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History and Heritage
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Discover the rich history of The Rocks

Various locations throughout The Rocks, NSW, 2000

In a city now predominantly the product of late twentieth century urban redevelopment, The Rocks provides an opportunity to experience an environment where buildings and public places of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century still remain.

Stories from the past, such as the life of convict households, publicans' expansion plans, the habits of sailors and wharf labourers, the changing alignment of the waterfront, can still be read from archaeological evidence, written histories and oral testimony, and the very fabric and setting of many of the buildings themselves.

Discover the rich history of The Rocks...

Pre-European arrival

There were more than 19 Aboriginal clans in the Sydney basin area prior to European settlement. The Rocks is part of the country of the traditional owners, the Gadigal, who in turn are part of the Eora Nation or language group. Their country stretches from Sydney to South Head and to Petersham in Sydney's inner west. Local Aboriginal people used the harbour for food and also for transport up the Parramatta River. Campsites were located along the shore, particularly during warmer months when fish and shellfish were the primary part of the local diet.

Archaeological excavations on Cumberland Street in The Rocks and near the Harbour Bridge revealed a campfire dated to the 1400s with evidence of a meal of snapper and rock oysters. It's believed that large flat stones found at Dawes Point on the harbour foreshore in The Rocks were used for roasting whole fish.The Gadigal people survived the arrival of Europeans and their diseases. Archaeological evidence has shown that they were still continuing a semi-traditional lifestyle at least until the 1840s on the peninsula at Millers Point. Today, the descendants of the first Indigenous clan to live in close contact with the Europeans still reside in Sydney.

The growth of the colony

On arriving in Sydney Harbour, Captain Arthur Phillip wrote that Sydney Cove was one 'in which ships can anchor so close to the shore, that in a very small expense quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload'. Some were not so enamoured, such as Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who wrote in 1788: 'This is the poorest country in the world...overrun with large trees, not one acre of clear ground to be seen.'

After 24,000 kilometres and eight arduous months at sea, the Australian continent was overwhelming and indeed shocking to a people used to a European climate, geography and well-established cities.

Early maps show no prison buildings; the punishment was 'transportation' not incarceration, and the land itself acted as an outdoor gaol. Convict men and women were housed in separate camps they built for themselves, normally with wood and mud.

The first dwellings and early 'official' buildings were crude huts fashioned from wood that warped and shrank as it dried out. Bricks were poorly fired, there was a lack of lime to make mortar, and structures often collapsed in heavy rain.

It would be 30 years before the Hyde Park Barracks building opened in 1819, and some convicts were housed there overnight, although it too was not a gaol. Eventually a gaol was built on George Street where The Four Seasons Hotel now stands. When hangings took place, people would watch from the higher ground known as Gallows Hill and now the location of Essex Street.

A map drawn up in 1802, shows approximately 70 huts, two windmills for grinding grain, storehouses, a Government wharf, a church and military battery. George Street was clearly visible on maps as early as 1791, and its alignment in The Rocks has not altered since 1788.

Today there are more than 100 heritage sites and buildings in The Rocks and the oldest house is Cadman's Cottage, built in 1816. The Dawes Point Battery is the oldest remaining European structure, built in 1791, and three remaining walls of Fort Phillip, still standing on Observatory Hill, were built 1804.

A burgeoning trade port

Under the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie (1810-1821), there was a conscious push to transform the penal colony into a city, and trade provided the main means of doing so. Wool, whaling and sealing were the beginnings of a burgeoning trade industry.

By the 1840s, approximately 35,000 people lived in the town and convict transportation had ceased.

While it was a time of wealth and prosperity, and The Rocks became established as the commercial hub of the city, it also had a dubious reputation with parts of the area, especially near the foreshore, renowned for drunken debauchery, brothels and unsavoury characters.

However, The Rocks was no different to any other Port City in the world, but it had the added infamy of being populated by convicts and their descendants, which enhanced such a reputation, even when it was undeserved.

