There are a number of famous investigations of the housing conditions of the English poor and working classes: Chadwick's 1842 Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population, Beames' Rookeries of London (1852), Mearns' Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) and Charles Booth's monumental Life and Labour of the People in London (1898-99). Some have an extraordinary literary quality: Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England (1845, first English publication, 1887), and Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851-52), are still in print today.
Less well known are the Australian or, more to the point, the Sydney investigations. The 'housing question' was pursued here too, in the Sydney Morning Herald's articles on 'the Sanitary State of Sydney' (1851), W H Jevon's 'social surveys' of Sydney and other colonial towns (1854), Henry Parkes' 'Select Committee of Inquiry into the Condition of the Working Classes of the Metropolis' (1860), and the investigations of the Sydney City and Suburbs Sewerage and Health Board's Crowded Dwellings and Areas Committee (1875), hereinafter the SCSSHBCDAC.
It is with the work of the SCSSHBCDAC that we are concerned here, particularly the intensive personal investigations of housing in the City of Sydney by its two subcommittees, whose members comprised the City Medical Officer, the Mayor, City aldermen and other worthies. Their reports remain, in the opinion of the Brown Couch, compulsively readable and deserving of a wider audience than can be accommodated around the dusty bound volumes in which the SCSSHBCDAC's minutes of evidence are presently confined.
This is the first, therefore, in a series of extracts from the reports of the SCSSHBCDAC. These extracts show a different Sydney from the one in which many of us live today, and a different political culture – though the reader might also wonder at how much of each still persists now. They also remind that along with the reports of its earnest investigators, the nineteenth century also produced the penny dreadfuls.
*Episode 1. The Darling Harbour-side Horror.
Day 1. No 1 Sub-Committee (R B Read, Esq; MRCS, M Chapman, Esq). Kent, Clarence and Sussex Streets, from Liverpool-street to Druitt-street.
Met at 9 pm, on Wednesday, the 10th instant [November 1875], at the Volunteer Club, and proceeded to a portion of Brisbane Ward. Mr Fosbery, the Inspector General of Police, kindly placed at our disposal the services of Sergeant Larkin and Constable Mulqueeny, of the Detective Force, who rendered us valuable assistance. The night was remarkably cool, with a light southerly breeze blowing. Barometer, 29.72. The temperature in the open air 51•, in a well ventilated room 57•.
We commenced our inspection by examining the ‘Star of Peace’ and ‘Mill Hotels’, in Kent-street, which we found in fairly clean condition, the ventilation, however, being of an unsatisfactory character, as indeed was the case in almost every house we inspected, the old fashioned sash-windows being in use, which open only at the bottom, while the upper portion is immovable. The ‘Globe Hotel’, which we next visited, we found ventilated the same way; the rooms in this hotel were very low, and the closet in the yard exceedingly offensive.
We next inspected a block of buildings in at the corner of Sylas-lane and North-street, and spent some time examining a group of houses and cottages at the back, which we may class as entirely unfit for human habitation. The rooms are low, not more than 7 feet high, and in a small yard, 5 feet x 6 feet, there is one closet for six houses. In another, two closets, one of which is out of order, for about forty houses, and there is an absence of water to keep them clean. We also inspected some houses in St John’s Place, Sussex-street, which were in very bad condition, the ventilation being exceedingly deficient, and there being only one closet, without any door, for four houses; the stench from this closet was unbearable. Health under such circumstances is simply impossible.
In none of the houses we visited was the ventilation of a satisfactory character, and in many of them, in addition to this deficiency, the accommodation afforded for human beings is inferior to that provided for cattle and horses.
At midnight we found ourselves at the foot of Liverpool-street, at which place the stench from the head of Darling Harbour was offensive to a degree which we could scarcely have credited without personal experience of it. It appeared to us a matter of surprise that any persons at all could live in the immediate vicinity of this nuisance. It was low-tide at the time,– the whole of the foreshore was exposed, and the air reeked with the poisonous exhalations from the drainage polluting the harbour. Suffice it to say, that nothing that has been said or written on the subject of this horrible nuisance can equal the foul reality.
We concluded our inspection at 12.35, and did not reach our homes until 2 am.
Next episode: the Lewd Lodgers.