Wallpaper recreated for 'The Harp in the South'

For anyone attending the new Sydney Theatre Company (STC) play, The Harp in the South, adapted from Ruth Park’s well-known novels, you might spy wallpapers running up the back wall of the set.

The wallpapers, of at least three different designs seemingly pasted over the top of each other, have recently been reproduced from historic wallpapers in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC).

The Harp in the South wallpaper was recreated to evoke the main setting for the novels and play: the Darcy family’s run-down terrace house at 12½ Plymouth Street, Surry Hills in 1940s Sydney. In the opening chapter of The Harp in the South, Ruth Park writes:

There were many houses like number twelve-and-a-half, smelling of leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which has soaked up the odours of a thousand meals.1


Neeves Cottage wallpaper

Wallpaper used at Neeves Cottage, Prospect NSW; made in England, c1925. The 13th of 26 layers of wallpaper uncovered from one room in the cottage.

Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. [L91/103-34]

Neeves Cottage wallpaper

Wallpaper used at Neeves Cottage, Prospect NSW; made by Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd, England, 1923. The 12th of 26 layers of wallpaper uncovered from one room in the cottage.

Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. [L91/103-35]

The set designers from The Harp in the South found inspiration for their work from the historic wallpapers that are part of the CSL&RC. A number of wallpapers viewed in the collection had similar backgrounds to the ones in the Park’s novels: they were from working class homes, often inexpensive and seemingly flimsy, and were originally designed to quickly spruce up an interior.

The STC set designers were particularly interested in the common practice in many Australian working class homes of pasting new wallpaper over the old without first removing the old. According to members of the Painters Union in Sydney in 1909, some homes had so many layers of wallpaper, it was claimed that ‘were the paper scraped off the walls in some instances the rooms would be quite a foot larger.’2 The practice of pasting one wallpaper over the top of another was eventually considered unhygienic by many residents and city authorities and a harbour for all kinds of pests. The layers of wallpaper in houses like 12½ Plymouth Street Surry Hills would also soak up the dust, grit, rising damp and coal fires.

Gambling house, Surry Hills

'The Harp in the South' was considered controversial in some quarters when first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1947 for its depiction of the grimy slums of Surry Hills and its everyday crime, domestic violence and prostitution. This image shows a gambling house at 42-44 Campbell Street, Surry Hills. The sign identifies the building as a 'Cook shop', a common front for gambling houses.

Courtesy City of Sydney Archives

The CSL&RC has found many examples of several layers of wallpaper still evident on the walls of Australian homes. The most remarkable example comes from one room of a timber slab hut in Prospect, west of Sydney, where 26 layers of wallpaper were uncovered, installed between 1908 and the 1950s. The house had been in long term ownership of the Neeves family, who apparently re-wallpapered around once every two years. And it was in fact, from the Neeves Cottage wallpapers that the set designers from the STC selected examples for digital reproduction… though ‘the odours of a thousand meals’ at 12½ Plymouth Street were more difficult to replicate and perhaps best left to the imagination.

Neeves Cottage

Neeves Cottage shortly before demolition, c1990.

Courtesy Lucas Stapleton Johnson architects.

Neeves Cottage interior

The interior of Neeves Cottage showing several layers of wallpaper. The house had laid derelict for many years before being demolished in c1990.

Courtesy Lucas Stapleton Johnson architects.

1. Ruth Park, The Harp in the south, Penguin Books, 1948, p1.
2. 'The plague. Shocking charges by Painters' Union: Inspection of buildings demanded. Wallpaper six inches thick', Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March 1909, p11.

About the author

Portrait of man in dark shirt against sandstone wall.

Michael Lech


Michael Lech is curator of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and online collections at Sydney Living Museums.

Recently added stories