Sydney's story

Home to the Eora people, convicts, dynasties of influence, fortune seekers and gold dust. Ours are the stories of contact, the beginnings of industry, the first constitution and the arrival of international modernism. We are Sydney’s story.

Home to the Eora people

This fighting war spear (in two parts) has jagged oyster shell barbs inset on the spear tip fixed with Grass Tree resin.
Walangalyung - war spear. This fighting war spear (in two parts) has jagged oyster shell barbs inset on the spear tip fixed with Grass Tree resin. Such spears were deadly as they were unable to be retracted, the sharp barbs breaking off and causing the victim to die a painful death from infection. Along the coast oyster shells were used, whilst further inland Bidjigal redstone or silcrete would be used for the same purpose. Made by Eora Dharawal man Steven Russell, 2009. Museum of Sydney. Sydney Living Museums

Barrabula barrama mangine wey enguna Barrabula barrama mangine wey enguna”1

Aboriginal peoples have walked, lived and read the landscape of what we now know as Sydney for over 1000 generations. We know that across the Sydney basin a number of languages were spoken and that the people lived off the land, relying on fish and shell fish for subsistence. We know also that the land was managed, largely through fire and that complex social and political structures existed. While much of the evidence of Aboriginal occupation has been destroyed, there remain some sites that have survived and can provide us with some clues to how these people lived and saw the world. New research is beginning to reveal the stories of early Aboriginal Sydney. In recent years rock engravings have been discovered at Vaucluse House and an open campsite at Elizabeth Farm containing stone artefacts. Sydney Living Museums continues to explore the connections of our sites to wider evidence of Aboriginal life in Sydney prior to European contact.




  • 1. 'A Song of the Natives of New South Wales’, from Edward Jones, Musical Curiosities; or a Selection of the most characteristic National Songs, & Airs, Consisting of Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Danish, Lapland, Malabar, New South Wales, French, Italian, Swiss … the Harp, or the Piano-Forte … London, 1811


Gadigal Place

Edge of the Trees


Home to convicts

Black and white drawing of clean shaven man wearing neckerchief.
John Knatchbull, artist unknown, lithograph on paper c1844. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Gift of Leo Schofield AM 2005 Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program

Never having been in Hyde Park Barracks before, I was horror struck, not only by the dirty, miserable inmates, but by the dirty, lousy, filthy state of the place, a disgrace to any person who was connected with the establishment. In this room we were hurled without bed or blanket …1

John Knatchbull (1792‑1844) was one of up to 50,000 convicts who passed through the Hyde Park Barracks between 1819 and 1848.

  • 1. John Knatchbull, quoted in Colin Roderick, John Knatchbull: from Quarterdeck to Gallows; Including the Narrative Written by Himself in Darlinghurst Gaol, 23rd January–13th February 1844, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963

The Wentworths, Macleays & Macarthurs

Three sets of framed husband and wife portraits: top to bottom - the Wentworths, the Macleays and the Macarthurs.
The Wentworths, the Macleays and the Macarthurs. Sydney Living Museums

The dramas that shape a nation’s common life, its field of shared imagination – certain stock characters, certain moral themes, certain favourite endings – must be the work of many authors. But some authors, thanks to their intellect and imagination, do more than others.1

The Sydney Living Museums portfolio includes six magnificent homesteads, that were lived in and worked by some of our most significant families, as well as several lesser known families. These homes reveal the private sides of those very public lives.


Top (L-R):
William Charles Wentworth, James Anderson, 1872, oil painting. State Library of NSW: ML 411
Sarah Wentworth, William Nicholas, 1853, watercolour. Vaucluse House, Sydney Living Museums 
Middle (L-R):
Mrs Alexander Macleay [Elisabeth (Eliza) Macleay, nee Barclay] artist and date unknown, c1800. State Library of NSW: ML 20
Alexander Macleay, Margaret Carpenter, 1838, oil painting, after original by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1825. Australian Museum
Bottom (L-R):
John Macarthur, artist unknown, c1850s, oil painting. State Library of NSW: DG 222.
Elizabeth Macarthur, artist and date unknown, oil painting. State Library of NSW: DG 221

  • 1. Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia: a history, Volume 2: Democracy, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2004

Fortune seekers

Sydney Living Museums Image

When he first came here, in 1839, he was employed to print by hand a little, single‑sheet paper called the ‘Sydney Morning Herald.’ Afterwards he ‘set up’ the ‘People’s Advocate,’ and later still set off for the gold diggings. Here the tide of fortune set in strongly in his favour, and he made sufficient money, some years later, to set up shop as a printer on a large scale in King-street, whence he made his one and only remove to Pitt-street.1

Francis and Ellen Cunninghame emigrated to Sydney from Ireland in 1840 and were among the first tenants of the Susannah Place terraces in The Rocks. Their daughter Ellen was the first child to be born there. Like so many migrants to Australia, the Cunninghames found fortune and success in their new home.

