200 years of Sydney - a collection of historic photos

From a tiny trading port to a bustling metropolis with towering skyscrapers: Historic photos of Sydney reveal the secrets behind some of the harbour city’s most iconic landmarks over 200 years.

  • Vintage photos of Sydney’s harbour region show how the city has changed over 200 years
  • As the first area of the harbour city settled, it provides a stark contrast of now and then
  • Sydney boomed as a trading port in the 1800s but by Federation was ravaged by plague
  • Neighbourhood has since changed radically as modern skyline took shape in late 1900s

Some of the first significant building built on in Milson’s Point, one of Sydney’s oldest neighbourhoods, in this 1822 sketch of Argyle Place

Modern Sydney is a bustling metropolis of five million people living and working in skyscrapers and commuting to the office by train – but it wasn’t always like this.

For decades after the First Fleet landed in what is now Circular Quay, the town was a small trading port until the 1851 gold rush saw its population swell from 35,000 to 200,000 in just 20 years.

One of Sydney’s oldest and best preserved areas, Miller’s Point, tells the story of the city’s transformation, reflected in eye-opening photos through the ages.

Now a desired historical location flooded with tourists, it was one a working class settlement home to workers on the nearby wharves, hauling in grain, wool, and other commodities.

Streets were carved out of thick stone, often with convict labour, most prominently the Argyle Cut, a 20-year project starting in 1843 which tunnelled through to connect the neighbourhood to The Rocks.

Victorian-style houses sprung up along dirt streets that were later paved and the city’s tram system snaked into the area, connecting it more easily with the rest of Sydney.

Miller’s Point saw a boom in the maritime trade with workers from around the world arriving for employment on the wharves as the gold rush brought more visitors and more commerce.

Many of the area’s best landmarks like the Lord Nelson Hotel and the Hero of Waterloo pubs were built in this time, along with some houses that survived the changes to come.

Overlooking it all was the Sydney Observatory, built on a hill behind Argyle Street in 1858 giving panoramic views of the neighbourhood, Sydney Harbour, and the rest of the city.

Most of this view, particularly to the south, is now obscured by new houses and more recently office towers and apartment blocks – but the Sydney Harbour Bridge is clearly visible.

Trade began to slow down by the turn of the century and the area was hit hard by the plague in the 20th Century’s first month, leaving 106 people dead.

The area was also outdated and unsanitary due to haphazard building and the government decided to clean it up by buying all the homes and commercial buildings.

New wharves and warehouses were built for the wool trade, and dozens of homes demolished to build new ones to make room for new streets again cut out of the cliffs.

Hundreds of workmen’s flats – many of which still stand today – were constructed in terrace style to house workers and their families that laid the foundation for the area’s public housing culture.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed in 1932, after many more buildings were knocked down, and the whole area changed with streets realigned.

Miller’s Point was only spared widespread demolition in the 1970s after union and community action that stopped plans to raze it and build office towers, though much south of the Observatory was lost.

Finally, the wharves along Walsh Bay were in the past few years demolished to build the new Barangaroo precinct – just one more evolution of Sydney’s ever-changing landscape.

A painting by Frederick Terry of 1850s Argyle Place, at this point an open space but with recognisable landmarks like the Lord Nelson Hotel far on the left, and the Garrison Church on the right

Argyle Place is now separated from Argyle Street with a park between them, with the Garrison Church (on camera to the right) still standing as it was

The view to the north from Observatory Hill looked far different in 1864 to what it does today, with many of the streets not built, reclaimed land or carved from rock and tall ships docking at a mish-mash of private wharves. Lower Fort Street extends to the right from Argyle Street

A radically different panorama from the Observatory shows a sophisticated pleasure marina, the bustling North Sydney skyline and the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Some things never change as a group is seen enjoying the serenity, and the view, on the side of the hill

A view to the west in 1864 looking over to what his now Darling Harbour, with most of the wharves yet to be built and much of the land still beneath the water. The street running in front is Kent Street and the Lord Nelson is on the far right

Due to dramatic changes in the area, the view of Kent Street is impossible to see as the hill drops into a cliff and numerous houses block the view, but the harbour is still visible in this distance

