No 58 kitchen recreated to the 1950s, when it was home to the Anderson family, Susannah Place Museum. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

If these walls could talk...

Our curators peel back the layers from the walls and floors to reveal the humble histories of our places and the stories of the everyday people who lived there.

Here at Sydney Living Museums, the longer we work in our history-filled places, the more we discover about the people who, quite literally, shaped them. We read their stories in the marks and stains, the layers of paint and wallpaper, the objects lost below the floorboards and the changes that come with time.

As our curators question, research and tease out the real stories of these places, we invite our visitors to experience something of the lives of the people who once lived there.

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Susannah Place Museum

Anna Cossu, curator, City portfolio

Marks on walls, evidence of home improvements and remnants of paint, linoleum and wallpapers offer us a glimpse into the lives of the more than 100 families who called Susannah Place home between 1844 and 1990.

The number 58 on a faded green-painted surface with door bell below.
Front door of number 58 Gloucester Street. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

The Andersen effect: No 58

When Girlie and Martin Andersen and their teenage sons Jack and Ernie moved into 58 Gloucester Street, The Rocks, in 1949, the walls were painted in government-issue maritime brown. It didn’t take long for the brothers to paint the walls bright green and yellow. Their ‘bus colours’ paintwork can still be seen today, as can the outline of where the family’s large kitchen dresser once stood – it was too big to move during painting.

In fact, the kitchen retains evidence of the generations of families who filled the room with the sounds and smells of cooking between 1844 and 1974. Layers of linoleum flooring dating from the 1930s reveal not only the decorating tastes of former tenants, but also the arrangements of their tables and chairs, ice chests and, later, a fridge, which all left deep marks in the floor. In the corner, food spatters mark the countless meals cooked on the gas stove that once stood next to the old fuel stove.

From the early 1900s the government landlords – Sydney Harbour Trust and, later, the Maritime Services Board – maintained the house, installing gas, then electricity, and building corrugated iron washhouses. Tenants like the Andersen family added their own decorative and practical touches, building kitchen shelves and cupboards, and peppering the walls with an assortment of nails and hooks.

Black and white photograph of woman in kitchen, dressed in black with strand of pearls around neck.
Girlie Andersen in her basement kitchen, c1950s. Courtesy Jack Andersen

The wallpaper window: No 64

The two large street-facing windows and the angled corner doorway of 64 Gloucester Street point to the building’s original design and function as a shop. Although the shop’s furnishings were stripped out after it closed in 1935, the walls retain clues about its original fit-out.

Paint scrapes have revealed the room’s changing colour scheme, from the original blue distemper (a water-based paint) through to the light green and white combination painted in the 1970s. Shelving ran across two walls of the shop, with the shelves on one wall crooked. Did they sag over the years under the weight of various tins, jars, bottles and boxes, or did a 19th-century handyman put them up that way? We may never know.

Hidden beneath these layers of wallpaper and paint was the small internal window that tenant Jim Young remembered from his childhood. The window was perfectly positioned to allow his parents, Hugo and Clara Jane, to sit down for a meal and still see when their customers came into the shop, which was housed in the front room. Jim Young recalled his father blending, weighing and packaging tea on the dining room table. Perhaps this window also allowed Clara Jane to keep an eye on her four young children while she served customers.

Join us at our special community day on Sunday 14 September 2014 as we celebrate the 170th birthday of Susannah Place.

Sepia-toned photograph of two boys, one seated, and a woman, seated.
Clara Jane Youngein with her sons Jim and John (seated), c1910. Sydney Living Museums SP93/1-1

There was a small little window in the wall, which from the dining room you could see into the shop.

James (Jim) Young (Youngein), 1990. Tenant of 64 Gloucester Street, 1904–17

Old-fashioned shop interiro with long bench to right and shelving to right and back, carrying a variety of jars and packets, with objects hanging from hooks over the counter.
The corner shop re-created to c1915. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Hyde Park Barracks Museum

Dr Fiona Starr, curator, Macquarie Street portfolio

One of the most significant convict sites in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks was converted into Sydney’s female Immigration Depot in 1848, temporarily housing an estimated 40,000 women during its 38-year history. The barracks holds evidence of these former occupants in its walls, floors and ceilings.

Brown wooden chest with scratches and other signs of wear.
Trunk belonging to Margaret Hurley. Courtesy of Rose Marie Perry

A life in a chest: Margaret Hurley

From Gort, County Galway, 17-year-old Margaret Hurley was one of 2253 orphan girls from Irish workhouses, victims of the Great Famine, who were among the first occupants of the new female Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks, arriving 1848–50.

Hurley’s father, Thomas, had died, and her mother, Mary, was too poor to care for her. Leaving her homeland forever, Hurley and 193 other girls were bundled onto the Thomas Arbuthnot, moored at Plymouth, which set sail on 28 October 1849. During the voyage some of the girls would gather in circles to mourn the loss of their families and homeland with a crying lament (keening).

The ship sailed into Sydney Harbour on 3 February 1850, three-and-a-half months after leaving England. As the girls walked up the hill from Sydney Cove, their possessions were carried behind them on drays. Hurley’s simple wooden trunk contained everything she owned: clothing, a bible and a few small belongings. After staying just a few days at the depot, she travelled to Yass, where she was apprenticed as a house servant to Mr WH Broughton.

Margaret Hurley married Irish shepherd Joseph Patterson in 1852 and they had seven children. She died in Goobang, NSW, aged 90.

Her trunk passed on to her descendants, and this year, 164 years after she brought it to Sydney, the trunk will return to the Hyde Park Barracks to feature in a new display about the Immigration Depot.

