At the beginning of the 20th century the government compulsorily acquired all private wharves, homes and commercial properties in the Rocks, Dawes Point and Millers Point. Modern and efficient wharves with dual level access were built. Nearly all of Millers Point west of Kent Street was demolished and whole streets disappeared as 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 Workers Flats of High Street. The photos below show these flats soon after they were built. The photo of the wharves in a similar style shows 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 show 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 did not occur until decades later when the old gas works on the waterfront were demolished and Hickson Road was connected to Sussex Street.
Most people still believe 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.)
Similar flats were built adjoining Victoria Row on Moore’s Road (now Dalgety Road). Below are the original drawings 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. This 1949 photo 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 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.
There are more of these workers’ flats in Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks that were part of the reconstruction of the area at the beginning of the 20th century. All are owned by Housing NSW. They are on one hand modest properties mostly without water views that should continue to be used as social and public housing. On the other hand, they are an integral part of the early 20th-century redevelopment of the waterfront in this area, that is still largely intact, and they continue to house people who have direct links to the maritime history of the area. Such an integrated development of workers’ housing, wharves and stores from the early 20th century appears to survive only here and nowhere else in the world, and when combined with the surviving houses of the 19th century that were built by and for the maritime community in the early years of the Colony, it is no wonder the area has been considered for World Heritage listing.
There is another way that these flats might be unique. Throughout the world, the modernist style of architecture largely developed through the design of workers’ flats such as these, but elsewhere most of these buildings have been demolished or refashioned into up-market apartments. Here they are still occupied by public and social housing tenants and have remained largely intact.
Since the early 20th century when these flats were built, there has been one more block of units built in the same tradition. The Sirius Apartments were built to accommodate the residents of the Rocks who fought to save their area from high-rise development. People like Nita McCrae joined with Jack Mundey and the BLF and in the 1970s the Green Bans saved this historic area from destruction. Now both the people and the buildings are under threat once more. Information about the Sirius Apartments and the NSW Government’s proposal to list it as an item of state significance are here.
In 2014 the government announced its plan to sell the grand old houses of Millers Point and Dawes Point. Many in the Millers Point community not only agreed with this but had been calling on the government to sell these houses as it had shown it was unable to look after them. The only demands from the community were that residents not be forced our of their homes and that some of the modest and purpose-built workers’ accommodation built throughout the 20th century be retained for public and social housing.
At the time, none of these workers’ flats had been sold, but many of the tenants who lived in them had been ‘relocated’ and about half of them were empty. There were rumours of developers acquiring a large number of these buildings as a result of an ‘unsolicited proposal’. It was thought possible the buildings could be described as being less important than the 19th-century houses of the area, leading to an application to demolish or retain only the facades of these unique buildings. A heritage report on some of the Windmill Street flats recorded almost all of the exterior, both front and rear, as being of exceptional heritage significance. This appears to have been enough to save the properties from inappropriate development.
In July 2015, Social Housing Minister Brad Hazzard visited the community and provided people with hope that the community would be saved, and that these Workers Flats would be retained for social housing. Soon after, the government, through its Heritage Branch, announced it had nominated the Sirius building for State Heritage Listing. The wording of the nomination placed great emphasis on the social dimension of Sirius – how it was built to house the people who lived in and were saving The Rocks through community action combined with the Green Bans of the BLF, how many of its inhabitants connected to the early maritime history of the area, and how the apartments reflected ideas of the time for providing social housing.
By September 2016, many of the public housing tenants were wondering why they had trusted Minister Brad Hazzard. Many of the Workers Flats had been sold, the heritage listing for the Sirius building has been refused, and Minister Hazzard wanted the remaining residents out and the 79-unit Sirius building so it could be replaced by 250 luxury apartments.
(Note: this article has been revised in early 2017.)
Below are links to stories about people living in these Workers Flats and the Sirius building…