Inside the Collection

Sandstone and Pyrmont

Sandstone details Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont
Sandstone details Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont: Photography Jean – Francois Lanzarone

When I walk around Pyrmont I look for glimpses of sandstone. The material that once formed the distinctive cliffs and gulleys on the peninsula. Now it exists as the nearly invisible layers beneath the streets and buildings. My way of seeing this local landscape shifted after curating an exhibition that examined the changes in Pyrmont and Ultimo since white settlement.

One of the major industries on the peninsula in the nineteenth century was the sandstone quarries run by the Saunders family in Pyrmont. Starting in 1853 and continuing until the 1930s, the quarrying changed the geography of the area.

Stack of grindstones 1906
Gift of Robert Saunders, Quarry Master and Contractor, 1906

These grindstones,were quarried at Free Stone Quarries and Stone Works, (Saunders quarries) Pyrmont and exhibited at the New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1906.

The Saunders quarries employed over 300 men in the last decades of the 19th century. Work at the quarries is thought to have been done by local people in the trades of quarrymen, blacksmiths, engineers, farriers, wheelwrights and carpenters. The three main Saunders quarry sites, were named Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole by the Scottish workers. These grindstones looks to be from the Paradise quarry.

Hellhole was located north-east of Wentworth Park on Wattle Street. It was a deep hole some six metres below street level which filled to the brim with every heavy downpour. Purgatory was adjacent and further north, producing a very hard stone with a grey streak which could crack. Paradise or Half Way was less than a kilometre north of Hellhole and produced the best stone, yellow block.

Many of the beautiful sandstone buildings like Sydney University including Fisher library, St. Mary’s, St. Andrews, The GPO, The Great Synagogue, The Art Gallery of NSW and Sydney Institute are made from the golden stone of Pyrmont.

‘Strangers visiting Sydney are often struck by the magnificence of our public buildings, the richness of their ornamentation and the mellow tone of their colouring. This freestone of Sydney seems to absorb into itself some of the brightness of the sun.’ (Robert Saunders Esquire, Australian men of mark, 1788-1888, Vol 2).

Sydney Technical College lizard detail facade
Detail facade, Sydney Technical College, Mary-Anne St

The Department of Commerce now repairs old Sydney sandstone buildings using stone dug from the foundations of early 21st century Pyrmont developments.

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