Sydney Expands

How Sydney has grown

This is a quick potted history of the early groth of Sydney. I have big plans for this page, but not today! For now, use what is here, or look at the information on the history page and also on the environment page.

Convict Sydney

One of the things stressed to every tourist is that Sydney began life as a penal colony, and most of our "first settlers" were convicts. If it is any comfort, the same "facts" are rammed down Australian throats as well. Every "historical" mini-series seems to include a couple of convict floggings and assorted felonry felonialising away in a suitably felonious manner. Go to any tourist trap, and you will see the same thing. AVOID places that go in for nonsense like that, because they are Disneyfied.

This probably explains the attitude of a particularly supercilious type of English person who suggests that colonials must be expected to be peculiar, being the descendants of prison scum. This line used to be well-countered by a certain writer's grandmother, who would assure such people in tones of horror that she would have no wish to visit England as "that is where all the convicts come from".

In truth, the convict blood is highly diluted these days, but don't believe all that romantic nonsense about how the convicts were sent out for "stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family". Our convicts were generally the scum of the earth, the recidivists, the habitual criminals who infested English and Irish gaols in those days. They were not nice people to know. True, there were a few "political" convicts, but these were a distinct minority. (By the way, we have convicts in our family, for what that is worth.)

The main advantage the criminal convicts had in coming here is that they were forced to learn new skills, and they were separated from their old companions. Some of them hated the new skills, and found new companions, worse than the old ones, but many of them ended up more or less respectable, producing families of lawyers, politicians and other society leaders. The rest of them rose in the world.

Governor Phillip, bust near the MCA on Circular Quay. (left) Governor Phillip, bust near the MCA on Circular Quay.

The First Fleet arrived in 1788, and after a few days at Botany Bay, which they could see would not work (no water supply, poor harbour, appalling sandy soil), Arthur Phillip, the first governor, began a settlement at Sydney Cove instead. The soil was almost as bad, but then they found some better soil near Parramatta, and with food coming in from Norfolk Island, the colony survived.

Convict transportation continued for about fifty years, and the use of convict labour continued for some time after that, but it became less necessary with time. The Irish famines, the clearances in the Scottish Highlands, the various European upheavals in the 1840s, and the discovery of gold in 1851 were all useful sources of free immigrant labour.

Governor Macquarie, statue, Macquarie Street. (right) Governor Macquarie, statue, Macquarie Street, Sydney, in the grounds of Parliament House.

In simple terms, 1788 to 1810 was the period in which Sydney was established, and 1810 to 1820 was the time when it was made elegant, due mainly to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Francis Greenway (a convicted forger and finme architect). By 1821, towards the end of Macquarie's time, there were 31 045 white people in Sydney, of whom just 12 235 were convicts. Never again would the convicts make up such a large peoportion of our population.

You can see Sydney's convict heritage best at Hyde Park Barracks, first built as accommodation for convicts, in Argyle Cut in The Rocks, and on the Great North Road.

Over the Mountains

Macquarie was still governor when the first official white group crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813, opening up the interior of New South Wales for exploitation. By the time Macquarie left the colony in 1821, white settlers were spread right across the plains on the other side of the mountains.

The next thirty years, until the gold rushes, were mainly a period of slower growth for Sydney as settlers pushed out into the outback, though most of their produce left the colony through Sydney. This was the time of the squatters, when large tracts of land were seen to be there for the taking, when you simply went and "squatted", but a squatter, in this context, was very much a person of substance, not a member of the new urban poor, like the people that we call squatters today.

When later "battlers" came along, there was no land left for them, and so "selection" was allowed, where a selector could select land from that which was unimproved, even though it was being squatted upon. Many who came to dig for gold became selectors, while others drifted to Sydney to form part of the growing industry of the colonial capital. It is possible that gold brought the rapid change which saw the colonies getting a significant amount of slef-government, with universal male suffrage: the vote went to all British males over the age of 21.

Sydney Grows

The population of Sydney grew rapidly, as you can see:

1851 54 000
1861 96 000
1871 137 000
1881 237 000
1891 400 000
1911 630 000
1933 1 200 000
1947 1 500 000
1961 2 000 000
1971 2 936 000
1977 3 168 000
1981 3 280 000
1987 3 528 000
1993 3 719 000
1999 4 000 000

Today, much of Sydney's recent growth is happening outside of Sydney, in the Illawarra, in the Blue Mountains, and on the Central Coast. If it were not for the ring of National Parks around Sydney, there would be a risk of Sydney spreading to absorb both Wollongong and Newcastle.

