Glimpses of Another Time: Sydney Streetscapes

Recently I attended a talk on early photography in Sydney. The focus was on the changing streetscapes of the city from the late 1880s through to the early 1920s. The first photo of Sydney was taken in 1841, and changes in recording technology led to an increase in landscape photography with the introduction of dry plates. One of the benefits was as the glass plate negatives were less likely to warp or distort there remains a vivid record of what the city was like all those decades ago.

There were a couple of photographers in particular who extensively recorded the changes in Sydney and its suburbs, including panoramic shots from some of the many bays looking back towards Sydney. Henry King and Charles Kerry were the photographers, and a portion of their work is held in the Tyrell Photographic Collection which is now held in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The collection consists of 7,903 glass plate negatives which provide a fascinating glimpse into another time.

Some of the more visible markers of change over the decades were the transport options available to the city’s population. The earlier photos show people streaming across the wide streets, dodging hansom cabs and horse-drawn omnibuses. The omnibus could carry 24 passengers and there is one restored vehicle still on view at the Powerhouse Museum. Then came the trams, including steam engine trams that could cope with the steep inclines and grades of the sprawling city. There were photos of clusters of hansom cabs lined up at the early railway stations and along the foreshore of Circular Quay, waiting for trains and ferries to arrive and disgorge their passengers. The last hansom cab in Sydney – 1937 – was also recorded in a photograph.

Another couple of photographs captured the thousands of well-dressed spectators at the Association Ground, later renamed the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Members’ Pavillion had mostly men but also quite a few well attired women in long, elegant white dresses. Photos of beach outings captured men wading in their long bathing suits. Women were more likely to use the bathing cages, curious contraptions that had room for changing into a bathing suit before being wheeled into the water where you could dip into the ocean from the safety of the cage. It would keep sharks – and marauding men – right out of the way.

The talk covered just some of the extensive collection, and it provided an interesting glimpse into an earlier time.

Have you seen anything recently that makes you ponder on the past?

[Photo taken in the stables at Eskbank House (Lithgow) where there was the last working hansom cab from Parramatta on display, to the right of the photo]


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