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Ariel view of Sydney

A fascinating whistle-stop tour of historic Sydney

Written by on 10th July 2020
Category: City guides

Today, Sydney is Australia’s largest and most populous city: an international capital of culture, finance and history. A vital Australian economic centre, Sydney is ranked 11 in the world by The Global Economic Power Index and amongst the top ten cities most highly integrated into the global economy by university researchers. Aside from being a key player in the global financial market, Sydney is also one of Australia’s richest Aboriginal archaeological sites due to its estimated 30,000 year long history of indigenous people. There’s a vast amount of ground to cover in 30,000 years, but we’ve condensed it into this whistle-stop tour for the purposes of an easy-read blog: read on for a glimpse into vibrantly historic Sydney.

Ancient Aboriginals

Australian Aboriginals were the first inhabitants of historic Sydney – regarded as the oldest city in the country – with radiocarbon dating suggesting they occupied the city for 30,000 at least. Findings show that Aboriginals used charcoal and stone tools in and around Parrametta, with some evidence even suggesting the use of ancient campfires. Further west in Penrith, stone tools were found in sediments as old as 45,000 to 50,000 years meaning Aboriginals have been in and around historic Sydney for far longer than some may think.

Sydney is a modern metropolis
Sydney may be a modern metropolis today, but the original settlement had its fair share of hardships

Before the British first entered Australia en masse, Europeans who visited the area saw the indigenous population living a simple life off the land: camping, fishing, collecting shells and various other activities. Historic Sydney, prior to the arrival of Brits in the 1700s, had around 4000-8000 natives, so compared to London’s 600,000 strong population and soaring export net worth, the Aboriginal landscape would have been a culture shock to say the least. Indigenous Australians divided themselves into several tribes: one notable group that still has a large descendent presence in modern Sydney today are the Eora people; ‘Eora’ meaning ‘from this place’.

Visit: Barangaroo Reserve. Named after a powerful Eora woman, Barangaroo Reserve is a site of great Aboriginal significance. Barangaroo is said to have been fierce and non-conformist, an important leader of indigenous communities in the 1700s.

Nearby accommodation: 187 Kent Street Apartments are a short walk from Barangaroo Reserve and, with an on-site gym, restaurant, swimming pool and Jacuzzi, are perfect for a short or extended-stay business trip to the city.

1770 – Britain arrives

Britain entered historic Sydney in 1770
Britain entered what we now know as Sydney in the 1700s

The HMS Endeavour arrived into a large inlet of Sydney’s coastline in 1770 with the crew noting the stunning natural display of flowers that greeted them and Botany Bay, as the crew’s captain, James Cook, aptly named it, was the first site of British hostility towards Aborigines. Cook and his men took possession of surrounding areas in the name of the British king, King George III, and plans were hatched to establish a British colony at Botany Bay.

The New South Wales settlement was established and joined by the First Fleet: 11 ships that departed from Portsmouth, England and arrived at the first European settlement in Australia. The captain of the First Fleet, Arthur Phillip, ordered that the settlement be moved to Port Jackson at Sydney Cove as there was no reliable water source at Botany Bay. Brits are thought to have decided to name the colony ‘Sydney’ after the British Home Secretary of the time, Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, who authorised Captain Phillip to establish a colony in the Port Jackson area.

Visit: Susannah Place Museum. Located in one of the places first colonised in Sydney Cove by the First Fleet, Susannah Place Museum pays homage to what life was like in the early days of colonisation. Cadmans Cottage is also nearby and is considered one of the oldest surviving residential buildings in Sydney.

Nearby accommodation: The Miller Apartment is located in The Rocks and is ideal for business travellers looking to explore the heritage of the city.

Sydney began as a small European settlement
The Sydney we know today began as a small European settlement on the coast

Recovered journals of Phillip and his officers suggest the first few years of governing the settlement were full of hardship as supplies from overseas were scarce meaning their efforts to establish an agricultural landscape were unsuccessful. Phillip personally intended to create a harmonious environment for the Aboriginal people they were now living amongst, offering labour jobs to convicts in an attempt to elicit some reform. The use of convicts made it a penal colony whereby prisoners are exiled from their homeland and displaced to a remote territory: this dynamic spelled ultimate disaster for the harmony Phillip had hoped for.

