Inside the Collection

Pyrmont and Ultimo: an industrial past

Coloured map drawn from above showing wharves and buildings.
Lithograph, `Bird’s Eye View Showing New Wharves and Approaches. Jones Bay, Pyrmont’, paper, designed by W.W. Withers, for the Sydney Harbour Trust, Sydney, NSW Drawn , 1st July , 1919. MAAS Collection: 93/108/1. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

Like many suburbs of Sydney, Pyrmont and Ultimo have undergone significant changes during the last two hundred years. It’s hard to imagine the current peninsula filled with the sounds of quarrying, smoke from iron works and power stations and sweet smells from Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR).

However, by the early 1900s there were two power stations, three sandstone quarries, twenty wool stores, twenty-seven pubs, and CSR dominated the end of Pyrmont peninsula, eventually covering 31 acres (12.5 hectares). Sydney Technical College moved to Ultimo in 1880 and the Technological Museum relocated to Harris Street in 1893.

By 1900, Pyrmont and Ultimo were providing Sydney with power for its lights and trams. They were thriving industrial suburbs and centres for the distribution of Australian wool, flour, milk, sugar and other foodstuffs with a combined population of nineteen thousand. Rail connected the suburbs to the port, trams took workers to their jobs. The railway yards, wharves, wool stores, power stations and mills created employment for residents.

Pyrmont Sandstone

Sydney’s shape and geography have been changed through the redistribution of sandstone -its rivers, islands and swamps filled and claimed. Cliffs were cut into and quarries dug out. In the early part of the twentieth century there was a massive redesigning of the water front to create a modern port, and thousands of tonnes of rock were shifted.

The Saunders family quarries business began in Pyrmont at an opportune time, as the gold rushes of the 1850s sparked a building boom and Pyrmont was the source of some of the best building stone. Charles Saunders started quarrying sandstone in 1853. Creating three quarries nicknamed Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole, his son Robert took over in 1880 and the quarrying was further expanded with the introduction of steam drilling. This model purchased by the Museum in 1940 illustrates the type of steam crane that Robert Saunders used to level Darling Island in 1889.

A model travelling jib crane with steam engine and boiler, metal and wood.
Model, travelling jib crane with steam engine and boiler, made in England or Australia, c 1900. MAAS Collection: B661. Photo: Nitsa Yioupros, MAAS

Pyrmont Bridge

One of the major routes to and from the city was Pyrmont Bridge. The need to transport stone, materials and goods led to the building of the first Pyrmont Bridge in 1850 and the Darling Harbour railway lines. In 1858 Pyrmont was connected directly to Sydney by a low wooden toll bridge across the entrance to Darling Harbour. Although an important transport link, the low bridge kept ships of Darling Harbour at a time when increased exports made access vital.
The solution was to rebuild the bridge, so it would open and allow ships through. The NSW Government bought the old toll bridge and held an international competition to commission a replacement.
The new bridge, designed by Percy Allen, was eventually built in 1902 and was powered by electricity from the Ultimo Power Station (which in 1988 became the Powerhouse Museum). The bridge could open and close in 44 seconds. The innovative timber truss system used in the bridge became known worldwide as the Allan Truss. The bridge is now a major pedestrian route from Darling Harbour to the city.

Black and white photo of a bridge filled with horse and carts and pedestrians
Glass negative, half plate, ‘Pyrmont Bridge’, Kerry and Co., Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1902-1917. MAAS Collection: 85/1284-2127

This image of the new Pyrmont Bridge (1901) is taken from the operating tower of the bridge looking back towards the city. Numerous horse-drawn vehicles are shown including hansom cabs, omnibuses, commercial and private carriages and wagons. Some vehicles are depicted carrying materials such as wool, wood and boxes and bags of supplies.

On the sheep’s back

By the 1870s the wool industry was successful and expanding rapidly. Wool auctions were transferred from London to Sydney, requiring city storage. The Circular Quay wool stores were no longer satisfactory. Ultimo, with its deep-water harbour, and Darling Harbour’s Goods Line were ideal. This photograph shows wool sorting under natural lighting.

B & W photo showing men in a large shed sorting wool.
Glass negative, full plate, ‘Wool Sorting’, Kerry and Co, Sydney, Australia, c. 1884-1917. MAAS Collection: 85/1284-134

Sydney’s first wool store was the Richard Goldsbrough warehouse built on the corner of Pyrmont and Fig Streets in 1883. Twenty wool stores were built in the 1880s on the peninsula. From World War II until the 1960s, wool stores on the peninsula employed thousands of men. With lanolin oil soaked into thousands of feet of wood, fires were a constant hazard. In 1935 the Goldsbrough and Mort store went up in a blaze that lasted two weeks.

metal sig with photo showing horse and dray piled high with wool bales.
Advertising sign, for the New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency Co. Ltd., Sydney, enamelled steel, Permanent Decorative Glass Co., Lancaster, England, 1907-1920 MAAS Collection: 93/135/1. Photo Sotha Bourn, MAAS

A sweet smell in the air

From 1875 Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) dominated the northern tip of the peninsula. The company created work, controlled housing and polluted the air and water. This image shows the workers outside the CSR site. CSR refined and manufactured sugar and sugar by products. One product was cane-ite, a concrete and particle board.

Magazine clipping, advertisement re CSR Cane-ite board, Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 December 1953, page 56 MAAS Collection: 99/104/1-11. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

Some evidence of the past remains on the peninsula and a walk down Harris Street is a walk-through history, with the tiny terraces of the 1870s and 1880s, the corners stores, the pubs, the massive wool stores and Sydney Technical College built during the prosperous 1880s and 90s. The ABC and University of Technology led the way for newer and different industries centred around information, education and entertainment.

Anni Turnbull, Assistant Curator
June 2019

3 responses to “Pyrmont and Ultimo: an industrial past

  • My great grand father and family lived in 11 Albion Terrace, on Allen St, Pyrmont in the late 1880s-early 1900s. Would you have any details about this street/property and possibly sketches or images from that time?

    • Hi Neil, Thank you for your message. Due to the high volume of enquiries the Museum receives, unfortunately we do not have the resources to assist with personal research. You could try contacting the local council to see if they have any information. We wish you well with your research.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

  • My great grandfather came to Australia from London prior to WW1 to be a mirror silverer. My Dad went to visit him at work as a child. He seems to recall the factory being around Ultimo.

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