Surely few stairways in Sydney have seen as much drama as the McElhone Stairs. Constructed in 1904, the 113 sandstone stairs loom over Brougham Street and the naval base below in Woolloomooloo. It soon became a well-worn path for everyone from sailors, residents, prostitutes, business people and tourists moving between the lively hubs of Wolloomooloo and Kings Cross.
The hive of human activity on these stairs over the decades has inspired artists, writers and filmmakers to try and distill its essence. In 1944, Sali Herman won the Wynne Prize for his landscape painting which was swept up in the ‘drama of a formidable staircase [and] how it can diminish human scale’ 1 while John Olsen tried to capture the ‘the urban pulse of the steps as a transitional zone where sailors, soldiers and drunks made their way to the bright lights of Kings Cross’.2
However perhaps one of the most intriguing uses of the stairway was its role in a Cold War espionage case.
In 1962 Ivan Fedorovich Skripov, First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Australia, concealed an aluminium message container in one of the balustrades. It was meant to be collected by another operative ‘Sylvia’. Skripov had already used other Sydney public spaces to plant messages for her, including at a water meter under Sydney Harbour Bridge and a grave in one of Sydney’s cemeteries. Written with invisible ink, the messages had to be developed using a solution based on chemical crystals contained in pill capsules.
Copies of the messages leading to the McElhone Stairs are held in the National Archives, with one reading:
“Glad to have your answer in time. Urgently need your help. Please collect container on the first landing of the McElhone Stairs on the way from Victoria Street to Cowper Wharf Road, Woollomooloo (Repeat – McElhone Stairs).”
Unfortunately for Skripov the operative “Sylvia” was in fact double agent Kay Marshall from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). 3 The contained was seized and Skripov and his wife given seven days to leave the country.
Today its more common to see McElhone Stairs used by Sydney’s residents as they punish their bodies for fitness by running up and down the 113 risers, earning the stairway its other name the ‘Stairs of Doom’ or ‘Stairs of Death’.
Architect Jennifer Preston wrote a fascinating suite of entries about some of the stairways in Sydney for the Dictionary, and you can read these, along with her entry on McElhone Stairs, here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/contributor/preston_jennifer
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
1 Daniel Thomas, Sali Herman, Sydney and London: William Collins Australia Ltd, 1971, 20
2 John Olsen, McElhone Steps 1964, Art Gallery of New South
Wales DA9.1964, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/DA9.1964/ viewed 23 January 2018; Peter Emmett, Sydney
Metropolis Suburb Harbour, Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2000,109
3 ‘Legal Resident’, Virtual Reading Room, National Archives of Australia http://vrroom.naa.gov.au/records/?tab=about&ID=25376