  • 1. 'Death of Mr Francis Cunninghame’, The Daily Telegraph, 16 May 1884.

... and gold dust

Sydney Living Museums Image

To the mother of Jim no colder address would be true, my heart to you is the same as to my own dearest Mother. Jim’s sisters are my sisters, his friends my friends, his hopes were my hopes, his grave will be my resting place and I trust I may be worthy to be with him when we shall all meet to part no more, when an all‑seeing God who can read all hearts will be the judge.1

At the Mint in 1869, Scott sold gold dust that he had stolen from a bank in the Victorian mining town of Mount Egerton. A year later he was jailed for acting under ‘False pretences’ after he presented dud cheques [SRNSW 3/6043]. The Mint is an extremely significant building, beyond its connection to the bushranging story, the building was originally Sydney’s first hospital.

  • 1. Letter from A G Scott, aka bushranger Captain Moonlight, to the mother of James Nesbitt, 19 January 1880, written from Darlinghurst Gaol. SRNSW: NRS 906, [4/825.2]

Stories of contact

Sydney Living Museums Image

When we reached the Governor’s house, Baneelon expressed honest joy to see his old friend, and appeared pleased to find that he had recovered of his wound … Baneelon seemed to consider himself quite at home, running from room to room with his companions, and introducing them to his old friends, the domestics, in the most familiar manner.1

The Museum of Sydney stands on the site of the first Government House. It was here that Admiral Arthur Phillip, RN, the first Governor of NSW, brought Aboriginal men Colebee and Bennelong following their capture in an attempt to learn more about the local indigenous population. Bennelong remained there for five months, dining with the Governor regularly.

  • 1. Watkin Tench, 1790, quoted in Tim Flannery (ed), Watkin Tench's 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

Related content

On firm foundations


the fledgling wool industry

View of house across river among trees.
The residence of John McArthur Esq (detail), Joseph Lycett, 1825. Elizabeth Farm. This aquatint depicts Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta. National Library of Australia

 … dearest best beloved Woman, how great are my obligations to you! … All you have done and all you propose to do in the management of our concerns appears to me most prudent and beneficial …1

Elizabeth and John Macarthur founded Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta in 1793. This letter was penned while John Macarthur was in Europe seeking to improve the family’s prospects. In his absence, Elizabeth built up the family properties, consolidating their pastoral empire and managing their business interests.

  • 1. Excerpt from a letter written by John Macarthur to his wife Elizabeth, 1814. Quoted in Sibella Macarthur Onslow (ed), Some early records of the Macarthurs of Camden, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1914

Related content

Stories from Elizabeth Farm


the first constitution

Gold watch on chain with handwritten note.
Original pocket watch owned by William Charles Wentworth, and its bill of sale (background). Vaucluse House. Photo © Rob Little/RLDI for Sydney Living Museums

Unhappily, Sir ... There is within me a flood of lava which ever and anon boils over, and which I cannot keep down. Sir, it is rather the infirmity of my nature than the fault of my heart.1

William Charles Wentworth was the author of NSW’s first constitution. The son of Dr D’Arcy Wentworth and convict Catherine Crowley, William Wentworth was an outspoken and prominent personality in the early colony who campaigned for civil rights and was one of the first native born to be elected to parliament. Married to former convict Sarah, Wentworth and his family were ostracised from Sydney elite society and made their home at Vaucluse.

  • 1. William Charles Wentworth addresses the Legislative Council of New South Wales, 2 September 1853, The Empire, 5 September 1853

Related content

Stories from Vaucluse House


The arrival of international modernism

Black and white photo of dark-haired man in shirt sleeves and tie at slanted drawing desk.
Harry Seidler at work, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, photographer unknown, c1943. Courtesy Penelope Seidler

When [the] house was finished, people used to come in ... people were four deep. My mother had to leave the house sometimes on the weekend, because they were all standing around the windows you know, trying to see this incredible contraption.1

In 1948, Harry Seidler, an aspiring young architect moved to Australia, bringing with him an international approach to modernism forged through creative collaborations with artists, architects, designers and engineers. One of the first houses he designed was Rose Seidler House.

  • 1. Architect Harry Seidler, interviewed by Siobhan McHugh for 'Frozen music: Rose Seidler House and the work of Harry Seidler', directed by Michael Power and produced by afterglow for Sydney Living Museums, 2004