Pig Mary, Lanfranchi and the plague
A short and dirty history of Chippendale, by Stephen Lacey
Although today Chippendale is one of the most rapidly gentrifying suburbs in Sydney, a place of creativity, cutting-edge architecture and cool cafes, for much of its European history it was not the kind of place you’d want to call home.
At just 0.7 square kilometres, what Chippendale lacks in size it more than makes up for with a big, big history; a history of pig ladies, rat catchers, booze, crime, drugs and prostitution. If Chippendale was a man, he would be referred to as a ‘colourful racing identity’.
Actually Chippendale was a man; the suburb is named after William Chippendale, who was granted his 95 acre (38 hectare) farm in 1819. His property extended south, behind a large military garden set up in the earliest years of the colony for the soldiers to grow vegetables in the rich alluvial soils.
Just down the road from William Chippendale’s house was a barracks which housed the brick-yard convicts. One night, with a full moon shining down on the paddocks and splintering through the branches of the few remaining wattle trees, a couple of these hungry convicts snuck out and made their way towards Chippendale’s property, planning to steal an armful of potatoes. They might have got away with their petty crime had Chippendale not been such a light sleeper. Hearing a noise, he ran outside cradling his double-barrel shotgun and fired. A moment later, a convict lay dead under the moonlight.
Chippendale wasn’t the suburb’s first murderer however, that honour belongs to an Aboriginal resistance leader called Pemulwuy, who killed a convict near the Brickfields in 1795. And so it goes…
By the 1820s, the area’s future as an industrial heartland began to emerge. William Chippendale’s neighbour Robert Cooper (who had previously produced gin on Old South Head Road) built a distillery and factory complex on Parramatta Street. It was cutting-edge for its time and included two steam engines, a malting house, warehouse and flour mill. He created a dam behind the distillery where people fished for eels and splashed about in the water during summer. The dam banks were lined with gardens and orchards. This was about as close to a veritable Eden as the suburb would ever get.
Cooper, a behemoth of a man, polarised people. One chap thought him cheerful and intelligent with “twinkling eyes”. Another referred to him as “a bloated lump of flesh and very vulgar”. One thing we do know is that he spent an inordinate amount of time in bankruptcy court trying to avoid his creditors. And that he was quite partial to a game whereby the participants had to chase after a greasy pig and attempt to grab it. Although no doubt catching pigs was a lot easier than catching the swarms of rats that called Chippendale home. Not that Billy Fosset found the job particularly difficult. Fosset became a local legend because of his ability to reach his arm into the cracks in the wall on Parramatta Street and extract the scratching, squealing rodents with his bare hands.
Like much of Chippendale, the walls where Fosset caught his rats would have belonged to the Kent Brewery. The brewery, which was to dominate the site for the next 170 years, was established by John Tooth and Charles Newnham in 1835. It was located to take advantage of the fresh water from Blackwattle Creek and easy access to Sydney Town. However, as the water deteriorated, alternative water sources were needed.
The original brewery burnt to the ground in 1853 and was re-built using more advanced technology and equipment. During this period all the land around the brewery, including the military garden, was sliced up for residential use and it wasn’t before long that the entire area was considered a putrid slum and one of the unhealthiest areas to live in Sydney.
It can’t have been pleasant for the residents, who had to endure breathing in the smoke and fumes emitted by the unregulated local industries, including the Colonial Sugar Refinery nearby which burnt bones to produce charcoal for filtering. There are stories of huge piles of decomposing bones, left to rot and stink before being thrown onto the pyres. Then there were the local butchers who added bloody offal to the already stinking mix of sewage and dairy run-off, much of it ending up in Cooper’s once pristine dam. It’s little wonder the area became ironically known as Eau-de Cologne Valley.
One of the many local characters to emerge from such conditions was a short, stout woman called Mary O’Shea, fondly known as Pig Mary. She spent many hours rutting through the mud of the creek, looking for offal and off-cuts of meat from the slaughterhouses, putting the pieces into her basket to share with her pigs for dinner.
It’s the only way Pig Mary knew to survive. And in Chippendale 1850, to survive was all most people could hope for.