Old photograph of woman wearing decorated head-dress and fringed scarf.
Portrait of Margaret Hurley. Courtesy of Patricia Williams

Forgotten fabric: Alice Peacock

An assisted immigrant from London, Alice Peacock arrived in Sydney in 1879 with her parents, David and Elizabeth, on board the clipper ship Samuel Plimsoll. As she was 14, she was old enough to travel in the single women’s compartment rather than with her parents.

During the voyage typhoid fever and typhus took hold of some of the passengers, so on arrival in Sydney the ship was detained at the Quarantine Station at Sydney Harbour’s North Head. After a wait of 18 days, Peacock was forwarded to the female Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks with 97 other young female passengers; her parents probably remained on board the ship until her father found work. She waited at the depot until her parents collected her.

Peacock left behind at the barracks a strip of linen on which she had written her name in black ink – perhaps it was used for tying up her possessions or as a label intended to be sewn onto her clothing. The strip was found by archaeologists beneath the floorboards in the centre of the stair hall on level 2. It’s possible the scrap was dropped by accident and then pulled under the boards by a rat making its nest.

The female Immigration Depot display opens at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum on 28 June 2014.

Stained strip of fabric with 'Alice Peacock' written on in a cursive style.
A piece of fabric bearing the name Alice Peacock, found under the floorboards at Hyde Park Barracks. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Justice & Police Museum

Nerida Campbell, curator, City portfolio

The Justice & Police Museum houses the Water Police Station, Water Police Court and Police Court that once made up one of the city’s busiest legal hubs. Crooks and cops, thugs and judges, locals and drifters – the guilty and the innocent have all left their stories here.

Head shot inscribed with "K. Leigh. 2.7.30. D. 94" side by side with full length portrait with hat and handbag.
Mug shot of Kate Leigh, 1930. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums JP89/610-4

Queen of the underworld: Kate Leigh

Notorious Sydney criminal Kate Leigh has an interesting association with the Justice & Police Museum. At the beginning of her long criminal career she appeared before the Water Police Court on charges of perjury, first in 1905 and again in 1914. Leigh never gave much information to a court and so simply replied, ‘Not guilty. I reserve my defence’ when questioned by the magistrate in 1914 about some less-than-truthful statements she’d made in a previous court case. She was later found guilty by a higher court of providing a false alibi for her lover Samuel ‘Jewey’ Freeman. This conviction was a pivotal moment for Leigh – after being sentenced, she allegedly mumbled, ‘Seven years for stickin’ to a man. I’ll swing before I stick to another’.

On release from prison Leigh began making her fortune in the lucrative inner-city sly grog and cocaine trade. She dominated this illicit business and used her own hired muscle to keep rivals at bay. Leigh, however, could defend herself, as was the case in 1930 when she shot dead the gangster John ‘Snowy’ Prendergast, who had broken into her home. She was acquitted of his murder on the grounds of self-defence.

The infamous gunman John ‘Chow’ Hayes summed up her character when he said, ‘If you were sweet with Kate, she’d do anything for you and give you anything. But if you crossed her, she’d shoot you'.


If you were sweet with Kate, she’d do anything for you and give you anything. But if you crossed her, she’d shoot you.

John 'Chow' Hayes.
David Hickie, Chow Hayes, gunman, Angus & Robertson, 1990, p99.

A 'gentlemanly-looking' criminal: Captain Moonlite

Andrew George Scott invented the alias ‘Captain Moonlite’ during a foolish robbery he committed in Egerton, Victoria, in 1869. Wearing a simple disguise, Scott forced the local bank manager – who was a good friend of his – to open the bank safe, which contained gold and other valuables. Scott’s attempts to conceal his identity didn’t fool his friend but by the time police investigated, he’d fled to Sydney.

After depositing the stolen gold at the Mint, Scott went on a wild spending spree. Even when he ran out of money, he continued to write cheques, including one to buy a yacht on which he intended to sail to Fiji. But before he could effect his escape, he was caught by officers from the Water Police Station and locked up in its crowded cells.

On 30 November 1870, newspapers reported that Scott, a ‘gentlemanly-looking individual’, appeared before the Water Police Court on charges of obtaining money by false pretences. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to prison. Scott next appeared before the court in 1872, charged with the Egerton robbery, and this time he was sent to a Victorian prison. Upon his release he headed back to NSW.

Scott later became a bushranger, leading a small group of outlaws. In 1879 he engaged in a desperate battle with police at Wantabadgery station, outside Wagga Wagga, which led to the deaths of a police officer and two members of the gang. Scott was found guilty of murder and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1880. His death mask now resides in the Justice & Police Museum collection.

The Notorious Criminals exhibition opens at the Justice & Police Museum on 18 OCTOBER 2014.

Illustration of bearded man.
Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite. The Illustrated Australian News, 28 November 1879. State Library of Victoria IAN28/11/79/180
Engraved bush scene with three troopers in helmets with weapons, one holding wounded man, with other figures in background.
The capture of Moonlite and his gang. The Illustrated Australian News, 28 November 1879, engraving. State Library of Victoria IAN28/11/79/177

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Anna Cossu
Susannah Place Museum, Museum of Sydney, Justice and Police Museum
Inspired by wonderful and slightly eccentric history teachers and after her own foray as a teacher, Anna found herself drawn to the world of museums.
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About the Author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.
Dr Fiona Starr
The Mint and Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Fiona claims her love of Australian history, genealogy and world history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother.

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Nerida Campbell
Justice & Police Museum, Museum of Sydney, Susannah Place Museum
Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests...
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