New South Wales: Our history is found in Sydney sites

By Matthew Wright

New South Wales is a hidden window into NZ's past, writes Matthew Wright.

Some of the buildings and streets in The Rocks date back to the early colonial days. Photo / Matthew Wright.
Some of the buildings and streets in The Rocks date back to the early colonial days. Photo / Matthew Wright.

They've got our history over there - on the other side of the Tasman. Part of New Zealand's earliest settler past sits out west on the shores of Port Jackson, New South Wales.

And it seems to rest pretty easily and comfortably alongside Australia's own.

Wander down to Sydney's The Rocks district on any Saturday morning and you'll brush shoulders with Sydneysiders eager to shop in the market that sprouts there every weekend, spanning two blocks from Playfair St to the bottom of George St.

But, as those names indicate, you're also brushing shoulders with some fascinating history, all overshadowed by the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The back-story is laid out in a little museum just off Kendall Lane, impressively laid out and modern with touch-screens and contemporary style.

It explains how the Aboriginals arrived first, the Cadigal people, but after thousands of years they were displaced and British convicts and officials moved in.

Some of the buildings and streets in The Rocks date back to early colonial days - those desperate moments in 1788 when British settlers looking for water discovered Port Jackson and its life-giving Tank Stream - though many important structures are now marked only by their foundations.

There are layers of local history to discover. Convict accommodation in the Napoleonic years became 19th century slums, tenemented, edging their way up the sheer cliffs that give the district its name.

Rooms were even cantilevered out of the stone and rented to sailors eager for a roof over their heads.

Behind a row of former workers' tenements on Playfair St an artist has even laid one razed structure out with over-sized furniture. The artwork is a symbol of just how crowded and basic that Victorian-age accommodation was, jammed with squalling kids, adults living cheek-by-jowl, and boarders brought in to sleep, bird-like, in tiny rooms cantilevered up the bank behind.

Later the place became a home to gangs - the original Larrikins - and few dared invade their patches. Jungle law prevailed. When World War I came, their adoptive name became the catch-all for all the Australian ground forces who showed the Kiwis a thing or two in the slums of Cairo.

So much for the Australian side. What we don't often realise is just how much of New Zealand's own history is captured around The Rocks and, indeed, across much of downtown Sydney.

The waterfront and surrounds are old Sydney; it was here that the earliest trade from New Zealand - pigs, potatoes and flax rope - flooded in from the turn of the 19th century.

It was here that Maori first encountered British civilisation, such as it was. They didn't like it. When Bay of Islands chief Te Pahi arrived in Sydney in 1805, he "spared no pains", as Governor Philip King put it, "to convince us that the customs of his country were in several instances better than ours".

Just across Circular Quay stand many of the old government buildings and houses - set out there after 1788 to keep the rich and famous away from the convicts of The Rocks. The architecture is redolent of the settler buildings in the Bay of Islands - the Old Stone Store, the Treaty house. And with good reason. It was contemporary.

The original Governor's house was on the corner of Bridge and Philip Sts - now a busy intersection framed by tower blocks. It was here that most of the key decisions that shaped early New Zealand were made; from here that Governor Sir Richard Bourke sent William Busby scurrying across to Waitangi in 1833 with the intent of exerting law and order. It was here that Bourke consulted William Hobson, a few years later, over just what to put into the Treaty of Waitangi.

Some of that past can still be seen and touched. The stables nearby - now part of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music - were put up from 1816 in prelude to grander structures.

There are more poignant reminders of our early colonial days, deeper in central Sydney. On the walls of St James' Church in King St are mounted plaques in memory of men killed during the New Zealand wars. Battles in Lower Hutt, Tauranga and the Waikato all have their place here.

This is where the men who fought them lived. Against the back wall, I discover a memorial to Captain Sir Everard Home, commanding HMS North Star - the warship sent to all the trouble spots during the early New Zealand wars of the 1840s.

That military connection is underscored again in the Hyde Park Barracks, opposite the church - built by convict labour in 1818-19 and home to many of the regiments who later came out to New Zealand. And they returned to those barracks when they had finished. Today it is a museum.

All of which underscores the fact that for the first half of the 19th century, even for a while after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, New Zealand was integral with New South Wales. It's right there - a hidden window into New Zealand's past. And for all that it's Australia, it's also ours.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Sydney several times a day.

The Rocks: The Rocks has its own website.

Matthew Wright, one of New Zealand's most published historians, has a blog here.

- NZ Herald

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