My father was English, came out here in the Depression years when I was born, or earlier than that I suppose, and he was a seaman. When mum and dad got married he was a coal lumper and that is what you had to be to live in this area in those times, anything associated with the waterfront. Then he joined the Army and went to the war, came back and went back to the waterfront. He died as a result of an accident on the wharves back in 1953. (quote from Millers Point Oral History Project)
Flo has lived in Millers Point all her life. In March 2014 she was told she must move out because the government wants to sell her house. She does not want to leave. A government Relocation Officer has been assigned to assist her.
Flo’s father was an English seaman. He married Flo’s mother, found work on the local wharves along what was becoming known as the Hungry Mile, and the family moved into a house in Millers Point that was owned by the Sydney Harbour Trust, which soon became Maritime NSW.
The family’s circumstances were not unusual. Maritime was both employer and landlord for nearly everyone in this part of Sydney. Thirty years earlier the government had resumed the privately owned wharves to rebuild them as modern, clean and efficient Walsh Bay, and while they were at it, they also resumed all the privately owned residences, demolishing some in the name of slum clearance, and replacing these with purpose-built accommodation for waterside workers. But Maritime retained most of the existing housing stock it had acquired, the larger houses becoming boarding houses, mostly for single men, and the smaller properties rented out to families of waterside workers like Flo’s.
Money was tight during the Depression, and there wasn’t always work for her father, but Flo can remember her parents saying when times are tough, always pay your rent, because someone will feed you. It was good growing up in a community where people knew and looked out for one another, but residents also felt a strong sense of mutual obligation towards the local employer and landlord, Maritime NSW.
The wharves around Millers Point were busy throughout the Second World War, first as major embarkation point for Australians soldiers, and then providing port facilities for American ships during the war for the Pacific. Flo remembers, “When the Japanese came into the harbour my mother said many people left, but many others stayed. My mother said, ‘Whatever’s going to be is going to be.’ There was a strong community that we had.”
After the war Flo attended high school at Fort Street Girls High on Observatory Hill. It seems she worked well enough at school, but the stories she tells are about meeting boys. Most Saturday nights Flo and her friends would catch the tram to the pictures, meeting boys without the scrutiny of neighbours, and always they would leave the boys in town, catching the tram to arrive back in Millers Point before eleven. About this time Flo started work at Joyce Shoes, “up near Grace Bros at Broadway, where I was learning to be a machinist when a needle went in my finger, so I went to work in Bushells instead, which was down the end of the street so I didn’t have to pay fare. I put my age up, because for the work I was doing the senior girls were getting more money.”
Lots of people from Millers Point worked at Bushells, but it was Teddy from Lakemba who caught Flo’s eye. Ted and Flo started going out, and by 1952 they were married. Teddy went to work on the wharves and soon Flo and Ted had their own home and family to bring up in Millers Point.
Ted was one of the first arrested, along with Jack Mundey, when the Green Bans and community action saved the area from the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority’s plan to demolish the buildings and scatter the people of The Rocks and Millers Point. It was not the first time the government had such a plan for the area, and not the last time. (For various reasons, the government has attempted to evict the community in the 1900s, the 1970s, 1989 and 2014.)
Ted worked on the wharves all his working life, and by the end of it, maritime activity was moving from Sydney Harbour to Port Botany, and Millers Point was changing. The wharves of Walsh Bay closed, soon to be refurbished as a residential and cultural precinct, and more recently, around the point (the name of which the government almost succeeded in changing from Millers Point to Barangaroo Point), the wharves of Cockle Bay are being rebuilt as a new financial district for Sydney.
The population of Millers Point was changing too. When shipping moved out of the area, Maritime NSW transferred all the residential property to Housing NSW which began moving in people who had no connection with the maritime history of the area. Soon after acquiring the properties, Housing attempted to evict many of the long-term residents, but community action and Green Bans put a stop to that, and for the most part, residents and Housing rubbed along together OK.
