AN EDWARDIAN SUMMER: Sydney through the lens of Arthur Wigram Allen

An Edwardian Summer

Sydney lawyer and identity Arthur Wigram Allen, a tirelessly enthusiastic photographer, was fascinated by the social and technological changes occurring during his lifetime. His talent for amateur photography produced extraordinary pictures that offer a fresh insight into the Edwardian years in Sydney.
Sandwiched between the great achievements of the Victorian age and the global catastrophe of World War I, the Edwardian era heralded a new century of significant inventions and social changes, including powered flight, the rise of the motorcar and a new federated Australia.

Sydney lawyer and identity Arthur Wigram Allen, a tirelessly enthusiastic photographer, was fascinated by the social and technological changes occurring during his lifetime. His talent for amateur photography produced extraordinary pictures that offer a fresh insight into the Edwardian years in Sydney.

This image shows objects on display within in the Edwardian Sydney exhibition, Dresses from the edwardian period are visible on mannequins in the foreground.
This article draws on the exhibition and accompanying book, An Edwardian Summer 1​ on display at the Museum of Sydney between 11 December 2010 and 26 April 2011. Photo © Jenni Carter for Sydney Living Museums

Arthur Wigram Allen

Arthur Wigram Allen was born in 1862 into a large family of wealthy Sydney solicitors. One of 11 children and third in a line of six boys he attended Sydney Grammar School before moving to Melbourne in 1880 to study law at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. In 1885 after the sudden death of his two elder brothers Arthur assumed control of the familíes Sydney firm and many business interests.

Allen married Ethel Lamb in 1891 and they went on to have four children: Ethel Joyce, born in 1893, Arthur Denis Wigram in 1894, Ellice Margaret in 1896 and Marcia Maria in 1905.

Fascinated by the new inventions of the era, he became interested in photography, purchasing the latest cameras. He soon proved to be a talented amateur photographer, capturing images of his family and friends, the city and its surrounds.

Arthur died in 1941, aged 79; his photographs, taken from the 1890s through to 1934, provide a detailed photographic record of a changing society and the emergence of the great city of Sydney.

A man of extraordinary vitality, Allen was fascinated by the times in which he lived, and tried to photograph everything he saw: family and friends; visiting ships and theatrical celebrities; bush picnics; the first mixed bathing on Sydney beaches; dramatic shipwrecks; processions, pageants and mass celebrations; coal miners; domestic life and fashion; house interiors; and sporting events. These photographs, contained in 51 albums, are now held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, and provide a view of the dramatic changes that took place in Edwardian Sydney.

Arthur Allen's photographs span 1890 to 1934, but the Edwardian Summer exhibition and book concentrate on those depicting the Edwardian years, a brief, often-overlooked but important period in Australia's history. The photographs, most of them never published before, form an unrivalled personal pictorial record of these rapidly changing times.

Black and white image of a finely dressed Arthur Allen Wigram wearing a hat and sitting on on the side of a small set of stairs (two steps)

Arthur Wigram Allen (or AWA as he often referred to himself) was a man of many interests and a talented amateur photographer, capturing images of family and friends, city and surrounds. He is seen here on the steps of Wantabadgery homestead, site of a famous siege in 1879 between police and the gang of bushranger Captain Moonlight. State Library of NSW PX*D 562 negative 162​

A most unique page. I think it is the only picture in my books in which I appear and I hope it will be the last ...

Arthur Wigram Allan

Sydney at the Dawn of the Edwardian Era

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 and the succession of her son Edward to the throne marked the beginning of the Edwardian era and coincided with Australia’s becoming a federated nation.

On Federation Day, 1 January 1901, the official ceremony for the swearing-in of Australia’s first Commonwealth ministry and first Governor-General took place in Centennial Park. A white domed ceremonial pavilion had been built for the occasion in the middle of the park; there was seating for 7500 official guests, who were surrounded by thousands of spectators, including more than 10,000 troops. In similar events all over the new nation, the Australian people turned out in their hundreds of thousands to celebrate.

A rapidly increasing population had led to the spread of new subdivisions, from the south-east through Alexandria to Botany and Brighton, west to Ashfield and Burwood, and north to Chatswood and St Leonards. The new suburbs were supported by an ever-expanding network of public transport, with Circular Quay and Central Railway as its hubs. It would be a few more years before the motorcar took over the city and suburbs.

By Federation, Sydney was the largest city of the new Australian Commonwealth and the fifth-largest port in the British Empire. It had grown from a colonial outpost of narrow cobbled streets to a bustling mercantile town of thriving industries and booming trade, with all the prerequisites of a modern city entering an era of great expansion.​

Large boat with three masts lies beached on the sand. In the foreground figures gather to watch including two men holding a tripod and camera.
Arthur Allen photographs the clipper Hereward wrecked on Maroubra Beach, 7 May 1898. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 565 negative 3573

Family and friends

Arthur Allen spent many hours recording his home life and outings with family and friends. The Allens’ circle comprised a large extended family and a close-knit group of friends, who came and went as they liked and were always welcome at the various Allen households. They often stayed at the Allens’ properties on the coast and in country New South Wales, as did visiting celebrities, particularly those from the theatre.

