Over tens of thousands of years ago The Rocks was a pristine coastline, the home of the Gadigal people - today it’s a cultural and gathering hub at the centre of Australia’s largest city. We’re looking back at our story to help enrich your next visit with The Rock’s fascinating history.
Take a stroll around The Rocks and you’ll see evidence of an intriguing, rich history everywhere you turn. You might walk laneways of cobblestone, discover heritage homes that offer an insight into life centuries ago, or catch a view of the Harbour Bridge - which is a piece of history itself.
The home of the Gadigal people
For tens of thousands of years the Circular Quay area (Warrane), where The Rocks is today, was home to a nation of sophisticated people with deep ancient knowledge. The Gadigal people were one of 29 clan groups that comprised the Eora Nation.
They had a deep connection to the Country (land, sky and water) using the ocean and the land area’s abundant sandstone to survive and thrive. Their diet consisted mainly of seafood and they lived in harmony with the land, taking only what they needed at all times.
Image: Two Australians from the Broken Bay Tribe - 1820
The story of the Boora Birra
The Boora Birra is one of the sacred Dreamings that details the creation of Sydney Harbour and coincides with archaeological reports of the Last Glacial Maximum. Dreaming stories are passed on from generation to generation and the Boora Birra Dreaming Story has been shared for thousands of years. This Dreaming was passed on by and shared with us by local Elders’ and custodians of the area.
You can learn more about the Boora Birra Dreaming here.
A new era dawns
Thousands of years after the creation of the harbour, the first colonial fleet arrived on 26 January, 1788 on the Western side of Sydney Cove. They named the area The Rocks.
The First Nations people who called the area home were the victims of terrible violence at this time as they were dispossessed of their land and up to 80% of their population was wiped out by introduced diseases. Nevertheless the colonisation continued and The Rocks became Australia’s first town centre, housing the country’s first marketplace at First Fleet Park.
Image: Edward Dayes' 1804 engraving looking along George Street in The Rocks. On the right are the buildings of the hospital, while the centre of the picture can be seen the Dockyard with ships in the stocks. A group of First Nations people bakes fish on a stone above the shoreline where a track leads up to George Street from a small sandy beach. State Library of NSW
The Rocks expands
Settlers continued to pour into The Rocks as the area expanded and the colonists attempted to tame the wild sandstone that formed the area’s foundations. They used it to construct Sydney’s first hospital, gaol and dockyard, and to build homes for the increasing population. During this time The Rocks was home to a busy mix of merchants, convicts and sailors, as a busy and bustling port side town. Houses densely populated the rocky topography of the area and t soon earned a reputation as a rough and tough area frequented by the underbelly of society. You can still experience a sense of these times when visiting The Rocks, with many old sandstone hotels, homes and shopfronts remaining for the enjoyment of visitors with some of the oldest hotels in Australia still operating today.
In 1900 everything changed after the area came into Government ownership and later the Sydney Harbour Bridge swept away much of the precinct’s housing. Still later in the century, the government of the day intended to redevelop the area into high rise buildings - and were thankfully stopped by lobbyists, unions and concerned citizens.
Jack Mundey was a Unions leader who helped the residents band together to preserve The Rocks’ rich heritage. The actions of Mundey and a community of passionate residents are part of the reason the precinct is so immaculately preserved today, and his legacy led directly to the adoption of planning and heritage legislation.
From 60,000+ years ago to today
The impeccably conserved heritage buildings, stone-paved lanes and historic landmarks now hide thousands of years of intriguing history that anyone can discover. The Rocks Discovery Museum is a treasure trove, with exhibits that tell the story of The Rocks. Also, Sydney Learning Adventures is available for all school students, offering curriculum linked multi-layered educational excursions that bring life to history.
And today, The Rocks and its stories are open to all, found amongst the beautiful public spaces and heritage buildings.
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