John Elias – Sin Bin

November 2, 2011

This fascinating book is the memoir of John Elias, a Sydney Rugby League footballer and hoodlum. It was written with Josh Massoud and published in 2010. I’m assuming that John Elias told his stories to Josh Massoud, who then crafted it into the written form. It reads well, as if Elias is speaking to us. Essentially, the book gives a vivid sense of life in Sydney in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as a glimpse into some of the connections between professional sport and the underworld. I knew the story of John Elias quite well before reading the book. I watched him play for the Balmain Tigers in the late 1980s and also read about him in the newspapers a few times when he was in legal trouble. The key theme of the book is that although he played sport at the top professional level, he feels that he never fulfilled his potential due to various problems arising from his criminal activities. At various times in his life he was involved in car theft, debt collection and standover activities, harness race fixing as well as attempting to fix a Rugby League game. He claims that his participation in such unlawful activities was motivated more by thrill seeking than financial considerations. Whatever, as a result he had several stints in prison and his football career suffered, particularly in later years when he was trying to move into a coaching career.

Overall, it’s a great read, with some outrageous stories of his various activities, mixed with certain amount of regret and self-awareness. It gives a good sense of League in the old days, before the big TV money, when players had regular jobs, (or sold stolen goods from their car boots). It’s also an interesting piece in the giant jigsaw puzzle of trying to understand how Sydney works.

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William Street 1916

October 24, 2011

The full title of this book is Faces of the Street, William Street, Sydney 1916. Written by Max Kelly and published in 1982 by Doak Press. I discovered it while browsing the architecture books at my local library. The core of the book is a series of photographs documenting the south side of William St in 1916. The photos were made by the City of Sydney prior to these buildings being demolished due to street widening. They were made to document what was there, probably for legal reasons connected to compensating the owners. Along with this a thorough survey was made of who owned the buildings, the tenants and the uses to which the buildings were put.

Max Kelly, who is an historian, has based the book around this documentation along with some extra history about William Street. Probably the most interesting element of the book is the photographs. It is uncommon to find such careful and detailed documentation of Sydney from this era. There is a certain parallel with the work of Eugene Atget in Paris, although the photos were made for different reasons. There is a uniformity to the framing with all the buildings shown in correct perspective and well lit. This sort of taxonomic describing has similarities with conceptual works such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha as well as the serial projects of the Bescher’s.It would be possible to link all the photos together and have an extended panorama of every building along that side of the street.

Originally William St was a narrow track leading east of the city. In 1830 it was turned into a street to allow access to some of the grand estates around the Kings Cross area (then known as Woolloomooloo Heights). Anyone who has lived in Sydney for awhile will understand how powerful interests can cause well-intentioned plans to be altered for the worse. As Max Kelly notes, William Street has always been a thoroughfare, never a destination. Oxford St, Paddington is a destination – people will travel there to walk about and look at the shops. William St has always been somewhat of a barren environment that most people use to get from one place to another. The first plan was for the street to follow its current course but to go over the hill at the Darlinghurst end where the grade wasn’t as steep. However this would have caused it to impinge on some private property and the landowners objected, leading to the routing of the street to the north, where for more than a century it was necessary to divert via Bayswater Rd and Kings Cross Rd to get to the Eastern suburbs. At the time these were known as Upper William Street North and Upper William St South.

The main section of William St was 41 feet wide and in 1916 the City Council decided to widen it to 100 feet to accomodate the extra traffic of the growing city. There were also grand ideas about turning it into an impressive boulevard – Sydney’s Champs Elysees, an idea that was revived in the 1970s with similar lack of success. Most of the buildings on the south side were demolished and the owners compensated. The exceptions were some of the pubs, where the brewery owners were allowed to rebuild them on the same corner positions on the newly widened road. This demonstration of the political power of the alcohol industry is something that will be familiar to current Sydney residents.The Council survey found that most of the properties were owned by absentee landlords, with only four being owner occupied. Most landlords had no interest in maintaining the properties, leading to neglect and disrepair.The buildings predominantly housed businesses that catered to the transient working class of the area – pubs, lodging houses, tea rooms and the like.

 

This wonderful book was published in 1999 by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, edited by Joy Hughes. It is, as the title declares, a photographic record of hundreds of houses that once existed around Sydney but have since been demolished for various reasons. The book is divided by area and each house gets a few sentences of description. The photos vary from professional architectural images to quite amateur snaps, the point being that the photos were gathered for this book and they had to use whatever was available as the buildings no longer existed. Many of the houses probably didn’t seem worthy of being properly recorded by the owners, or if they were the photos have fallen into obscurity. The whole book is fascinating, however my favourite buildings are the grand mansions around the city and Eastern suburbs, a few of which are shown below.

Cliffbrook, Gordon St, Coogee. Built 1873, demolished 1976 for town houses.

Mundarrah Towers, Clovelly Rd, Clovelly. Built 1860, demolished 1923 for a hotel

Grantham, Wylde St, Potts Point. Built 1839 with additions 1871, demolished 1937 for flats.

Maramanah, Darlinghurst. Built 1882, demolished 1954. It was on the corner of Macleay St & Elizabeth Bay Rd. It was resumed in 1949 by the Council of the City of Sydney and the site incorporated into Fitzroy Gardens.

Craigend, Darlinghurst. Built 1829 by Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor-General of NSW. Demolished 1922 for a residential subdivision. It was in the area of present day Surrey and Caldwell Streets.