While the social and legal status of Australian women improved toward the end of the 19th century, the Allen girls, their cousins and a small group of friends were still taught by governesses. This in turn helped to foster close ties between the members of their social class.

Sydney society among the wealthy classes was like a big, familiar club of relatives and friends, with a continual round of visiting, parties and picnics that also included, for example, visiting naval officers. There were also lively, large-scale social events organised to coincide with special occasions, such as the visit of the Duke of York in 1901, and charity fundraisers for causes in Australia and abroad, including annual Red Cross charity balls and local functions to support soldiers serving in the war.

Arthur Allen owned many cars but drove only one type – Detroit Electric broughams, one of which is now in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Its batteries needed charging every 60 kilometres, but the recharging device was formidable. Margaret described it as:

'a terrifying machine, and I never lost my fear of it. One stood on a rubber mat, and twiddled two knobs on the switch board. At the back of this was a large glass valve or tube, bigger than a football and with an alarming hiss, this sprang to life and was filled with a dancing blue light. The car remained on charge all night, and was ready for the road in the morning'.

Margaret Gifford, I can hear the horses, Methuen-Haynes, Sydney, 1983


The four Allen children had a happy home life. Their somewhat reserved Victorian mother was balanced by their gregarious father, and as in many affluent families of the era they had numerous domestic helpers, including a nurse, Florence, who remained with the family until the children were almost grown.

The family enjoyed many excursions to local Sydney attractions as well as seaside visits, picnics and journeys further afield, including to their beach property at Port Hacking. The children celebrated birthdays with elaborate parties and were dressed in the latest fashions, which were still very much influenced by Britain. Little girls had to contend with layers of petticoats, profuse frills and, during the 1890s and 1900s, increasingly wide-brimmed hats; and neither boys nor girls could be seen in public without hats, gloves, coats and shoes.

Public education in New South Wales, established in the 1860s, also grew steadily towards the century’s end. The three Allen girls, however, like many children from wealthier families, were tutored at home by a governess. The only boy, Denis, attended a private boarding school and was then sent to England to complete his schooling.

"[This photograph was] taken at half past 7 this morning. I tried to get as many of Marcia’s presents as possible on to the little balcony outside her bedroom. She was very lucky in getting so many things besides her stocking, and she had a very happy day "

The beach

The pleasures of sea-bathing had been discouraged in colonial Sydney on the grounds of both risk and indecency, and early laws prohibited bathing during daylight hours. People gradually defied the daylight bathing laws and by 1900 there were reports in the press of whole families bathing. In 1902, a male swimmer at Manly Beach entered the water at midday. Although arrested, he was not charged, and by 1903 new laws were introduced that permitted surf bathing but required neck-to-knee outfits and prohibited the sexes to mingle. Mixed bathing soon followed, but swimming attire continued to be stringently regulated for some years to come.

Sydneysiders increasingly flocked to the coast to enjoy the cooling summer breezes and the glorious ocean views. The ‘pleasure palaces’ near many beaches provided popular entertainment for all ages. For picnics, families sought out Clark Island, quiet beaches around Middle Harbour or the popular Manly Beach.

Bondi and Coogee beaches in Sydney’s east were connected to the city by public transport and provided the ideal day-trip for large crowds of visitors. With growing numbers of people taking to the surf, the dangers of beach bathing became apparent, and in 1906 the first surf lifesaving club in the world was founded at Bondi Beach.

Ethel and I and Kitty & Katha took Joyce and Margaret for a drive this morning. Poor Denis was ill and unable to come with us. My big umbrella used as a sunshade

The bush

In the later 19th century, city dwellers’ attitudes to the Australian bush changed. Formerly a foreign wilderness, it now became a place of Arcadian bliss, offering something peculiarly Australian and very different from the more familiar urban landscapes.

Nationalism increased in the 1890s, and with it the Australian bush legend was born. Artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin created nostalgic bush scenes, depicting rural life as a simplistic and uniquely Australian ideal. Writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson fashioned similar impressions in poetry and prose, strengthening the link between the bush and the Australian national identity.

By the early 1900s, the attributes of bush life were seen as an intrinsic part of the nation’s greatness. Bush characters were imbued with the same pioneering qualities as the diggers on the goldfields. By World War I these characteristics would be identified as uniquely Australian traits in our soldiers.

Expanded road and railway networks in the second half of the 19th century opened the bush to city visitors. Roads were cut to link sights of interest, and clear tracks were carved into the bush to allow access to vantage points. Swathes of descriptive tourist guides promoted the state’s many health, holiday and tourist resorts.

"Rex Walter and I went to day to Bulli… to show Walter (Who had never been to Illawarra) the scenery. We lunched at the fig tree not far from the Pass Road at the Bulli "B" pit."

Further afield

During the Edwardian era, touring became immensely popular. With the introduction of better working conditions and shorter working hours many people had more leisure time, and took every opportunity to enjoy it. Even before the arrival of the motorcar, a growing love of the outdoors led the people of Sydney to flock to beauty spots in the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands. Rural and waterside retreats around Sydney were as popular then as they are now, and the Allen family and their friends spent many weekends and vacations at their holiday houses at Port Hacking and Burradoo in the Southern Highlands.