For much of the time, Sydney grew slowly, compared with Melbourne. Melbourne had more gold, and so Melbourne had the larger population. When the gold ran out though, Sydney had the industry and the port facilities. Slowly, Sydney drew level and then drew ahead, leaving Melbourne as the second greatest city in Australia. The stage was set for massive inter-colonial jealousy and bickering. Self-government came in slow stages, starting with a Legislative Council that advised the Governor, and ending with a bicameral (upper and lower houses) State Parliament, located in Macquarie Street. At this point (2006), Sydney is stagnating slightly, mainly thanks to a taxation system which sees a federal government spitefully taking money from New South Wales, and squandering it in Western Australia and Queensland, two states where the economies are booming.

Colonial Government

William Bligh, statue near Circular Quay. Statue of William Bligh, located near the MCA. I need to go back for an early morning shot, to catch his face.

Before self-government, there was just the Governor, appointed from London, consulting a small number of advisers. In the first instance, these governors were Royal Navy men, until the unfortunate William Bligh. Best known for his Bounty adventure, Bligh had suffered another mutiny in Sydney, when a gang of power-hungry army officers staged the "Rum Rebellion".

On the surface, the rebellion was about the right to sell rum, but it was also about power and who would hold it. Perhaps some bright spark in Whitehall realised that rebellion by the army would be less likely with an army governor, but whatever the reason, the governors since then have mostly been drawn from the army, although the most recent military incumbents have served their time in the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Australian Navy.

The governor is now a mainly ceremonial person, and has no real power. The present incumbent is Professor Marie Bashir.

The names of the various colonial governors are scattered around all over the map, especially in street names. Phillip Street and Port Phillip, King Street, Hunter Street, and Hunter River, Bligh Street, Macquarie everything, the city of Brisbane, the Darling River, Fort Bourke, now the town of Bourke . . . the list goes on and on.

The reason is easy enough to understand: explorers were sent out by the government (i.e., the governor), and what easier way to win favour than to name something after The Boss?

Sydney's Defences

Dawes Point, Sydney, at the foot of the Harbour Bridge. Fort Denison. Pictures:
(left) Dawes Point, Sydney, at the foot of the Harbour Bridge, where Fort Dawes once was.
(centre) Fort Denison, on the island formerly known as Pinchgut.

Once Sydney had become a substantial town, people started to fear for their safety in the face of an enemy attack. Fort Dawes (also called Dawes' battery) near the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Fort Phillip in Observatory Park and Fort Macquarie where the Opera House is now, had protected Sydney Cove, but that was all. The rest of the city was unprotected, and that just wasn't good enough for the influential people who lived out of the city.


Bare Island fort, Botany Bay. Bare Island fort, Botany Bay. Even Botany Bay was protected. These two shots show Bare Island fort, on the northern shore of Botany Bay, near Laperouse. They were taken on a walk around Cape Banks.

Fort Denison was established on Pinchgut, where there had been a small battery even earlier, and guns and fortifications were placed at various times at Bradley's Head, Middle Head, North Head and South Head, laying the foundations for today's Sydney Harbour National Park.

By the end of World War II, the idea of defending Sydney with artillery was out-of-date, but the military took a long time to realise this. All through the post-war land boom, the military hung on to their real estate. By the time they realised that they had no need of the land, our values had changed, and we got our park, neatly distributed parcels of peace and tranquility, all around the harbour. So even pacifists would have to agree that the military mind does have its advantages, after all!

Sydney Gets a Suburban Sprawl

From the 1880s on, Sydney has passed through a series of "booms and busts", prosperity alternating with depression. In part, this accounts for the way in which the city has grown, with development usually outstripping facilities. While there is public transport to most areas, it usually follows development, so that it now arrives in areas where people already have cars, and where two-car families are more and more common.

As work-home distances grew longer and longer, so people had to spend more and more time commuting, and weekend holiday resorts became dormitory suburbs. In the last fifteen or twenty years, a process of "gentrification" has occurred, with the working class areas of the inner city being taken over by the middle classes, forcing housing prices up in Paddington, Glebe, Balmain and their surrounds, and forcing the lower-paid workers out. The inner suburbs have become "trendy".

One effect of this trend is that while the populous outer suburbs demand better roads into the city, the vocal and well-organised inner city residents fight the road proposals, realising that their property values will be affected.

This file is, first created on March 14, 2006. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on October 11, 2006. This page is now effectively complete.

© The author of this work is Peter Macinnis. You are free to point at this page. Copies of this page or set of pages may be stored on PDAs or printed for personal use. You can't contact me at, but if you add my first name to the front of that email address, you can -- this is a low-tech way of making it harder to harvest the e-mail address I actually read.
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