2SER Breakfast listeners had a special treat today as Lisa talked about Letters of Complaint, just one of the projects she’s been working on in her role as the City Historian at the City of Sydney. 

A cliff-face stair-way, Darlinghurst c1886 (detail), by Frederic B Schell in 'Australasia illustrated', edited by Andrew Garran 1892, via the Internet Archive

A cliff-face stair-way, Darlinghurst c1886 (detail), by Frederic B Schell in ‘Australasia illustrated’, edited by Andrew Garran 1892, via the Internet Archive

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The City of Sydney Archives holds an extensive collection of 19th century correspondence, some of which are archived in a series called Letters Received. There are more than 57,600 letters in this series from the period 1843 to 1899.

Over the past five years or so, the City of Sydney Archives has been digitising this collection, and a dedicated group of volunteers have catalogued every single one. They are now all available for the public to access and download in PDF format from the City Archives catalogue, Archives Investigator, here.

These letters were sent to the Council by residents, businesses, and the colonial government, and cover all sorts of subjects. These letters are a treasure trove and give us a unique and intimate insight into daily life in Sydney in the 19th century.

There is a genre of correspondence amongst these letters received that is of particular interest to me, and that is the letter of complaint.

There are complaints about traffic congestion, neighbours who boiled up tripe for sale, smoke from boilers and oil based fires, and many, many complaints about smells. It was widely accepted at the time that disease was spread by offensive vapours or miasmas, so a bad smell was not just offensive or a sign that something was off, but was also thought to be an indicator of contagion and disease. With open drains & sewers, cesspits in backyards, tanneries, wool scourers and glue works throughout the city, there were plenty of smells to complain about.

My favourite letter though is about the goat nuisance of Woolloomooloo.

City of Sydney Archives 26/229/1056

Mr McVey’s letter about the goat nuisance of Woolloomooloo, City of Sydney Archives 26/229/1056

James McVey, of 70 Brougham Street Woolloomooloo, wrote to the Mayor of the City of Sydney in June 1888.

I beg to draw your attention to the nuisance of the goats that are allowed to roam at large in and around Brougham Street Woolloomooloo. The residents complain of the abbominable [sic] smells, and cannot get rest at night from the bleating of those animals. They are most disgusting where children are. Hoping you will find some plan to get rid of them as I have been to the police and complained by to no avail.
I am Yours Respectfully,
James McVey

You can download a copy of the original letter here.

Before I had encountered this letter, I had not been aware that Sydney had a “goat nuisance”. I wondered how widespread it might have been. Was it only in Woolloomooloo?  A quick search in Archives Investigator revealed that a clutch of letters were received by the Council about this issue. It seems goats were a nuisance not only in Woolloomooloo, but also in the Rocks, Surry Hills, Pyrmont and Ultimo!

For History Week last year I curated some of the most outstanding and bizarre letters of complaint, and with creative director Maeve Marsden (who is, by the by, also one of the talented creators of the fabulous cabaret Mothers Ruin on the history of gin), created a dramatisation based on these letters.

I’m very excited to say that we’ve now also created a free short series of podcasts based on this dramatisation and these letters, and that this has just been released!

There are six episodes covering different types of letters. Each podcast starts with a dramatisation and is followed by short commentary by me about the meaning of the letter. I encourage you to listen to these short podcasts to get a sense of the letters and the performance.

Click here to go the Letters of Complain podcasts

Click here to go the Letters of Complain podcasts

You can listen to the Letters of Complaint podcasts on your computer online here, just by clicking a button. You can also get them for android devices or through iTunes.

I really encourage you to explore the amazing treasure trove of Letters Received in the Archives for yourself too.  Go to Archives Investigator here and either choose the quick link on the right “Letters Received by Council, 1843-1899“, OR choose to do an Advanced Search (orange button) by Record Item (green button bottom right), put the number “26” into the Series Number field and then enter a keyword(s) in the Title file and click Search.

I have also made a list in the National Library’s TROVE catalogue here of the letters used in the performance for posterity and to make it easy to find these particular letters again.

And if you’re still wondering about those goats?

A lot of people kept goats in the city for fresh milk, and many were allowed to wander around, eventually becoming what we might now call ‘feral’. Mr McVey’s complaint was promptly investigated by the Inspector from the Council’s Department of Nuisances and he found that ‘this gentleman has very just grounds for complaint, that a number of goats both male and female have been prowling about the neighbourhood to the annoyance and disgust of the inhabitants‘.

The Council however couldn’t do anything about roaming goats unless the animal had an owner who could be identified and ordered to control or tether it. In this case, the Inspector of Nuisances had to refer the problem to the ‘Inspector of the police of the district who has issued instructions to his subordinates to take such action as will effectually remedy the evil ‘, or in other words, who would impound and eventually presumably shoot the unclaimed goats.

Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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