Memories of Sydney’s past resurface at History Week

Church of England burial ground, Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901 - photo by Mrs Arthur George Foster, Mitchell Library - State Library of New South WalesFrom visions of our early city to tales of gothic horror, Sydneysiders can step back in time and see their city as it once was through a series of free events for this month’s History Week.

From 31 August to 8 September, events exploring the theme ‘memory and landscapes’ will offer visitors a glimpse of rarely seen 19th century maps and plans of the city, and take them on a journey of memory, love and gothic horror in a talk on the Devonshire Street cemeteries.

A specially developed walk will enable users to explore the city as it was in 1861, while historic interpretations of the city through maps, diagrams and charts will be exhibited in the Customs House exhibition Cartographica – Sydney on the map.

“History plays an important part in our lives – communities are wrapped in human memory, and these histories explain our shared past, showing how generations of people have shaped our city and made it what it is today,” said City Historian, Lisa Murray.

“Sydney is an ever-evolving city. This History Week we want to encourage Sydneysiders to re-imagine and experience the historical urban streetscape. We’ve unearthed historic maps, plans, guides and paintings that we hope will evoke memories of Sydney’s past and remind people of what and who has gone before.”

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said History Week is the perfect time to reflect on Sydney’s past and ensure it is protected for future generations. “This is an opportunity to look into the causes and events that shaped our city and gain a deeper understanding how life used to be Sydney,” said the Lord Mayor.

“Our past can have a huge impact on our future and we need that inspiration to teach and guide us into the future,” the Lord Mayor added.

The City of Sydney History Week program includes:

Stranger’s Guide to Sydney in 1861
A Sydney guidebook produced and published in 1861 by James Waugh has been recreated in the Sydney Culture Walks app. The walk has been specially curated for History Week. The Stranger’s Guide to Sydney in 1861 enables users to hypothetically travel back in time to explore the city as a stranger.

Commencing at Sydney Town Hall and culminating at Customs House, the guided walk encounters more than 30 of the original 100 landmarks, buildings and points of interest featured in Waugh’s guide. Contemporary watercolours, etchings and images will add to the experience and show the city in a light never seen before. Culture Walks app will be available to download from Monday 26 August.

Cartographica – Sydney on the map
Cartographica brings together a series of reproduced maps of Sydney, captured through the cartographic traditions of mapmakers. It’s a fascinating account of the factors that have shaped our city, highlighting some of the many different ways mapmakers have documented its evolution and guided our journeys.

Taking over three floors of Customs House, the exhibition features some of the earliest maps, from charted observations of colonial exploration and the receding shoreline of Circular Quay in the 1880s, to the growing city streets in the early 1900s and digital monitoring of sharks and 3D vision of shipwrecks in the harbour.

This is the last chance to see the exhibition before it closes on Sunday 1 September. Curator tours on Saturday 31 August and Sunday 1 September: 11.00am – 12.30pm / 2.30pm – 4.00pm – Customs House.

See Sydney as a Tourist in 1905
Visitors arriving in Sydney in 1905 often received a copy of a bird’s-eye-view map to guide them through the city. Curator Margaret Betteridge will use this map to investigate some of the 74 places of interest at that time, including some of the city’s lost features and others that still remain. Saturday 31 August: 1.00pm – 2.00pm – Level 2, Customs House.

The Block Plans of Sydney
During this illustrated talk, historian Lisa Murray will unveil detailed plans of city blocks from the 19th and 20th centuries. The plans were prepared by insurance brokers to assess the risk, structural constitution and possible investment hazards of blocks throughout the city.

Details recorded on the block plans about the buildings and their uses allow us to visualise old streetscapes and identify long-lost commercial precincts. Sunday 1 September: 1.00pm – 2.00pm – Level 2, Customs House.

Memory, love and gothic horror: the evolution of the Devonshire Street cemeteries
The deathly past of the Devonshire Street cemeteries will resurface in a talk presented by historian Lisa Murray. Once the principal burial grounds for Sydney city from 1820 to 1867, the cemetery was cleared in 1901 to make way for Central Railway Station.

The talk will delve into the issues that became apparent during the final years before the closure of the cemetery, including the unruly manner in which burials were conducted. The exhumation of the cemetery revealed further anomalies, with reports that more than 5,000 bodies couldn’t be located and some bodies were discovered beneath paths and just below the surface. Wednesday 4 September: 12.30pm – 1.15pm – Level 2, Customs House.

The 2019 City of Sydney History Weeks runs: 31 August – 8 September. For more information and to book a place (essential) visit: for details.

Image: Church of England burial ground, Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901 – photo by Mrs Arthur George Foster, Mitchell Library – State Library of New South Wales