By the end of the 1800s, as many of the wealthier residents were moving out of the area to comfortable homes in the fashionable townships of Ashfield and St Peters, many of the houses in The Rocks were neglected and overcrowded.

20th century transformation

The beginning of the 20th century presented some real challenges for The Rocks.

In 1900, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney, which began at Millers Point. As a result, from March to July 1900, The Rocks and other parts of the city, especially the waterfront areas, were barricaded off and locals given the task of cleansing, disinfecting, fumigating and lime-washing the buildings. The stigma of slum hung heavy over The Rocks, however of the 103 people who died from the plague, only three were from the local area.

As part of the response to the plague the New South Wales Government took back ownership of virtually the entire headland from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour. Approximately 900 houses were bought as well as the surrounding wharves, bond stores, factories, workshops, offices and pubs.

As part of the strategy to improve the area, new and innovative housing solutions were being created, however much of The Rocks, which was regarded as a ‘slum’ by many, was being demolished.

In 1923, the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge began which required the demolition of more houses and, as a result, plans for the resumption of The Rocks were revisited.

After World War Two, the Cahill Expressway was built (1955-57) requiring the demolition of dozens of houses and shops in The Rocks. Australia was in a boom period, and plans for the redevelopment of the ‘gateway' to Sydney were formulated and constantly revised from 1963 until 1973.

By the 1970s, the local community was concerned about being moved out of The Rocks, a place they and their families had been living in for generations. They called on the trade union movement and prominent Sydney personalities to help them save The Rocks. A leading force was Nita McCrae who formed The Rocks Residents Group. McCrae could trace her ancestors in The Rocks back to 1800.

In the early 1970s, 'Green Bans' were imposed on the redevelopment of The Rocks, to be lifted only when residents were to receive assurance from the NSW Government that local people would be rehoused in the area.

In 1973, protesters clashed with police in what is now The Rocks Square, when non-union labour was engaged to demolish a shed to make way for a theatre.

In 1975, a compromise was reached and the bans were lifted. All buildings north of the Cahill Expressway were to be retained, conserved and restored.

The Green Bans had far reaching political repercussions as well. In that year the Australian Heritage Commission Act was passed. It set about the identification and protection of both built and natural items considered important to the people of Australia.

By 1977, the NSW Government had passed its own Heritage Act which is still regarded as one of the strongest legislative controls for managing heritage items in the world.

In 1998, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority Act was enacted to consolidate the work of Sydney Cove Authority, City West Development Corporation and Darling Harbour Authority. The following year, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, which today owns and manages The Rocks, was established.

To mark the centenary of Anzac, we want to share with you the history of The Rocks as a ‘garrison town’, plus some personal stories from World War I.

Learn about the wartime experiences of local men, women and even children whose lives were affected by the war—their bravery, battles, heartaches and victories.

The New South Wales Marine Corps and
New South Wales Corps, 1788-1809

The Royal Marines were infantry troops whoaccompanied British naval expeditions. A special force, the New South Wales Marine Corps, accompanied the First Fleet. In 1791–2, they were replaced by the landbased New South Wales Corps, who garrisoned the new colony until 1809... Read more

A Garrison Town: The Military in The Rocks

The Rocks area became a ‘garrison town’ after British settlement in 1788, with Dawes Point Battery, the Military Hospital on Observatory Hill and the Barracks at Wynyard. Holy Trinity Church in Argyle Place was to earn the name by which it is still largely known, the Garrison Church... Read more

Military in The Rocks

From the time of European settlement in 1788 until the end of World War I, the military was an important part of the life of The Rocks... Read more

Those Who Served

In 1914, The Rocks and Millers Point was a hard, working class area condemned as a slum. The State Government had taken possession of the area in 1901, planning to demolish and reconstruct the neighbourhood, but the war intervened... Read more

