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.
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.
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
He remarked, gentle friend, you must know,
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
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,
In the Tivoli Songster of 1901 I found a drinking toast:
Manly for oysters,
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:
When I grew up a lad I went straight into the bad,
I was watched with constant care and they used to cut my hair,
Father he’d get tight and then mother and he would fight,
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