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The Ancient Meets the Future: An Evolving Pyrmont Odyssey

pyrmont history union street scannetau The Ancient Meets the Future: An Evolving Pyrmont Odysseypyrmont village union street today The Ancient Meets the Future: An Evolving Pyrmont Odyssey

A glimpse into Pyrmont’s past reveals a suburb which has played a pivotal role in the development of Sydney. From its rise to prominence as Sydney’s industrial heart to its fall into near ruin and later restoration, Pyrmont’s history is uniquely diverse. Today much of Pyrmont’s past has disappeared beneath a contemporary landscape, but the old buildings and factories dotted around the suburb ensure that its story is never one to be forgotten.

Though once occupied for generations by local Aborigines, the beginning of Pyrmont’s development began, simply, with a gallon of rum. John Macarthur, a solider and later wool industry pioneer, used the alcohol to buy the land in 1799; it seemed a curious exchange, but as coins were typically scarce in colonies during that era, rum had become a common form of currency. Although the peninsula of gullies and creeks was argued as to whether it was aesthetically pleasing or not, one of Macarthur’s female companions found that the area’s local spring reminded her of a spa in Bad Pyrmont, Germany, subsequently naming the area in 1806. However, it was the land’s location, with its sea access and location to the city that proved its worth. When Australia’s first steam powered mill was built in Darling Harbour in 1815, Pyrmont was the ideal location for the swift influx of industrialism.

To compensate for the increasing amounts of jobs provided by the growing city, Pyrmont was subdivided in 1836 by Macarthur’s son, Edward, and by the end of the century Pyrmont (and Ultimo) had become the most densely populated areas of Sydney. Factories and industries grew with the residences including City Iron, Fife Ironworks and the Darling Harbour Flour Mill. In the 1850s the suburb was discovered to be a source of sandstone, and with a building boom emerging out of the gold rush, the Saunders family quarry business saw that sandstone was made into one of Pyrmont’s most valuable commodities. The need to transport the stone led to the construction of the Pyrmont Bridge in 1857.The success of the trade also granted stonemasons as the first tradesmen in the country to be granted an eight hour day.

pyrmont history from sydney observer The Ancient Meets the Future: An Evolving Pyrmont Odyssey

"Pyrmont Power Station from Observatory Hill" oil on board painted in 1989 by Jane Bennett

More industries followed the success of the quarries in the 1870s. Soon the consistency between residences and factory sites became unbalanced when in 1878 the Colonial Sugar Refinery bought over 30 acres of the northern peninsula replacing housing. The wool industry had also found success and as a result from continually having to house wool auctions from London, Australia’s first wool store, Goldsbrough and Mort, was built in 1883 on the Pyrmont-Fig Street corner. This resulted in larger extensions of the Darling Harbour goods yard and the implementation of the rail loop.

Over the next century Pyrmont’s industries continued to thrive and saw the installations of schools, such as the John Street School in 1891-2, the tramways powerhouse in 1899, and Sydney’s first source of electricity, the Pyrmont Powerhouse in 1904. This emphasis of industrial, however, had repercussions on the peninsula. The once picturesque retreat was now rendered derelict of all trees and scenery due to the quarries, polluted with the stench of powerhouses and made even more unattractive with the building of the Griffin Incinerator, a garbage incinerator, in 1932. When the industries finally did relocate or dwindle towards the end of the 20th century so did Pyrmont’s population, plummeting from what was once 19,777 to a record low of 1,590 in 1981.

Fortunately, Pyrmont’s new found status as slums was short lived. Due to a government initiative in 1991 titled the Better Cities Programme, the peninsula has again been recognised as an ideal location for development, just as it was 200 years ago. New and vibrant housing has been built, as well as trendy cafes and shops making it one of Sydney’s most livable locations.

With the new urban development, much of Pyrmont’s past has been lost, the Pyrmont Baths site has been replaced by Pyrmont Point Park, the Pyrmont Powerhouse is now Star City, the rail loop is now the Sydney Light Rail and the Goldsbrough Mort stores were converted into apartments. But a walk through Sydney reveals some surprising links to the past. The many buildings that were constructed from the sandstone during the 1850′s ‘stonerush’ still stand today including Sydney University, Sydney Town Hall and the GPO. As long as they remain, Sydney will always hold pieces of Pyrmont’s history.

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