When the white settlers had arrived at Warrane and renamed it ‘Sydney Cove’, they had brought with them deadly diseases. Within the first twelve months large numbers of the local people were dead, many from a disease that may have been smallpox. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, just over one hundred years later, the forest the white settlers had landed in was gone, the stream they had relied on for water was closed in, and they were facing deadly diseases themselves. Large areas of the city were cordoned off and quarantined in the first months of 1900 during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Parts of the city they had built were resumed and demolished.
The Sydney Corporation Amendment Act1900 empowered the City Council to resume land for purposes connected with streets and public places, but it was the 1905 amendment of that act which gave the council the power to resume land for slum clearance and public housing purposes. Between 1905 and 1917 the council made 83 resumptions, starting in Ultimo, then in Wexford Street, Haymarket, Camperdown and Chippendale. Surry Hills lost 75% of its housing stock between 1900 and the 1930s as the council cleared the area and rezoned it commercial and industrial.[i]A lot of property had already been resumed for the extension of the railway, including the Convent of the Good Samaritan (built on the site of the Carters’ Barracks), the Benevolent Asylum (built in 1821), and the Devonshire Street cemetery.
When Ruth Park and Darcy Niland went to live in Surry Hills in 1942, the area was still full of tiny, cramped houses with little planning for hygiene. Ruth Park turned the slum into the ground-breaking, award-winning trilogy, The Harp in the South. She and Niland described it in their joint autobiography, The Drums Go Bang!
The shrieks and screams of the Saturdee-arvo merrymakers filtered through the walls; someone was mercilessly beating a child two backyards away, and the indescribable smell of the slums, of stale food and a century of dirt, unwashed bodies, beer, and an unbearable contiguity of lives filled that little damp-stained room.[ii]
The government’s slum clearance program came under intense scrutiny after The Harp in the Southwon the 1946 Sydney Morning Heraldliterary competition, and in the 1950s the area Ruth Park had written about, bounded by Devonshire, Clisdell, Belvoir and Riley Streets, was demolished. There had been eight streets with up to 900 terrace houses in the area: they were replaced by the Northcott Estate towers, with 591 apartments, opened in December 1961. Ruth Park attended the opening. Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1963.
Few of the original inhabitants of the area were rehoused at Northcott[iii]. The rats, the ‘cramped and squalid streets’, the ‘dark congested hovels’[iv]might have been gone but so were the people with their ‘uncluttered, basic kindness’.[v]The people were scattered to the wider suburbs.
Some people were rehoused by the Housing Commission in the 1950s in new developments at Ryde, Villawood, Maroubra, Seven Hills, Ermington, Rydalmere and Dundas Valley. The first planned neighbourhood estate was at Orphan School Creek in Canley Vale, with between 200 and 300 detached and semi-detached houses.[vi]
In the early 1960s the Housing Commission widened its horizons and built its first new town. The Green Valley estate was built between 1961 and 1965 to house 25,000 people in 6000 new properties.[vii]It nearly doubled the population of nearby Liverpool. Its suburbs – Ashcroft, Busby, Cartwright, Heckenburg, Hinchinbrook, Miller and Sadleir – were named after early (white) luminaries of the district. Its street names were themed as well, with cattle in Busby (such as Frieisian, Devon, Aberdeen Streets) birds in Hinchinbrook (Emu, Robin, Egret Streets) and sheep in Miller (Merino, Shropshire and Leicester Streets).
The 1966 census showed that the people were predominantly of British origin – 98%, which was higher than the NSW figure of 96%. But their ages showed a population wildly at variance with the NSW average – 20.6% were aged under 5, compared to 9.5% in NSW. Only 40.1% were aged over 20, compared to 62.9% in NSW. It was a population thrown out to fend for itself, with few leaders and few resources.
[ii]Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, The Drums go Bang!, Angus & Robertson, 1956, p.106.
[iii]What have they done there? Two years at Northcott: An observation of a work in progress. Emily Mayo – In consultation with all partners. Big hART, December 2004.
[iv]Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, The Drums go Bang!, Angus & Robertson, 1956, p192.
[v]Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, The Drums go Bang!, Angus & Robertson, 1956, p151.
[vi]http://www.housing.nsw.gov.au/About+Us/History+of+Public+Housing+in+NSW/The+1950s.htmviewed 25 May 2010