New South Publishing, University of New South Wales, 2017, pp1-334, ISBN 9781742234953 (paperback)
Local histories of suburbs or villages can be yawningly dull and somewhat parochial. What is of interest and deep meaning to the writer is often of unremarkable and seemingly everyday ordinariness to the non-local reader. Louis Nowra’s latest book, Woolloomooloo, A Biography is not one of these dreary suburban histories. Rather, it is a deeply rich, riveting riot of the history and daily life of a remarkable part of Sydney.
Nowra has written an incredibly engaging, lively and vivid portrait of the ‘Loo with its 63 streets, its industrial history of the dockside wharves (and later the motor car industry) and its plethora of eccentric pubs and brothels – both low level and upmarket which dotted the streetscapes, together with the bawdy boarding houses, the crumbling terraced houses and the derelict slums. In essence the ‘Loo was an unkempt, shabby landscape and long typified as a place of ill repute.
Certainly this small yet crowded residential district has famously had a sordid, seedy reputation and a dubious, indeed, at times, disturbing history of violence, vice and criminality. So much so that in 1905 a Woolloomooloo Renaming Committee was formed to campaign to change the name in an attempt to disassociate the area from its ‘evil repute’. In urban histories the ‘Loo is remembered and characterised by sex and scandal, crime and corruption, pestilence, plague and poverty. To be sure, there is plenty of all this in the book and the author does not gloss over the dark and the macabre incidents and inhabitants of the area, past or indeed present. Yet in Nowra’s hands Woolloomooloo is also so much more than this; it becomes instead a beautiful, deeply flawed and yet fascinating space where people, place, history and belonging collide, and where diverse, different, and sometimes desperate neighbours have somehow forged a strong and enduring identity.
At the heart of this book are the people who have lived and worked in the ‘Loo. The biography is bursting with an absurdly eclectic melting pot of characters and along the way we meet sailors, razor gangs, larrikins, madams, tradies, artists, designers, European immigrants, depressives, cross dressers, conmen, Chinese hawkers, alcoholics, activists and American tourists to mention but a few. Some were barking mad, others just plain bad – but most were and indeed are, simply flawed people trying to live the best life possible.
The book interweaves Nowra’s own observations from the bar and the friendships he has forged as a regular at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, Dowling Street, with a very well researched history of the area. As such it is part history, part observational, and also part private memoir. Nowra’s personal chapters reflect on the colourful, the sometimes bonkers, sometimes profoundly tragic stories of his own encounters with the people of Woolloomooloo. Rather than detract from the historical content of the rest of the book, they add beautifully to it, and flesh it out in a real, heartfelt, tangible way. And so the part history/part memoir genre, as a literary technique, works exceptionally well, engaging the reader by vividly portraying a colourful mixture of the past with the present. As an avid reader of Sydney’s history, it also seductively and easily hooked me in to keep turning the pages, wanting to know more.
The history chapters chart the district from its Aboriginal origins, to early colonial settlement and its rapid residential development by the middle of the nineteenth century. There were no planning or building regulations and the area soon became a warren of lanes and alleyways where pubs and brothels proliferated, ossifying the Loo’s reputation as worse ‘than the teeming slums of Calcutta or Bombay’. Nowra also explores the Larrikin menace of the late nineteenth century, the razor gang era of the 1920s and 1930s, the war years and the fights over redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. The remaining terraced houses that dot the ‘Loo today were saved from the behemoth of redevelopment by the Green Bans Movement and Local Action groups. The finger wharf, threatened with demolition in the 1990s, was renovated in 1999 with $300 million and turned into 345 apartments. Today it adds glamour and glitz to the suburb, yet it is also an enduring reminder that Woolloomooloo was once a bustling port, the place where troops boarded ships during the First and Second World Wars and the main passenger wharf for newly arriving migrants in the 1950s and 1960s.
My one (academic) criticism would be the lack of footnotes. There are none and the bibliography is also rather limited. Nowra has clearly made extensive use of art, literature, film and history but also crime reports and coroners inquests held into sudden deaths (usually drownings, murders and suicides) – and yet there are no references to back up the historical material. There is however a large grateful nod to TROVE at the National Library of Australia.
Overall, this book made me want to get off the sofa forthwith, go to Woolloomooloo and become the ‘flaneur’ which Nowra has styled himself on; to leisurely stroll round this eccentric and curious area of East Sydney with a pit-stop at the Old Fitzroy Hotel and maybe a few more in one of the numerous historical pubs along the way. It is, as the author suggests, a place to explore from the street; to observe, to experience, to discover its ‘pockets of beauty and charm and small enclaves redolent of the past unnoticed by others’. Looking for Woolloomooloo’s past in its streets and narrow alleys and how it has imprinted itself on the present is captured brilliantly in this new and inventively written book. It is also quite possibly the perfect activity for the Easter long weekend.
 Louis Nowra, Woolloomooloo A Biography, New South, 2017, p11
 Louis Nowra, Woolloomooloo A Biography, New South, 2017, p123
 Ibid, p 9