CARING FOR STATE HERITAGE – 37 LOWER FORT STREET 2019–20
From July 2019, a NSW Government grant is helping to fund the exterior repairs, restoration and renovation of number 37. For the next year, work on the site will be posted each month.
Before work on the front facade of number 37 could begin, the iron fence was carefully removed in preparation for its restoration. On close inspection, it was discovered that only part of the iron fence is original, with the same being true for its stone base.
With the iron fence safely removed, the front is ready for scaffolding. Meanwhile, interior timber restoration continues, with Nick the Joiner scarfing new Australian cedar into the damaged door frames on the first floor, making them ready for the new cedar doors he has manufactured to replace the old fire doors.
Demolition looked like it was going to be an easy task, but as Joseph, Rodney and Luka removed the front and back verandahs we realised how complicated it could be, especially when they took down the front verandah which was beside the footpath. In the end, both verandahs came down in a day and without incident, but glad I had not attempted to begin the demolition alone. The ways they used props and levers simplified the work enormously and made the entire process safe for both pedestrians and the building which we are hoping to keep intact.
HISTORY – 37 LOWER FORT STREET 2010–16
Number 37 was built as a merchant house and residence by Thomas Dyer Edwards and Matthew Dysart Hunter who were both in their early twenties at the time. Thomas had been an orphan in the southern English port town of Shoreham, so before his teens he sailed off for a life of adventure as a seaman, but later wrote ‘I took to the sea but the sea did not take to me.’ So he worked briefly on a Jamaican plantation but was dismayed by the colonial life there before heading to China where he hoped to stay, but he was not suited to the climate.
In 1833, slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the East India Company lost its trading monopoly over China, Edwards and Hunter arrived in Sydney from Canton to set up their trading company which soon controlled most of the China trade, and they built this house as their residence and headquarters. Their company which they named Edwards & Hunter, was closely aligned with China trading company Jardine, Matheson and Co., perhaps the most famous trading company in China at the time.
Throughout the 1830s, Edwards & Hunter flourished and new partners joined the firm and lived in Lower Fort Street, mostly in nearby houses. These new partners included Mashfield Mason, William Fane De Salis and John Thacker. By the early 1840s, Edwards had retired and returned with his family to England and Hunter returned to Scotland.
In 1855 the Campbell family purchased number 37. In 1858 it was rented to the Reverend Alexander Salmon who famously built a prefabricated iron church in Macquarie Street; in 1861 it was rented to the merchant Edward Frank; and in 1890 the tenants are wool sorter Philip Lee and newsagent W. B. Lee.
An outbreak of the Plague in 1903 provided a pretext for the government to resume the houses of Lower Fort Street and indeed the whole of Dawes Point, Millers Point and The Rocks. There were plans for new wharves and bond stores to the west of Lower Fort Street and a harbour crossing to the east. Some houses were demolished, flats were built for workers on some of the now-vacant land, and the houses that remained were rented out. Initially number 37 was rented to John Haroldson, and by 1910 to Alfred S. Carpenter.
From soon after the end of World War I number 37 became a ‘residential’ run by a succession of landladies who included Ethel Wilson (1925), Rose Shackel (1936), Florence Ann Dee (1956) and France Barwyck from 1957 to 1975, when it was extensively remodelled for the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists. The Radiologists left in the early 1990s and squatters moved in. The house was almost derelict when the government chose to sell rather than repair it. The current owners purchased it in 2009 and have begun restoration work.
RESTORING 37 LOWER FORT STREET 2010–16
During 2010–16 restoration has been underway at 37 Lower Fort Street. At the time it was expected work would conclude in 2017. Similar work has been undertaken throughout Dawes Point and Millers Point, as new owners repair the heritage houses that had been neglected for decades. Below is some of the work completed at number 37.
The entrance hall includes two original cedar fanlights. Both had suffered extensive damage, especially to the delicate glazing bars which are only 12mm wide. These are as fine as any made in the 19th century, and restoration was a slow and careful process.
The serpentine staircase on the ground floor had partially collapsed and needed major repairs to its supporting structure. Many of the treads and other details had been replaced with pine and even plywood. The original materials were reinstated and the staircase was put back together following traditional techniques.
In the basement, bulkheads covered air conditioning ducts, cement render covered half the walls, and a cement topping covered what was hoped were the original flagstones. Removing these recent renovations to the house filled the backyard several times over.
There were flagstones under the cement floor of the basement, but most needed redressing before being reinstated in their original positions. The cement render on the walls was removed, the bulkheads and the ducting were taken out, and the stone walls were repaired before being repointed with soft lime mortar. Now these preliminary works are complete, the rooms are ready to be fitted out.