AUSTRALIAN FOLKLORE UNIT  



The Folklore of Sydney project reveals Woolloomooloo’s surprising and colourful history


© Warren Fahey

It will come as a surprise to many readers that Woolloomooloo was once the most desirable suburb in Sydney. Forget Double Bay, Ashfield, Elizabeth Bay, and don’t even think about the north shore, for in the first half of the nineteenth century if you didn’t live in the ‘Loo, you were living in the dump. Woolloomooloo was the home of judges, merchant leaders, politicians and the rest of the hoi polloi. By all accounts it was quite a beautiful setting, close to a wonderful bay, in walking distance to the heart of the colony, and a mere stone’s throw to Government House. It was also a safe distance from the rowdy soldiers at Paddington and the even rowdier sailors in the Rocks. Grand houses were built, many with spectacular gardens, and, if one were inclined, it was considered relatively safe to engage in one of the popular sports of the day, pedestrianism. There were market gardens and, on the harbour shore of the Woolloomooloo bay, fresh fish were displayed and sold. In those days the bay offered sandy beaches and, sadly, unlike today, the fish were edible. Things changed in the second half of the century as better roads, if you could call them roads, better communication systems, and later gas and water supplies, encouraged people to move further out.

The city centre was fairly stinky in those days with brickworks, tanneries and either dust or mud creating general havoc. No doubt there was also a desire to get away from some of the more unsavoury locals, especially the city larrikins and their donahs. As homeowners moved out small factories moved in to take advantage of the suburb’s close proximity to the city centre and the surrounding seaports. The ports were crucial to the delivery of coal to fire up the mighty steam engines of that era. Labour was also important and alongside the factories came modest worker dwellings.

Woolloomooloo changed again near the end of the nineteenth century as the bulk of Australia’s population packed their ports and took up residence in the cities. Around the time of Federation, in 1901, our population balance changed, with more people living in the cities than bush. The great rural industries, especially sheep and cattle, had seen their heyday and were making room for factories and offices. Thousands of hopefuls flocked to Sydney and its inner suburbs, especially Glebe, Pyrmont, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo. It was around this time that many of the remaining grand homes came tumbling down to make way for squat terrace houses. Corner stores, cafes and drinking establishments were also built adding to the Loo’s changing character.
Some surrounding suburbs, particularly Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, appear to have upped their social status around this time. This was possibly because the Point was on an elevated position that allowed residents to look down on the rowdier residents of Woolloomooloo.

Despite this, many large houses, previously the residence of one family and their domestic staff, were converted into boarding houses for eager workers. Certainly this move sounded a stay of execution for some of the grander houses on Macleay Street, Potts Point and Glebe Point Road, Glebe, but, one by one, they were pulled down until only a handful remain today.
Woolloomooloo in the first part of the twentieth century must have been one of our most colourful suburbs. It certainly had a reputation for attracting the larrikin element and, just as often, the criminal. It had pimps, prostitutes and plenty of pubs. This dubious business and reputation was gradually handed over to neighbouring Kings Cross. The factories moved out too as rail and road became preferable to troublesome sea freight. This move also had an impact on the Loo as many maritime workers had relocated to the suburb when the finger wharf had been built between 1911 and 1914 as a wool shipping wharf and then as the departure point for our WW1 soldiers.

In the second half of the suburb’s history some vandals in Macquarie Street decided to bulldoze most of the suburb to make way for low cost housing. What on earth were they thinking! Some of the old streets, houses and pubs remain but, sadly, far too much was lost, and that loss is Sydney’s loss.

Here’s a selection of songs and ditties about the ‘Loo
One of the most popular of the ‘Loo songs concerned how you spelt the suburb’s name. I’d heard half-remembered lines until I finally tracked down the complete song as published in the Imperial Songster No 104. The tongue-twister was written by Herbert Rule.

Woolloomooloo
Near Sydney Town there’s a place of renown,
Which is well known to you, it’s called Woolloomooloo,
It’s easy to say, I know very well,
But Woolloomooloo is not easy to spell.
Double U double O double L L double O M double O L double O
Now make that a feature, and I’ll be the teacher,
Let everyone here have a go.

Chorus
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
Upon my word it’s true, that’s the way to spell Woolloomooloo,
I’ll bet a dollar there isn’t a scholar can spell it right first go
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
To spell Woolloomooloo when you’ve had one or two
Then five times out of six you’ll get in a mix
The number of letters not everyone knows
There’s a double U three L’s an M and eight Os
The fun to be got out of this is a lot,
So do not forget it I pray,
If you have a mother, a sister, or brother,
Just try and get them to say –

Chorus
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
Upon my word it’s true, that’s the way to spell Woolloomooloo,
I’ll bet a dollar there isn’t a scholar can spell it right first go
Double U double O L L OO M double O L OO
Another version offered:
I once went to Woolloomooloo,
For I thought that they spelt it untrue;
But I found ‘twas the truth,
For a sweet little youth
Explained to me Woolloomooloo

He remarked, gentle friend, you must know,
“’Tis rather too full of the O
‘Tis too burdened with the L”
That is all he could tell
About the place Woolloomooloo

 

Sydneysiders liked parodies and here’s one set to the tune of ‘It’s A Long way to Tipperary’ sung by soldiers as they shipped out to WW1.

It’s a long, long way to Woolloomooloo
It’s a long, long way to go
Goodbye bully beef, oh,
Hooray cobbler square
It’s a long, long way to Woolloomooloo
But we ain’t goin’ there.

 

This next one comes from a monthly magazine titled ‘The Sydney Fun’ (Vol 1 No. 15, 1880) and described as a ‘Woolloomooloo Chant’:

Johnny and Jane, Jack and Lou,
Butler’s Stairs to Woolloomooloo,
Woolloomooloo and ‘cross the Domain,
Round the block and home again.
Heigh ho tipsy toe,
Give us a kiss and away we go.

 

In the Tivoli Songster of 1901 I found a drinking toast:

Manly for oysters,
Balmain for shams,
Woolloomooloo for big feet,
Waterloo for dams.

In 1973 I recorded Mrs Susan Colley at the Bathurst Home for the Aged. She had been born in the 1890’s and remembered her father singing:

Woolloomooloo
I happened to be born on a very frosty morn,
Quite contagious in the town of Woolloomooloo,
And it was in old Riley street, where folks first heard me bleat,
For at the time I’d nothing else to do.

When I grew up a lad I went straight into the bad,
And I soon became a most accomplished thief,
But the government was kind, they didn’t seem to mind,
For in Darlinghurst they granted me relief.

I was watched with constant care and they used to cut my hair,
And for six months I wasn’t allowed to roam,
But my visits I’ll renew twixt there and Woolloomooloo,
And in either place I’ll find a welcome home.

(Chorus)
For my name it is McCarty, I came from the Old Darty,
My father drives a cart-y when ‘e’s nothing else to do,
But he is very lazy, always drunk and nearly crazy,
Gone wrong along with the boozing throng,
That loaf’s in Woolloomooloo.

Father he’d get tight and then mother and he would fight,
And ‘alf the time they used to spend in goal,
They were known to the police for they always broke the peace,
And not a soul would ever go their bail.


© Warren Fahey

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