Monday, 4 March 2013

Digging up George Street

What I'm reading: Stuart MacBride, Close to the Bone; Graham Hurley, Happy Days; Elizabeth George, Write Away: one novelists approach to fiction and the writing life.

I haven't blogged since January. I felt that posting every week was taking up a lot of my writing time, so I stopped to see if it was, and I was right. But as I quite like blogging, which for me is another excuse for doing a bit of historical research, in future I'll just post less often rather than not do it at all. And perhaps keep my posts a bit shorter. Problem solved.

The other day I saw an article on the internet about an archaeological excavation at 478 George Street in Sydney, opposite the Queen Victoria Building. The excavation was open to the public for five hours on 23 February, but, annoyingly, I saw the article on the 25th. The site is being investigated for occupation from the year 1815 onwards. Apparently it was first occupied by a public house - the Golden Fleece - then a grocer, then successive shops. So, as I missed out on going to see it, I decided to find out what I could without leaving the comfort of my office chair.

478 George Street. Photo by Mick Simmons.
In a list of public houses published by the Sydney Gazette on 19 April, 1817, the licensee of the Golden Fleece, George Street, is named as John Laurie. Interestingly, and as an aside, there is also a pub listed called the New Zealander, the licensee of which was Benjamin Morris. Neither John Laurie nor the Golden Fleece appear in the Gazette's list in 1818. There is no further mention of the Golden Fleece in the Gazette's admittedly irregularly published lists of licensed hotels until 1835, unless it was one of the two unnamed George Street pubs listed on 1 July 1830, both situated 'opposite the Cattle Market', which was very close to where the QVB is today. The licensees of those premises were James Cooper and Christopher Flynn.

An advertisment on page 1 of the Gazette, dated 18 July, 1835, refers to a Golden Fleece hotel in Brickfield Hill as a departure point for James Wood's coach service. Brickfield Hill was/is near Paddy's Markets, some distance from the QVB, though still close to George Street. A family history website states that in 1835, William Henry Wood held the licence for the Golden Fleece on George Street. This suggests that the pub, or at least the name, might have moved from the original site.

Three years later, on 28 June 1838, the Gazette states that John Hart was the licensee of the Golden Fleece, George Street, and remained so on 14 February 1839. But by 4 May 1841, the Golden Fleece seems to have moved again to Castlereagh Street, the licence now held by Emanuel Martin. He kept it for at least a year, but by 10 May 1851, the Golden Fleece had relocated to George and King Streets and the licensee was now Robert Rowland.

None of this tells me much about the site at 478 George Street, but I had a good time looking it up. What it does tell me is that for this sort of research you need to be on site and, probably much more relevantly for historians, digging around not in the dirt, but in the archives at the Mitchell Library.

Looking at the picture of the excavation reminds of an archaeological site I saw when I went on a 'ghost tour' of the Rocks a few years ago. I forget exactly where it was - well, it was dark - but the excavation was in the basement of an old building, either on George or Harrington Street. George, I think. It wasn't particular spooky, but it was definitely incredible to stand in the foundations of these tiny little houses and think that people lived and laughed and cried and dreamt there. I almost could feel what was left of them.

It was also vaguely embarrassing trailing in a group around the Rocks on a Thursday night with a rubber rat on a lanyard around my neck getting scoffed at by smartarses outside pubs telling me what a sucker I was. Excuse me? wasn't the one paying exorbitant tourist prices for a Stella that was only going to end up down the toilet or against the wall in two hours' time. Still, it was a good night.


  1. I love those ghost tours for the exact same reason -- not for the spookiness, but to think about the people who were there before and imagine what life was like for them.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Melanie. I know, isn't it fascinating? To think that you're standing in the exact same place that people did nearly two hundred years ago. I always wonder what they wanted out of life, and whether they got it.

  3. A rubber rat around your neck?!

    I love feeling the vibes of old places too. Thinking of the people who lived there. I have this thing about old steps - you know the sandstone front door steps that are worn down in the middle by centuries of feet? The stories they could tell!

  4. I gather the rat symbolised the outbreak of bubonic plague at the Rocks in 1900. Other people on the Ghost Tour got manacles or a hangman's noose, etc. I was quite pleased with my rat.
    Speaking of steps, I love the worn down steps at Susannah Place and Cumberland Place. Imagine all the feet that went up and down those! Thanks for your comments, Kez.

  5. I'd love to go on a real dig. Actually being there, unearthing real history and the lives of people who have gone before me would be wonderful. Another interesting post, Deb. My apologies for the tardy response.

    1. Thanks, SE Gilchrist. I'd really like to go on a real dig, too. Except I'd have to wear gloves - I hate getting my hands dirty. What a wuss.

  6. I heard about this open day in time but I was in a brace for a broken ankle and unable to attend. It is so interesting to read your research, Deborah. Looking into the history of this part of George Street I found a picture of the Royal Hotel which stood on the site Dymocks now occupies - so many short lived gems in Sydney's history.

    1. Thank you for your nice comments, Alice. Yes, it's so unfortunate that a lot of the old buildings have gone, but it's such good fun researching them, and the people connected with them, isn't it?


Comment here