The 1864 southern view from Observatory Hill is not even visible today with towers, the Cahill Freeway and other buildings blocking the way. Back then it gave a breathtaking view of the burgeoning city in its boom years

Many building sprung up in this 1874 view of the corner of Kent and Argyle streets since the previous one a decade earlier

Again the view is obscured by new buildings and the contour of the land, with Hotel Palisade in the distance the tallest building

Argyle Place changed significant in the decade before 1875, the streets being separated, the park established, and new buildings springing up

Trees obscure many of the changes made to the square including numerous new townhouses replacing the tall rows of 140 years earlier

Two men, one wearing a distinguised top hat with a cane, stand on Lower Fort Street in the 1870s facing south with the Observatory in the background and an old post box at the front

Lower Fort Street has drastically changed in the past 140 years since the previous photo, almost completely unrecognisable except fopr the Observatory in the distance. It’s dominated by terrace housing built in the 20th Century

Circular Quay was very different in the 1870s with tall ships replacing massive cruise liners and landmarks like the Opera House and barely any buildings where the high-rise CBD now stands

An 1880 shot of Lower Fort Street from above Argyle place including the Garrison Church on the far right. The water line was much closer to the street than before it was later reclaimed to extend the wharves

This early 1900s shot of Lower Fort Street shows an area gripped by poverty and the after effects of the plague. Children play unattended and horse-drawn carriages serve as the main transportation

Lower Fort Street today has drastically changed with most buildings except for the Hero of Waterloo knocked down and replaced with newer ones, leaving it unrecognisable

The Argyle Cut, a 20-year project starting in 1843, tunnelled through to connect the neighbourhood to The Rocks. Pictured in 1901, it looks relatively similar to today

Little has changed for this section of Argyle Street leading up to the Cut, except the frequent parking of modern cars

The Hero of Waterloo hotel on the corner of Lower Fort and Windmill (right) streets in 1901. It was one of Sydney’s first pubs, built in 1843

Hero of Waterloo changed little in the next 44 years, as did most of the surrounding architecture – except for the paved roads and car parked on the bottom right

Hero of Waterloo today has changed somewhat in the inside, but still retains its old-world feel as the area, particularly Lower Fort Street, has changed around it

Shops built on the western end of Argyle Street, now about a block from Palisade Hotel, appeared to originally be a general store and newsagent

The shops still stand 110 years later but changed hands many times – with a new bar due to open later in 2018

Old houses on Windmill Street in the first decade of the 20th Century illustrate how the area became outdated and unsanitary due to haphazard building. The plague hit hard in the first month of 1900 and gave the government a reason to take over

Windmill Street today stands as an example of early 1900s government rejuvenation attempts in the working class neighbourhood. The old houses were demolished and replaced with workman’s flats like these

This damaged old photo from the early 1900s shows new construction on High Street, overlooking Walsh Bay and its wharves off camera to the right. This street was carved out of the cliff to provide public housing for local workers

Main Street looks remarkably similar more than 100 years later with many of the same buildings, including the workman’s flats, still intact and the cliff just as steep as ever

Taking a longer view, however, though Main Street is much the same, surrounding streets have filled in with new houses and the view is suddenly dominated by the towering skyline

A closer look at the distinctive workman’s flats on High Street in the early 1900s. Hundreds were constructed on new streets or on the ruins of earlier housing that was demolished and formed the basis of the neighbourhood’s old working class identity

The same buildings stand today, some still used as public housing in an area rapidly being transformed into a haven for the more well-heeled, enticed by its history

A yacht sails across Darling Harbour in the early 1900s as early steam ships dock beside their wooden predecessors at docks in Walsh Bay, with the Observatory in the background

Modern marina in Darling Harbour where the working docks have long since been replaced by moorings for private pleasure craft and numerous tourist-oriented buildings constructed

The former Hit or Miss Hotel on Windmill Street, next door to the recently-constructed Stevens Buildings and down the road from Hero of Waterloo. A grand party assembled at the front shows the fashion of the early 1900s

