Unique city stories
Like all great cities, Sydney’s architectural personality has been defined by location, vision, economic and political power, ego, good and bad design, and a dash of serendipity. Sydney has evolved dramatically over the past two centuries, and yet sometimes it is the unassuming, if tenacious, architectural survivors that still take us by surprise. Hinchcliff House is one such building; 140 years old but little known, this newly restored three-storey stone, brick and hardwood former woolstore is situated barely 100 metres from the harbour’s edge at Circular Quay.
Located on a handkerchief-sized block of land, the former Hinchcliff Wool Stores, 5–7 Young Street, abuts two small lanes at the rear of Customs House. Built by wool broker Andrew Hinchcliff (1814–1882) between 1878 and 1881, the woolstore consists of two matching stone structures with gabled roofs, semicircular fanlights and rare surviving pulley systems. Comparatively small in its contemporary setting, the woolstore in its day reflected both Hinchcliff’s ambition and a desire to be noticed.
Anyone looking across the harbour to Circular Quay in 1879 would have admired the spectacular dome of the newly built Garden Palace in the Botanic Gardens, and the decorative brick cube of Mort’s Wool Store on Alfred Street; also impossible to miss was the large sign for ‘A Hinchcliff’s Wool Stores’ painted 2 metres tall on a large white wall, high above Customs House. When the second store was built to the north of the original building, in around 1881, the ‘billboard’ was replaced with the statue of an ostentatiously gilded sheep balanced on the northern parapet.1 The Hinchcliffs had clearly arrived!
No city remains static, however, and within three years the Garden Palace had burnt to the ground; by 1888 Hinchcliff’s woolstore had virtually disappeared behind an enlarged Customs House; and eventually, in 1962, the AMP Building, Australia’s first skyscraper, would replace Mort’s building. Yet despite all this change – and much more since, as the city continues to grow around it – Hinchcliff House remains standing.
- 1. Urbis Pty Ltd Australia, ‘The former Hinchcliff Woolstore, 5–7 Young Street, Sydney’, Conservation Management Plan Quay Quarter, Sydney, 2017, p11.
Today, it is difficult to believe that the highly developed area between Circular Quay and Loftus and Phillip streets was once the ‘pleasure ground’ of the first Government House. The governor’s home (now the site of the Museum of Sydney), with its harbour and garden views, could not compete with the city’s need for a modern port and supporting maritime infrastructure. By the mid-1840s, the governor had been relocated to a new house, much of the tidal flats of the Tank Stream estuary had been reclaimed by what would later be known as Circular Quay, and by 1854 a subdivision had been planned for the extension of Phillip and Elizabeth (now Young) streets down to the newly constructed waterline.
In the late 1850s, the wool auction business was in its infancy, and this is reflected in the humble iron and timber shed, built around 1856, marking Andrew Hinchcliff’s first endeavours on the site. This small building also points to an influential network of Yorkshire-born immigrants with a background in the wool industry. The site was owned by wool merchant Thomas Holt, and the business partnership was between Edward Joy, Holt’s brother-in-law, and Hinchcliff. The partnership was dissolved in 1862, Andrew’s son John joined the business in 1864, and their company purchased the property from Holt in 1876.
Hinchcliff’s acquisition of the site provided the impetus to develop the property more fully. By 1880, the three-storey woolstore appears on maps, most likely replacing a smaller structure, while the second store was built on the site of the original iron building soon after. Hinchcliff had little time to enjoy his achievement, dying from a stroke in 1882, but he would have been gratified by this summation of his company in the Sydney Illustrated News some years later:
One of the oldest firms connected with the wool trade of New South Wales is that carried on under the title of Messrs. A. Hinchcliff, Son and Co … The late Mr. Andrew Hinchcliff commenced business on the site of the premises now occupied by the firm, adjoining the Custom House, Circular Quay. Being one of the best judges of Australian wool then living, and a man of indomitable perseverance and energy, he soon formed a large and lucrative connection, placing his venture on a sound and substantial basis.2
The Hinchcliff hold on the property ended soon after the death of John Hinchcliff in 1895, and the building was used for a variety of purposes during the next century, including the Matthew Talbot Hostel for Homeless Men and, more recently, as an international English school. Soon, Hinchcliff House, across the road from the cutting-edge Quay Quarter Tower, currently under construction, will begin a new chapter in its newly conserved state. Diners will appreciate first-hand the original stone, brick and timber of this historic woolstore, overseen by Hinchcliff’s golden sheep, restored to its original glory and recently returned to its home on top of the building.