What is heritage in Millers Point?


The NSW Government is saying its properties in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks are no longer suitable for public housing. Not even the Sirius building completed in 1980 is suitable, and the government wants it demolished. But this is not the only heritage in the area that is under threat, as Shirley Fitzgerald explains.

On the first anniversary of the announcement to evict all public housing tenants from Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks, former Historian for the City of Sydney Shirley Fitzgerald spoke at NSW Parliament.

Shirley Fitzgerald’s Presentation

‘Millers Point today. Woolloomooloo tomorrow. Glebe. Ultimo. Pyrmont. Surry Hills. And so on. There are pockets of public housing everywhere. Public housing that helps to make for a good city that works… So, sell them. For a quick and dirty profit today and pile up social problems for tomorrow. When we’ve achieved a completely socially segregated city where there isn’t any affordable housing in any neighbourhood which commands high land prices then we will really have problems. Social problems. Human problems. Environmental sustainability problems as the rich clog up the centre and the workers travel from the outer areas to service these inner areas. And right now, where is the government’s accounting of the immediate social costs of breaking up the Millers Point community in the unnecessarily cruel way it is being done?

‘We have mentions of substitute housing elsewhere in the inner city but no promises. And rumours of further sell offs down the track. Others will talk about all this. My role here is to say something about the heritage issue.

‘What is heritage? We tend to think of it as ‘old stuff that we like.’ Buildings. Places. It is these things but it is far more. Heritage is what explains our past to us, and that includes far more than just the physical fabric of places. The State Heritage Register lists places that are protected under the heritage legislation. It lists things against a complex range of criteria: historical, aesthetic, social, research potential, rarity, degree of intactness – the list goes on. Significance can arise from who the people are and what the communities represent.

‘So forget definitions that are just about buildings. There are dozens of buildings on the State Register in Millers Point but there is also a listing for the ‘Millers Point Conservation Area’ (1999). This listing is not for this or that building in Millers Point but for the totality of the place. And ‘place’ is defined as its social fabric along with the physical fabric.

A heritage listing under the Heritage Act gives preservation some teeth. But it is a sad truth that heritage listings get updated – i.e. watered down – and when they do it is really hard to find official references to older listings. It is rumoured that the Heritage Council will have to review the Millers Point Conservation Area listing because it will be wrong once the government has kicked out all the public tenants. It was reported in the Herald at the time of the announcement of the sell off that the conservation guidelines would also be reviewed to put in place a heritage strategy that would ‘interpret’ the period of public housing. It will need ‘interpreting’ because we will no longer have it as a reality. Could anything be more cynical?

‘I have a reference to the 2003 listing of the significance of Millers Point as a ‘living cultural landscape’ with ‘an unusually high and rare degree of social significance’. Social significance. I cannot find this in the current listing. Even so, this is what the Heritage Register said when I last looked at it this morning. [day of the screening in Parliament House, 19 March 2015]:

‘There are many paragraphs, including:

1.3 Its demonstrative capacity is heightened by [building listings] and by the experiences and memory of its long term community.

1.4 Its public housing …and its development into a Government corporate town were probably the first such developments in Australia (apart from first settlement) and may be of international significance.

3.3 [refers to ]… a pioneer programme of public housing and social improvement, demonstrated by development of a company port town by the Sydney Harbour Trust. This encompassed construction of purpose designed workers’ housing and support services.

6.1 Its unity, authenticity of fabric and community, and complexity of significant activities and events make it probably the rarest and most significant historic urban place in Australia.

‘I’m reading all this to get it on the record before it too all disappears if the listing gets ‘modified’. I’m not a lawyer, but there is a Heritage Act and the Millers Point Conservation Area is a state significance listing under that act. And its listing unequivocally includes its significance as public housing and as community. It reads to me as though the government is in contravention of the law.

‘They are trashing Millers Point. Not the physical fabric, maybe. But the community, the rarity. Of course they are. This government does not want to be reminded of a time when governments undertook great public works for the public good. The Labor opposition mouths allegiance to a great social housing heritage and genuflects to people like Jack Mundey and Tom Uren, but promise little and fight for less.

‘That quaint old thing called public housing. Governments in the early 20th century understood that you had to have a place for workers to live in the city. They were motivated by ideas of what makes a city work efficiently as much as by ideas of the welfare state – these were and remain good ideas and they are ideas that leave for dead the current sterile ideas about maximising the bottom line.’


In its November 2015 Development Application, LAHC (formerly Housing NSW) cites “non-compliance” of its boarding houses as a reason for relocating the community, effectively rewarding itself for allowing these houses to fall into disrepair.

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10 Responses to What is heritage in Millers Point?

  1. JohnD 2 July 2015 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks Annie. Yes, one day we might redesign the site with black on white text. It was locked in this way at an early stage. Meanwhile, if you copy and paste text, most programs (including mail programs) will let you change the text to black — just scroll over and choose colour options.

  2. Margaret Mazlin 7 August 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    Excellent article. My family have a strong link to this area. They helped people in difficult times from the Big House.
    Where are low income earners supposed to go? Why is Sydney Harbour only for the rich?

  3. JohnD 1 December 2015 at 7:27 am #

    In a Development Application to prepare its Millers Point properties for sale, the NSW Government disclosed it is preparing ‘onsite interpretation of the social values and “living history” approach consistent with other heritage areas’ after moving people out, which is having only a minor negative impact because properties are vacated ‘due to non-compliance’.

  4. JohnD 1 December 2015 at 7:46 am #

    Tony Prescott wrote, ‘Good to see my old mate Shirley still batting for the point. I prepared the heritage listing for Millers Point back in the 90s in Planning and did a further report for Housing later. It was always a battle against those in both sides of politics who just wanted to get money for it and push the residents out. It was also undermined by the Walsh Bay and other developments where buildings were lost or ruined one by one, and now I see Barangaroo is adding to the denial of history. I wrote many of those words Shirley quoted and I’m afraid I always anticipated that one day greed would prevail and that they’d try to erase all the work on the suburb’s significance. If the words are erased from the official record I’m sure I’ve still got them in my garage somewhere! Good luck. It wore me out fighting that lot and I hope there’s plenty of younger and fresher blood to keep up the fight. Millers Point and its community are unique in Australia. Without it Sydney will be poorer and more mediocre as a city.’

  5. taxpayer 4 December 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    These people have wrecked public housing and should not have been given alternative accommodation.
    Too lazy to even put a coat of paint on their taxpayer funded property.

    • JohnD 4 December 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      If you watch the preview of the documentary, you will see that it is Housing and the government that are wrecking these properties by neglect and by tearing down essential parts of buildings. Many members of the community have extensively refurbished their homes at their own expense. You must have been watching some rubbish media reports about public housing tenants somewhere else in the country. Sue, you should look at the documentary then let us know what you think.


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