A Fine Officer

Major Cyril Lane (1888 – 1915) lived in the Wentworth Hotel on Grosvenor Street, The Rocks, when the war broke out. He enlisted as a Captain in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force on 18 August 1914 and was one of the first Australians in World War I to see action with the capture of German New Guinea... Read more

Nurses at The Front

The Australian Army Nursing Service was formed in 1903 as part of the Australian Army Medical Corps. Over 2,000 registered nurses served in Britain, India, France, Belgium, the Middle East and the Mediterranean during World War I. They worked wherever they were needed; in hospitals, ships, trains and even close to the frontline... Read more

Fallen at Lone Pine

Alexander ‘Al’ Thomas Johnston was a 19-year-old brass polisher in the publishing department of the Sydney Morning Herald when he enlisted on the 4th September 1914, one month after war was declared... Read more

Lost on the Front

Albert and Ellen Thompson lived at 3 Dibbs St Millers Point with their eight children, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren. Three of the boys enlisted in 1915; Wilmore and the married sons George and James... Read more

A Tough Bunch

The Imperial Camel Corps, formed in January 1916 was a camel mounted infantry. It operated in the Middle East and Africa, and was truly international. The ICC had soldiers from Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand and Britain; among them were six men from The Rocks... Read more

Bravery Beyond Words

John Joseph Luck was from a large local family who had lived in the area for generations. He was 22 and working as a coal lumper when he enlisted in July 1915, arriving at the Western Front in March 1916 and sent to the front line a month later... Read more

Gallantry Under Fire

Walter grew up in The Rocks and was 26, working as a coal lumper on the wharves of Walsh Bay and Darling Harbour when he enlisted on 20 September 1915. He lived at 68 Princes St, The Rocks with his wife Daisy and their young two children, Edna and Walter... Read more

Stories from the Trenches

Phillip Laurence Harris was a journalist for his family’s newspaper The Hebrew Standard, published at George Street in The Rocks and contributed to other periodicals like The Bulletin and Lone Hand. He enlisted in October 1914 and was posted to an Ammunition Park at Avonmouth in England, and then later to France. His brother Charles, a printer, enlisted the following year... Read more

A Family Goes to War

The Avery’s were part of an extended family that had lived in The Rocks since the early 1800s. A row of terrace houses in Atherden Street is named after them; they occupied all the houses in the street for many years... Read more

A Wife's Anguish

Families of men reported Missing in Action, were sent minimal information about the soldiers’ fate. If the Red Cross couldn’t help, their only recourse was to write to the Australian Imperial Forces. These letters were often tear stained, desperate, and some plain angry. The replies they received were a standardised answer containing no comfort... Read more

Delivering Bad News

When the war broke out in 1914, the churches were asked if they would deliver telegrams to servicemen’s families from the Australian Imperial Forces. Church leaders readily agreed that they were the best people to bring such news; a decision many of the clergy would regret... Read more

The Lost Boys

John Alexander Ferguson was a Sudan War Veteran. After his return in 1885 he married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Condran and became the licensee of the Observer Tavern. Together they ran the pub and raised their six children; four boys (Ernest, John, George and Reginald) and two girls (Elizabeth and Marguerite) in the residence above the pub... Read more


The Rocks is also home to Sydney Learning Adventures (SLA), a leading provider of school excursions and education programs, with a focus on Aboriginal and archaeology programs.

Programs include a walking tour of The Rocks, a harbour cruise aboard the Mari Nawi with the Tribal Warrior Association and six unique archaeology programs at The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre in The Rocks.

For more information, visit Sydney Learning Adventures online.


The Rocks Past - A Virtual View
The Rocks Past - A Virtual View
Step back in time and see what The Rocks looked like over 100 years ago when domestic life was not confined behind closed doors. This immersive virtual reality experience brings to life rare archival material including original photographs taken in 1901. Put yourself in the middle of the action with our 360 video; simply pan and rotate your device or use the directional controls to experience life around in The Rocks at a time when animals roamed freely, children played in the dusty streets and the Bubonic Plague was taking a grip on the city.