A ‘sandwich’ of many layers of wallpaper uncovered behind timber panelling during renovation of a small workers cottage in Union Street Pyrmont NSW, has opened a small, colourful window into the popularity of wallpaper in mid 19th century Sydney.

The cottage was built between 1842 and 1845 by a waterman turned publican named John Reed Harman. Harman sold the property to another publican, Thomas Bruffell, in 1858 and Bruffell sold in turn to politician, solicitor and substantial property owner George Wigram Allen. The Allen family remained in ownership until 1923 and the house was tenanted throughout this time. Between 1845 and 1870 there were at least nine different occupants including a butcher, watchmaker, painter, brass finisher, dealer, and master mariner. From 1871 to 1904 a confectioner named George Jansen lived in the house with his family.

The sandwich of wallpaper - each paper stuck on top of the other - was retrieved in 2004 from a room that was probably used as the parlour.  It was separated out into individual layers by a paper conservator: the result was 11 different wallpapers, dating from around the early-1840s to the mid-1870s. The majority of these papers are machine-made ‘pulps’. This was the cheapest paper available, with patterns printed directly onto the surface of the wallpaper without any preparatory ground colour being applied so that the natural colour of the paper becomes part of the design. Mayes’ Australian Builders’ Price Book for 1862 lists “common pulps on self coloured paper” at just 4d to 9d per roll. The introduction of mechanisation to the wallpaper manufacturing industry after about 1840 made wallpaper readily affordable even for householders of modest means. The number of new wallpapers used in the Pyrmont cottage over a short period - perhaps a new scheme every three years – is evidence of the low-cost of wallpaper.

The most striking feature about the wallpaper is the predominance of the colour blue, a popular colour in the 1840s and 50s, and used for some decades after this in less expensive wallpaper ranges. The high turnover of residents before 1871 means that no one tenant could have been responsible for all the blue or diaper patterned papers. Perhaps it was the landlord’s taste? It is not clear. In any case, the wallpapers changed at such a rate that staring at the walls would rarely have been a boring activity for the residents of the Union Street cottage.

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.