To escape the hectic and at times unhealthy city, Sydneysiders sought the more relaxed lifestyle offered in rural locations. People began to enjoy the physical pleasures of life outdoors and the benefits of sun and clean air, and this was reflected in the way they behaved and dressed away from the confines of the city.

People who lacked their own transport could still enjoy tourism via the ever-expanding railway network. For those with private carriages and later motorcars, the ability to travel was only limited by the condition of the roads. The coming of the motorcar changed both the physical development of Sydney and the way people spent their leisure time, as they toured ever further.

"I had a beautiful drive to-day from Sydney to Wollongong & Mt Kembla. I left Harll in the car at 7:30 (a new boy driving as Langan was ill). Went through Sutherland, National Park & Waterfall, arrived at top of Bald Hill at 9:30...Arrived at Wollongong 60 miles from Sydney at 10:45 five minutes train in which were Dr Robertson & Mr J Vickery. We lunched at Finisters Hotel, then went up in the car to the Mt Kembla mine, 8 miles from Wollongong."

Out and about

Edwardian Sydney offered entertainment for every taste. Apart from the large-scale parades, military displays and massed bands that accompanied public celebrations, annual events such as the Royal Easter Show and the Public Schools’ Amateur Athletics Association carnival drew crowds from all walks of life. Expanding tram and rail networks carried passengers to venues such as the Zoo (then at Moore Park), Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay and the Glaciarium Skating Rink, which operated at Ultimo from 1907.

Among the more popular leisure activities was horse racing, with racecourses as far afield as Randwick, Canterbury, Moorefield and Warwick Farm. The annual amateur picnic race held at Bong Bong, near Moss Vale, was as popular with Sydneysiders as with locals.

The growth in international sporting competition also provided spectacles for large crowds. Due to Australia’s success in rowing, the world championship sculling contest was regularly held on the Parramatta River, while in 1909 the Davis Cup tennis tournament came to Rose Bay. Cricket, cycling, athletics and football were also popular, with the Sydney Cricket Ground a versatile venue.

The children’s first swim this summer. A lovely warm morning. Fairly high tide. They certainly did enjoy it. They get great pleasure out of the water-wings

A day on the harbour

Sydney’s waterways were the focus of both industry and pleasure in the Edwardian era. From its colonial foundations Sydney Cove had developed as the hub of a trading port and working harbour with a strong shipbuilding industry and other maritime trades.

During the Edwardian years, full-rigged ships gradually disappeared from Sydney Harbour, and after the bubonic plague arrived in 1900, large areas of residential and commercial buildings around Darling Harbour, Millers Point and The Rocks were resumed by the government and rebuilt.

By the early 1900s Circular Quay was dominated by ferry wharves and served as an interchange for all the traffic – pedestrian and vehicular – between Sydney and the north shore. This was the heyday of the harbour ferry, with commuter craft dominating the waters during peak hour. On weekends, the ‘great picnic trade’ ferried Sydney’s multitudes to the harbour’s pleasure destinations, many of which were owned and operated by the ferry companies.

Other Sydneysiders preferred to spend a day on the water, enjoying a leisurely steamer excursion, messing about in a small boat or sailing a yacht. Sporting events provided a further form of entertainment, with annual yachting and rowing regattas held on the harbour.

“H.M.S. Powerful left Sydney today to re-commission at Colombo. Captain Michell called a few of us on board the Pyramus to tea & view the flagship depart”

Modern era begins

By the time of Edward VII’s death in 1910, a truly Australian attitude and perspective had begun to emerge. The Commonwealth expressed its new unity, wealth and ambitions in a series of grand projects, including an Australian Navy (1910) and the Transcontinental Railway (1912–17).

In the early years of the 20th century, petrol-driven vehicles became more common on Sydney’s streets, and the city had an extensive network of electric trams. In 1911 aeroplanes took to the skies. Silent movies became a popular entertainment. Both men and women adopted simpler, more practical clothes, reflecting a better appreciation of the Australian climate and lifestyle.

Abroad, tensions were building, as established nations around the world entered an arms race. The Great War (1914–18) completely changed the mood and tenor of Australian society, and realigned allegiances between nations. Huge numbers of young men enlisted for ‘King, Country and Australia’, and went overseas to an unknown destiny.

Australia after the Great War was a changed place. To pay the war debt income tax was introduced, and the 1920s were a time of disappointing economic growth and limited government initiatives. The Great Depression and World War II coloured the lives of the subsequent generation, for whom the Edwardian era must have seemed distant and glorious.

Australian troops marched through the streets this afternoon, and I took the following … from our office windows at Australasia Chambers.

View of strret lined with crowds and troops marching down the centre of the street.
Crowds farewell troops marching in front of the General Post Office, Sydney as they leave for World War I, 24 April 1915. Arthur Allen. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 603 negative 3047


  • 1. Caroline Mackaness (ed.), An Edwardian Summer: Sydney and Beyond through the Lens of Arthur Wigram Allen, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 2010