An exhibition highlighting one of the City of Sydney’s most important photographic collections explores the physical changes the City went through at the turn of the 20th century and the way people lived during this time, as well as the importance for future historians of documentation and record keeping!
The city’s built environment was dramatically altered during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Sydney Municipal Council had been struggling to condemn old or shonky buildings since the 1870s. In the twentieth century, the City Building Surveyor and City Architect Robert Brodrick decided to enlist modern technology to help him in his cause.
He started using photography to document buildings upon which he had served a condemnation notice. Owners and landlords served with these notices had to either fix up their building and make repairs, or the building would be condemned and demolished. Photographs would be taken of the buildings, prints developed and the photos pasted into albums for reference. Brodrick also anticipated that these images could be used in cases of legal disputation.
The City Building Surveyor’s Department used photography to document the city’s profound transformation in the first two decades of the 20th century. The photos were taken for one purpose – to document buildings. However, these photographs inadvertently capture the largely working class neighbourhoods and people being displaced by commercial and government redevelopment. For historians they are a goldmine!!!!
Fifty albums survive. The first 15 volumes of photograph albums cover condemnation and demolition in the inner city. But the value of photography as a documentary medium soon meant that council staff began applying photography to other parts of their work. So in the series of 50 albums, we also find groups of photos documenting resumption and slum clearance, plague prevention, regulation (everything from smoke nuisances to enclosed balconies to fruit and nut stores), building construction, decorations and illuminations.
The City Building Surveyor’s Condemnation and Demolition Books is a key photographic collection held in the City Archives comprising almost 5000 photographs and associated glass plate negatives.
A lot of work has been done to digitise the collection, and my fellow historian and Dictionary of Sydney author Laila Ellmoos has curated a beautiful new exhibition showcasing these extraordinary images, called Developing Sydney: Capturing Change 1900–1920.
In this Covid world, you can access all the material digitally.
You can experience the exhibition as a virtual online experience here: https://www.sydneycustomshouse.com.au/visit/exhibitions-events, and access all the photographs in the City of Sydney Archives catalogue in beautiful high-resolution, to zoom in on them and download them for your own use here https://archives.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nodes/view/1894649?
You can browse some of the original albums too: https://archives.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nodes/view/1877261?
You can even join Laila for a curator led tour of the virtual exhibition! Laila is hosting tours over the next four weeks, you can find details here : https://whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/events/curators-tour-developing-sydney-exhibition
To whet your appetite, we’ve included three of my favourite images here – click on them to go through to the larger versions on the City’s catalogue record too and have a look at all the interesting details you can find in each one.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio