernon’s original drawings.
These Workmen’s Flats are an integral part of the early 20th-century redevelopment of the waterfront in this area, that is still largely intact. Such an integrated development of workers’ housing, wharves and stores from the early 20th century appears to survive here and nowhere else in the world. Since this development overlaid an existing maritime development, but did not entirely erase it, Millers Point became a place where both the community and buildings were able to tell the stories that explain how our city developed from its beginnings until now.