These buildings are some of the very few that survived the demolitions of the early to mid 1900s as old houses were torn down to make way for public housing. Hit or Miss is no longer a hotel with its awning ripped down

People wait patiently, some reading newspapers, at the Miller’s Point tram terminus in 1910, on the western edge of the park separating Argyle Street and Argyle Place

The tram terminus as now just a street corner after Sydney’s tram network was closed down in 1961 and the tracks were buried by new road construction in 1979-80. The same houses as in the 1910 photo remain intact though many are currently being gutted for renovation

A view of Circular Quay in 1915 is one of the most striking differences to today. No Harbour Bridge, skyscrapers or Opera House, the area is dominated by grand old buildings lining the quay, many of which are no more

A radically different Miller’s Point and the CBD and Circular Quay behind is also significant in showing the burgeoning cruise ship economy with massive vessels arriving in Sydney packed with tourists, and a terminal next to it

A view of Miller’s Point in 1915 showing the reverse view to photos shot from the Observatory, which is visible on the hill. Some of the new government wharves and wool stores may be visible, as they replaced the outdated and unsafe private ones. There is also signs of vertical building on Sydney’s skyline

Huge changes to Miller’s Point are visible here with dozens of high-rise buildings in the background, the docks completely overhauled, and the Harbour Bridge on ramp on the far left. Observatory Hill looks mostly untouched

It’s not clear exactly when in the early 1900s this shot of Circular Quay was taken, but it shows the well-developed docks and grand buildings of the time before modern office buildings and the Harbour Bridge

The modern look of Circular Quay, from 2010, shows the CBD crowded with skyscrapers and a completely revamped Circular Quay featuring few of its original buildings

Circular Quay in the early 1900s was much different to its modern looks with rows of old style buildings such as the Mort & Co wool shed on the far left, which was constructed in 1869. It was sadly demolished in 1959 to make way for the AMP building. Many others were knocked down for office buildings or the Cahill Freeway

Few old buildings are left near Circular Quay with Morts & Co one of many knocked down to build office towers like the AMP building and the Cahill Expressway and Circular Quay train station newer constructions underneath

One of the biggest changes to Miller’s Point was the constrcution of the Harbour Bridge in 1923-32. Hundreds of houses were demolished but the neighbourhood was connected to the north shore. This 1930 photo shows construction underway near Lower Fort Street with the Garrison Church in the foreground

A similar view looking down Lower Fort Street in the present day shows the bridge fully built and dominating the skyline along with North Sydney office towers and apartment blocks

A view from the other side of the harbour shows construction on both sides at once, along with the fort on Macquarie Point that would decades later be replaced by the Opera House

A similar view shows the Opera House dominating the radically changed point 80 years later and a skyline dotted with towers

One of a series of photos celebrating the opening of the bridge in 1932. It shows a panorama of the city with steam ships dotting the harbour and the smoke stacks of industry, but still few if any towers across the city

The bridge stands proudly in the present day, now joined by the Opera House and suburbs swelling in size as Sydney’s population grew from 1.2 million to 5 million from 1932 to now

A vintage shot of the Harbour Bridge from Downshire Lane in 1952, complete with a classic bodied car from the time, the wooden fence separating the street from the cliff

Downshire Lane is now spruced up with trees on the western side and the wooden fence replaced with a sturdier cement one. The bridge is visible in the distance through the trees

Argyle Place changed little between the early 1900s and this photo from the park in 1960. Cars sat on the street and the houses were all given a uniform coat of pinkish paint

The same building are standing on Argyle Place but have seen better days with rusted roofs and peeling paint, and many construction and ‘for sale’ signs show the area is being extensively renovated by investors and developers

Argyle Street and Place in 1986 shows the terrace houses with more neutral colours and the budding North Sydney office hub taking shape with a few office towers and apartment building popping up

Source: Nic White, “From a tiny trading port to a bustling metropolis with towering skyscrapers: Historic photos of Sydney reveal the secrets behind some of the harbour city’s most iconic landmarks over 200 years”, Daily Mail Australia, February 4, 2018

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200 years of Sydney - a collection of historic photos