There’s no doubting Surry Hills’ colourful history and down the years those colours have gone from shades of green to murky browns and blood red to the bright palette on show today.
It’s hard to believe that in the early days of European settlement that the suburb we know as Surry Hills was considered quite a distance from town. It was never prime grazing land – pretty much it was sandy, swampy or clay – but the colony needed food and 105 acres of land was granted to Captain Joseph Foveaux (who still has a street named after him) and he called it ‘Surrey Hills Farm’. Sounds prettier than it would have been in reality.
To the east of Foveaux’s property was George Farm, some 90 acres granted to another colonial high-flier, John Palmer (he also has a street named after him). Circumstances changed in 1808 when the Rum Rebellion resulted in Governor Bligh being overthrown. Palmer made the not-so-smart move of backing Bligh and Foveaux ended up running the colony after Bligh was toppled.
Palmer lost his official positions and remunerations and had to sell the farm to pay his debts. This saw the start of the shambolic spread of inner city Sydney suburbs – his acreage was divided into parcels of 5 to 13 acres and roads appeared without planning or foresight. As well as smaller market gardens, industries popped up – stone quarries, brick kilns, woodcutters, turf cutters and a brewery (1826). The area would also become home to Sydney’s rag trade.
A village was evolving and by 1849 the whole of Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo combined had 800 houses. Ten years later this had grown to 1900 houses and by the 1890’s there were some 5300 dwellings. People were living in long rows of two-storey Victorian terrace houses. As a student I lived in one of these houses, attached on both sides… two bedrooms upstairs, two rooms down, a small kitchen, smaller bathroom, outside toilet, tiny little yard with rear lane access (once for the ‘night carter’ before flushing toilets). These were great for two or three struggling students in a community of like-minded folk but in the 1890’s it would have been so different.
Around 30,000 peoples were crammed into the suburb in the 1890’s (compared to 12,000 in the 1970’s)…families had to be raised in these houses, during a depression with high unemployment, poor infrastructure and health issues. In short it was a dingy slum… and around the turn of the century extreme poverty meant that it was more about surviving than ‘living’. For many, the choice was one of two ‘c’s – charity or crime. Gangs emerged and by 1923 one part of Surry Hills was described by the Sun newspaper as a “haven and a stronghold for some of the most desperate and dangerous criminals that police could recall.” One of those criminals was Kate Leigh.
The place remained fairly sleazy during WWII and it was still known pretty much as a ‘slum’ right up until the 1970’s. There had been unsuccessful public housing projects and while post-war migration breathed life into the suburb, the influx of hard-working Lebanese, Greek, Italian and Portuguese families didn't lift the profile much. This was before mainstream Australia embraced multiculturalism. In 1970, 70% of students at Bourke Street Public School were migrants or had migrant parents.
Gradually, rather than suddenly, the suburb became much sought after as a cosmopolitan, residential suburb. While real estate prices skyrocketed, a community feel still remained and it, in effect, became a suburb that was rezoned by the residents. The colour today is vibrant – the old terraces are now super-chic and art galleries, antique dealers, cafes, restaurants, pubs, fashion houses and boutique shops abound.
Photo: Heritage listed former Surry Hills Police Station (1895) at 703 Bourke Street (J.Bar)