Australia has a fascinating history. Many of those who settled Australia were convicts, sentenced to be “transported” by England, did you know that? I wanted to learn more about this history so I took a tour with The Rocks Walking Tours, located on Harrington Street, in The Rocks. They were recommended to me by the concierge at the Four Seasons Sydney, and I was very happy with the tour! It was so fascinating!
I went to The Rocks Walking Tours office and was greeted warmly. The tour guide, Vickie, was a very friendly and lovely person, and not only knowledgeable about the history of The Rocks, but passionate about it as well. One can tell that she enjoys every single tour she conducts. I think a tour is always so much better with a guide who truly loves what she is doing. We had a small-ish group, perhaps 8, a very enjoyable number. It is good fortune that this historical section of Sydney still exists. In the 1950s and 1960s it was considered a dangerous place, and there were plans to demolish the buildings and put up modern skyscrapers. Many in The Rocks traced their families back to the convicts who built The Rocks, and did not want to leave. A cry went up to save The Rocks. It is now a Heritage Site.
The Rocks is now owned by the government, and the buildings have been restored with care and attention to detail. Vickie showed us paintings and photos of the area from the past, and it is so interesting to be able to envision history. The Rocks gave birth to the first street in Sydney, George Street, and it remains the heart of the city centre today. It is in the same location, and is still the same shape as it was then!
Captain Arthur Philip, in charge of The First Fleet (ships bringing the first convicts to Australia) found Sydney Cove to be a perfect natural harbor where ships could be unloaded very close to shore. The First Fleet arrived after eight months, bringing transported convicts from England in 1788. Britain sent their convicts to their colony of Australia instead of their American colonies after the American War of Independence. When the term “convicts” is used, it is easy to envision hardcore criminals, but violent offenders were not transported, but kept in England’s overcrowded prisons or hanged. The convicts sent to Australia committed crimes like forgery or theft, considered to be petty crimes. It was a way of populating the colony. After serving their sentences, very few returned to England, but stayed in Australia where they had built homes and put down roots.
The Rocks had a notorious reputation as early as the 1790s. Because of Sydney Harbour, The Rocks became the shipping and commercial hub of the colony. During the tour we walked down Nurse’s Walk, an area which was known for the houses of ill-repute, pubs, and debauchery. Convict labor built The Rocks, but the reputation of “convicts” and their families caused wealthier residents to move to other areas of Sydney.
By the 1820s there were about 1200 people in The Rocks, and its reputation continued to be the dangerous, convict arriving area of town. The Rocks Push was a gang which held sway in the area in the late nineteenth century. They committed such crimes as theft, assault and battery against police and residents in the Rocks. Women could be gang members, and they would entice drunks and seamen into dark areas to be assaulted and robbed by the Rocks Push. In 1900 plague visited The Rocks and Darling Harbour, and the government demolished several buildings in the area. The outbreak of World War 1 and ensuing Depression saved The Rocks from destruction. It has to be said, however, that the families who petitioned and worked so hard to save the Rocks for their families ended up having to move out anyway. These are now public buildings, owned by the government.
Today, The Rocks is a quaint, historical area filled with shops, weekend markets, and pubs. There are actually tours specifically visiting the original pubs of the area! The Rocks Walking Tours is happy to give tours with stories of the pubs of The Rocks. The tour was fascinating, and the views from the area of Circular Quay are spectacular and include Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.
If you are headed to Sydney, The Rocks is a place you must visit, and I recommend taking a walking tour with The Rocks Walking Tours. Ask for Vickie, she is a fantastic and passionate guide!
My thanks to Vickie and to The Rocks Walking Tours for a lovely afternoon!
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