As time went on, more and more fleets were arriving in historic Sydney carrying convicts to populate and work in the settlement. Poor conditions on-board meant many passengers didn’t survive the journey and those that did were unfit to work upon arrival. Lack of food and supplies meant the condition of even healthy labourers was gradually deteriorating until the crisis peaked in 1790.

Visit: Loftus Street. Loftus Street is where Phillip and his men hoisted the England flag for the first time.

1790s – Conflict

The situation miraculously improved from 1791 as trade to and from the area began, lessening the dire need for supplies, but the European settlement had a devastating impact on the indigenous people of historic Sydney. Cleared land for farming resulted in the loss of Aboriginal food sources and the introduction of European diseases such as small pox into the indigenous population caused hundreds of deaths. Despite Phillip attempting to create harmony between natives and British people, the Aboriginals resented the European settlers for disrupting their home. Many battles and wars broke out but Aboriginal tribes were massively under-armoured compared to British forces: Australians fought sparsely clothed with handmade spears, while British men wore uniforms and were heavily armed with guns. The Aboriginal people stood no chance: Indigenous clans were defeated and lost possession of much of their land.

Visit: Sydney Museum. The city honours its Aboriginal roots in many ways, you will undoubtedly learn plenty with a visit to Sydney Museum: there are even markers to show the location of Sydney’s first ever Government House erected in 1788.

Nearby accommodation: Mantra 2 Bond Street are stylish and contemporary serviced apartments with a rooftop swimming pool perfect for enjoying a relaxing after-work dip.

1850s – Early Economic Growth

Sydney once had the world's largest tram system
Trams are still used all over the world as a quick city-hopping method of transport

Gold in Australia was first discovered in Bathurst, 1851 and consequently the country experienced several gold rushes. Immigrant miners accelerated historic Sydney’s population five-fold in the space of 20 years forcing the city to undertake infrastructural development: the city’s railway and port systems improved massively in the 1850s and 60s to match its rapid economic growth. At one point, Sydney was renowned for having one of the largest tram systems in the world, beginning with its first horse drawn invention in 1861, to then moving onto steam and cable trams in the 1870s.

Did you know: after gold was discovered in Victoria, Melbourne and Sydney entered into a city rivalry? As the feud developed, both cities were desperate to become Australia’s capital so the now capital, Canberra, was created to settle the dispute.

1900s – War and Regrowth

In historic Sydney, you weren't able to sunbathe in public
Sydney is globally renowned for its beautiful beaches, but you couldn’t always swim or sunbathe on them

In 1901, the country became the Commonwealth of Australia, and Sydney, now with a growing population of more than one million, became the capital of New South Wales. The end of the 20th century saw a shift in cultural characteristics of the city as a whole with now outdated social structures being overturned. Daylight bathing on historic Sydney beaches was previously seen as indecent, but in 1902 restrictions on bathing were lifted thus Sydney became a sun chasers’ city.

Fast forward to 1914 and 60,000 Australian troops were killed fighting for Great Britain in World War I and although Sydney suffered hugely as The Great Depression swept over the globe in the 1920s, it still managed to complete construction of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. The landmark took 1,400 labourers eight years to build and cost millions, but has since easily made back its cost in tolls and tourism revenue.

Sydney Harbour Bridge took eight years to complete
Sydney Harbour Bridge was a feat of engineering and architecture

Not long after the end of the First World War, the Second broke out with Australia again siding with Great British forces to defeat Nazi Germany. Almost 30,000 Australians lost their lives in World War II but in the years following, the city introduced an immigration program which greatly diversified Sydney in the aftermath of the war. Rapid economic regrowth and social transformation has earned historic Sydney a place in the list of top most multicultural cities in the world today: attracting a large number of international visitors each year for both business travel and relocation. In a culmination of the city’s indigenous heritage and socioeconomic regeneration, Sydney was recognised in the year 2000 as it hosted the second Australian-based Summer Olympic Games. The opening ceremony featured a performance of dance and theatre showcasing a glimpse of Australian history ending with Aboriginal athlete, Cathy Freeman, lighting the iconic Olympic torch.

Now we know that was a lot to get through in such a short space of time, but Sydney’s history is so rich that we knew our readers would love to learn a few things about it. At SilverDoor Apartments we believe a business trip to Sydney doesn’t have to be all work no play: now you’re clued up on the city’s heritage, browse our vast collection of apartments in the area – starting with our handpicked recommendations – then get started on planning your after-work adventures.