Millers Point was no longer a tight-knit maritime community. The local waterfront work was gone, and the children of most long-term residents moved elsewhere when they grew up. This is what happened to Flo and Ted’s children, but Flo and Ted opted to stay where they were, paying the rent that was asked and never querying it.
Housing NSW was unwilling or unable to maintain many of the houses it had acquired in Millers Point. They could have looked after the purpose-built workers’ terraces and flats, but they were having trouble with earlier and more fragile heritage buildings that were constructed as far back as the 1820s. They appeared to be frozen into inaction. Houses were emptied and left vacant for years, and many were left to become victims of what was named in the offices of Housing NSW as the Termite Highway. There were about fifty empty houses when the government began selling off the most dilapidated and most important heritage properties about five years ago.
There were two surprising things that happened in relation to all these empty houses. The first is that as these properties were sold, the new residents who bought them have been welcomed into the community. The second is that none of the houses has been vandalised or stripped of heritage doors and fireplaces. The community still feels an obligation to look after these properties. However, the task of watching over the empty houses is becoming too great for the residents. There are too many. The government has cleared out almost one in three houses, boarded some up, put security on a few, but has sold very few. Perhaps they want to make the area appear almost uninhabitable. Not sure what this is about.
But back to Flo’s story. Flo and Ted continued to live happily in their house up until Ted passed away in 2014. They had been married more than sixty years. The day after Flo buried Ted, Pru Goward made an announcement about the future of Millers Point and Flo was given a letter titled Moving to your New Home. The government was moving out every public housing tenant and selling off every residential building they own in Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks.
Flo has not yet read her letter from Housing, and she says she won’t. She meets with her Relocation Officer, but all she can tell Housing is that she does not want to leave.
JUNE 2016 UPDATE
For more than two years Flo has been under threat of being forced out of Millers Point. She has had Minister Brad Hazzard to morning tea and visited him at NSW Parliament. He appeared to say Flo could stay in Millers Point, but recently Housing NSW has offered to relocate her to a flat far from Millers Point. If there is a second offer, this would make it possible for Housing NSW to commence the eviction process for Flo, just as it has for many other Millers Point residents.
Below are some of Flo’s family photos…
The first photo is one that still hangs in the Hero of Waterloo. The man at the bar is Flo’s father, Tom, who was described at the time as the best looking man in Millers Point.
Flo attended the local Fort Street School. In her 1941 class photo she is in the middle of the third row.
A photo by a Martin Place street photographer (Flo is in centre, her brother beside her).
Flo has lived at 48 Argyle Place for more than 30 years, and for the 30 years before that she was in a terrace in Cumberland Street where the Shangri-la Hotel now stands; she lived there with her husband Ted when he had a job on the waterfront. From the age of 7 until she was 19 she lived in Harrington Street where her mother lived until moving into Sirius. Before then, until the age of seven, Flo lived in 57 Lower Fort Street. Walton’s photo shows the rear of houses starting at number 57 at the left in about 1935, and those sitting outside include another brother and ‘the sailor’, a long-term tenant in the house.
Below are Flo with her mother in 1980 outside her mother’s house in Harrington Street, The Rocks. The house was demolished to build the Four Seasons Hotel. Flo’s mother moved to Sirius in 1980 when it opened and lived there until she was 97. People living in Sirius at the time remember Flo visiting her mother every day and bringing her meals. When Flo’s mother passed away, Maureen moved into her unit.
The NSW Government believes Flo’s home in Argyle Place is too valuable to allow her to continue living there. Minister Brad Hazzard says he wants the money from selling all the heritage houses owned by the government in Millers Point. The Millers Point community also proposed this, but in ways that allowed long-term residents to remain in their community. For more than two years Flo has said she would move to Sirius tomorrow. A year ago we thought Premier Mike Baird would look at the Sirius Foundation’s proposals for saving Sirius, retaining a portion of it for social housing and delivering a windfall profit to the government, but all approaches so far have been met with silence.