By 1788, Gadigal land management had shaped today’s Darlinghurst into an orderly woodland of Scribbly Gum, Red Bloodwoods and Sydney Red Gums. The cool fires they set in winter and spring regenerated native plants and cleared scrub growth. Kangaroos, wallabies and birds in these woodlands supplemented the mainstay of the Gadigal diet, which was seafood sourced from the nearby coastal bays. While First Nations peoples and culture did not disappear in 1788, it was the start of their dispossession. From the 1790s, this area was converted to European-style farming, disrupting Gadigal access to resources and practices of caring for country.
Merchant Thomas Burdekin arrived in Sydney in 1828, and aquired up a vast amount of real estate across Sydney, including the current site. Upon his death in 1844, this property passed to his wife Mary Ann, and became known as ‘Burdekin’s paddock’. The family also owned other paddocks in the area, moving a small herd of cattle between them to graze. In 1866, local resident John H. Hunt complained to the City Council that the movement of cows to and from the Liverpool and Forbes Street paddock was destroying a nearby water-course that then ran between Forbes and Ann Street. The land passed to different members of the Burdekin family until its sale in 1923.
A new feature introduced to 262 Liverpool Street in the recent renovation work has been a set of public art gates designed by Barkandji Elder Uncle Badger Bates in collaboration with artisan blacksmith Matt Mewburn. The gates retell the Dreaming story of the seven sisters, one of the most widely distributed ancient songlines across Aboriginal Australia. The story relates to a star cluster known as the Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus. It tells the tale of seven sisters fleeing from a man who wanted one of the sisters for his wife, even though it was forbidden under traditional law due to their respective skin groups. In an effort to escape, the sisters leapt into the sky to become stars, only for the man to jump after them, constantly following them as a solitary star behind the seven during their journey across the night sky.
The lack of buildings on this site until the 1920s meant it provided a convenient gathering place for the local community. For instance, on 3 February 1865 an impromptu crowd gathered at the corner of Liverpool and Forbes Street, attracted by the howls of prisoners coming from nearby Darlinghurst Gaol. They would later learn that the prisoners were protesting the whipping of one of the inmates, Irishman James Hill, who had been part of a trio known as the Monaro bushrangers. Later the site became a setting for political meetings, with the local member for Darlinghurst, Sir Daniel Levy, holding several rallies there between 1910 and 1913.
On 31 July 1927, the First Church of Christ Scientist, Sydney opened its new premises at Liverpool and Forbes Street. Christian Science was a relatively new faith, founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the United States in 1879. It had gained many adherents in Sydney since the first Christian Science services commenced there in 1900 with just five attendees. The Liverpool Street church had been designed to seat 1,200 parishioners, but around 2,500 persons squeezed into every corner of the building to attend the first service in 1927. Appropriately for such a community gathering, the sermon lesson was on ‘love’.
In 2010 the church was sold to venture capitalist Mark Carnegie and converted into a private residence. Gatherings remained popular at the site during Carnegie’s tenure there, ranging from lavish, Gatsby-themed parties to exclusive book club meetings where classic works were discussed by various well-known figures, from American feminist Gloria Steinem to NSW Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi. Today the premises are known as Yirranma Place, which means ‘a place where many create’, signalling the hope that it will continue to bring people together. The new offices are envisaged as forming a new community hub and philanthropic precinct for the city.
Music was performed by Australian First Nations peoples not only at corroborees but throughout everyday life. Colonists described Gadigal women frequently singing while fishing from their canoes, their voices carrying across the waters to the shore. Europeans recorded witnessing corroborees involving the sounds of singing, beating wooden instruments and rhythmic dancing; one of the spots where these occasions occurred was at Bennelong Point, now the site of the Sydney Opera House. As hills were also prime locations for corroborees, it is possible that similar events occurred in the vicinity of Darlinghurst heights.
From 1909 to 1915, the Burlington Picture Palace operated an open-air cinema onsite with seating for some 2,000 people. Although this was the era of silent film, screenings were not soundless. A live brass band provided accompanying music to enhance the films’ atmosphere. Vaudeville acts also performed on the Burlington stage in between film showings, ranging from tenor singers to comic impersonators to monologues by dramatic actors. The Burlington’s grand opening on Saturday evening, 18 December 1909, was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as an immediate success: ‘Attracted by the band, the popular prices, and the cool evening air, a considerable gathering assembled, and warmly applauded the films.’
Today one of the key heritage features of the building is its large orchestral-style organ, considered one of the most important organs in New South Wales. In 1925, Sydney’s Christian Science community commissioned noted organ-builder Josiah Eustace Dodd to build this instrument for their new church. At a cost of £3,365 to construct (around $280,000 today), the organ consists of 2,180 pipes, three keyboards of 61 notes and a peddle board of 30 notes. Performances on the organ were broadcast on Sydney radio from the 1930s onwards. The organ continued to be used for occasional performances by orchestral groups during the building’s era as a private residence in the 2010s. The building’s preservation will enable the organ’s continued use for its intended purpose into the future.
A temporary school was conducted onsite in 1883, due to overcrowding at the nearby public school in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst. While older students continued to study at the Palmer Street school, the younger ones attended classes on the vacant allotment. Within a few months, the opening of the Darlinghurst Public School at the corner of Liverpool Street and Womerah Avenue ended the need for these temporary accommodations. Children continued to be attracted to the paddock as a playground though across the late nineteenth century, especially when a merry-go-round was installed there in 1893.
From the 1920s, the First Church of Christ Scientist, Sydney, operated a well-attended Sunday School. The spacious schoolroom contained a library, lavatories, cloakrooms, and rooms for the teachers and superintendent. One individual recalled attending the school in the mid 1970s. According to their recollection, church members used to drive out to poorer suburbs like Hillsdale where mostly migrant families lived. They would then chauffeur dozens of kids to the Sunday school. After hymns were sung, the children would be taken for bible lessons, with children from different neighbourhoods each occupying separate tables with their own teacher.
The mission of the current owners of 262 Liverpool Street, the Paul Ramsay Foundation, is to end cycles of disadvantage in Australia. One of its key areas of focus is young people, given the hundreds of thousands of children growing up in poverty in the country today. The foundation recognises that educational opportunities and fostering effective learning environments both inside and outside of school can have a transformational role in tackling entrenched poverty by preventing it being passed down to future generations.