Sydney’s Hidden Aboriginal Past


By Paul Irish, whose book Hidden In Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney (2017) is out now, published by NewSouth Publishing.

Displaying Hidden in Plain View front cover.jpgWe all recognise the Sydney Opera House. Many of us also know that it is built on a point named after early colonial Aboriginal identity Bennelong, who lived there in the 1790s in a hut built for him on the orders of Governor Phillip. And before Bennelong, Aboriginal people probably fished the point for thousands of years.

So far, so typical in the run of colonial urban histories – a long Aboriginal history that ends and is literally built over and erased soon after the arrival of Europeans. It’s a tragic history we can respectfully remember, but appears confined to the early colonial past. When we look closer, a more complex story emerges.

The Aboriginal history of Bennelong Point did not end in the 1790s. Nearly a century later, in the early 1880s, Aboriginal people were living on the point in an abandoned government boat repair shed. At the time, they were cast as outsiders, who had drifted into Sydney for a government handout. Further inspection shows they were not only linked to Sydney but lived, travelled and married across a network of settlements around the harbour, Botany Bay and coastal areas to the north and south of Sydney. They continued to fish, selling their surpluses for other things they needed; they developed relationships with colonial families that, in some cases, lasted generations They changed with the times but they never lost sight of where they were from.

I have traced the history of a group of 50 to 100 Aboriginal people who continued to call the coastal part of Sydney home throughout the nineteenth century. Some of their descendants still live in Sydney today and are primarily linked to the Aboriginal community at La Perouse. They have always maintained their local connections but the historical records have always seemed to point to the dying out or disappearance of local people sometime in the mid-nineteenth century.

Their story of continuity emerged from triangulating the previous research of professional and La Perouse community historians with newly available digitised records and fragments of information scattered across many other archives. By focussing on repeatedly used places and frequently mentioned people, a consistent picture began to emerge of a network of Aboriginal settlements that shifted in response to the growth of colonial Sydney. Not, as you might expect, moving ever outwards, but often taking advantage of gaps in the colonial grid and of new economic opportunities.

Some of the coastal people camped in the government boatsheds in 1881 were becoming involved in the colonial government’s re-engagement in Aboriginal affairs after many decades of indifference. The misidentification of boatshed residents as outsiders and attempts to keep them out of Sydney led directly to the formation of the Aborigines Protection Board. In coastal Sydney, Board assistance could virtually only be obtained at an Aboriginal fishing village at La Perouse. Over the next two decades, and with the added influence of missionaries, this caused La Perouse to grow at the expense of the other settlements until it became one of the only places where coastal Sydney people lived. Their descendants know this as their story, but it is also the complex and culturally entangled story of colonial Sydney, a story that I hope many more people come to know.

Details of Paul’s upcoming talks and other events can be found at

Image (editing by David Kari): Hidden history in Sydney’s most iconic place. The centre image shows Bennelong Point in its current and best known form as home to the Sydney Opera House (Image: Paul Irish). The left image shows Bennelong Point in the 1790s with the hut of early colonial Aboriginal identity Bennelong (SLNSW DG V1/13). The right image shows the Government Boatshed which was used by Aboriginal people in the late 1870s and early 1880s and was the catalyst for the formation of the first Aboriginal Protectorate in New South Wales (SLNSW SPF 774).

Taking to the Streets: The Great Strike of 1917


‘History is not a single story’, writes Larissa Behrendt in the recently published The Honest History Book, whose main aim is to counter what it sees as Anzackery or the inflation of the Anzac myth over other aspects of Australia’s past.

Professional historians have much to contribute to uncovering the multitude of stories that make up Australian history and to bringing these to life for historians and non-historians alike. Take, for example, the Great Strike of 1917, one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts in the early 20th century and a sign of the worldwide discontent among workers that had been exacerbated during World War I.

With commemorations this year still focussed more on battles – the glitzy affair in New York on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea a case in point – it’s pleasing that the City of Sydney is marking the centenary of the Great Strike.

PHA (NSW & ACT) member and a City of Sydney historian Laila Ellmoos is driving the historical interpretation of the project, which is co-curated by Nina Miall.  On 10 May she delivered a stirring address at the Customs House Library at Circular Quay, explaining why railway and tramway workers went on strike in August 1917. They were protesting against the time-card system, a means of accurately measuring the time taken to do various jobs. In use in the United States at the time, this ‘speeding up’ system, as it was called, was not acceptable to Australian workers. At Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Redfern 3000 men downed tools, while at Randwick Tramway Sheds 1000 men stopped work. Soon the strike spread beyond the industrial areas of Sydney, as far as the Melbourne wharves.

Laila’s talk explored the social protest that accompanied the strike, from the regular street marches and mass meetings in the Domain, to the role of local communities in rallying around the strikers and on the picket lines. Illustrations accompanying the talk showed men in suits and hats marching with union banners and homemade placards from Central Station to Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Strikers’ wives, dressed in smart frocks with hats and gloves – some wheeling prams – also marched in support of the striking railway and tramway workers. Order, sobriety and ostentatious respectability were part of the theatrical tradition of protest at this time.

A mixed group of people attended Laila’s talk, showing the wide appeal accessible history can have. A couple of professional historians were in the audience, along with interested lunchtime workers and a scattering of ‘old lefties’. Some audience members told family stories about the strike. One elderly woman explained how her father, who had been involved in the strike, never forgave the ‘scabs’. When the family moved to a new house in 1950 he forbade his wife and children to have anything to do with the family next door because their father had not taken part in the strike.

The strike ended in defeat for the workers. This encouraged Prime Minister Billy Hughes to attempt a second conscription referendum in December 1917. The referendum was not passed. But the strike and the referendum debate did fracture the labour movement for the decade after the war, with about 20 unions deregistered and some in the rank and file becoming more left wing than their union leadership had had stomach for during the heady days of 1917.

In July and August, the City of Sydney and Carriageworks, the site of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops, will present an exhibition to mark the centenary of this bitterly fought strike.


Pauline Curby and Francesca Beddie