Those of the Catholic faith could find bread, wine and hope at St Benedict’s which was completed in 1852. A decade later Saint B’s became the first Catholic Church in Australia to be consecrated – an eight hour mass where the parishioners had to endure the aptly named Sanctum et terribile by Pergolesi.
And in what many believed to be an act of sectarian bigotry, the Department of Education resumed a big chunk of land from the Parish to build Blackfriars public school right next door. It was a gothic monster of a thing, able to house up to 1,500 children, and built over a poorly drained swamp, but it led the way for Chippendale to become Sydney’s epicentre of education.
At the time, learning to read and write was probably last on the local resident’s agenda. Finding somewhere decent to live was a far bigger concern. The housing stock for Chippendale’s working families rivalled the poorest to be found anywhere on the planet. Situated along cramped and narrow streets, dirt floors and overflowing sewage were the norm. Many of the shoddiest houses were owned by the aforementioned distiller Robert Cooper, who traded in human misery.
One of the worst streets was Linden Lane, a thoroughfare described in 1858 by William Stanley Jevons as “being uniformly abominable”. And yet despite the squalor, people did their best to make a house a home… such as Joseph Hunt who rented the two-room timber cottage at number 19. It was the most basic of dwellings, and yet (as archaeologists were to recently discover) also boasted quite an impressive collection of fine porcelain.
So dire was Linden Lane that the entire street was demolished in the 1870s, at a time when Chippendale’s population increased by more than 50 per cent.
A decade later, Richard Seymour, the City Council Nuisance Inspector (now there’s a fun job title) wrote “There is scarcely a house in the vicinity and not one in the immediate locality which is free from typhoid or gastric fever.”
The appalling conditions didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of Sydney, who stayed away like the plague. Actually, the plague was part of the problem, hitting the suburb hard in the early 1900s.
The Lord Mayor Allen Taylor, after venturing into Chippendale, described it as a “deplorable area… the Council must wipe away tenements which are nothing more than hovels. He recommended Council resume certain areas so the place be “made wholesome and cut into decent blocks for valuable building sites for factories.”
By 1911, 350 Chippendale houses had been resumed; cleared away as if they had never existed, leaving 1,800 people displaced.
Industry was greedy to swallow up the land once occupied by housing. The most avaricious of all was Tooths. The company grew considerably from the 1870s after introducing the ‘tied house’, an ethically dubious system whereby in exchange for Tooths advancing them capital, the hotels would sell the brewery’s products exclusively. Tooth even bought up a large number of country breweries and simply closed them down to reduce competition, putting many people out of work.
By 1911 the brewery site had grown to more than 6 acres, extending into the surrounding residential areas and privatising public streets and laneways. Tooths owned all the western side of Kensington Street, where properties were demolished for the construction of new buildings, forming a wall that excluded the public. Another wall was formed on the northern side of Wellington Street.
Tooth’s Irving Street Brewery constructed in 1912, covering most of the land between Carlton and Balfour Streets, destroying the fine-grained residential fabric in the process.
During this period of rapid expansion, the Hayes family moved to Chippendale from western NSW. Little did the locals know at the time that Hayes’ son, John, would grow up to become the most feared gangster and gunmen in Australia. John Hayes, better know as ‘Chow’, was a career criminal, stealing and shoplifting as a teenager, then moving on to much bigger things. His most famous crime was the murder of boxer Bobby Lee in a Kings Cross Bar in 1951. Despite emptying a six-round chamber into his victim in front of 70 witnesses, such was his reputation that not one witness was prepared to testify against him.
However something was to have a much longer and lasting effect on Chippendale than Chow Hayes. That something was World War II. The war took most of the young men out of the suburb and had a big impact on the workforce of the brewery with 783 enlisting for service. During this time the brewery earned lucrative contracts for the war effort, including canning food for American forces in the Pacific.
For many people, life at Tooth and Co and life in Chippendale were synonymous and it was not unusual for several generations of the one family to work at the brewery. The brewery was where most of the resident workers did their socialising, through clubs such as athletics, bridge, debating, swimming, table tennis, drama and chess.
The booze-fuelled staff Christmas parties were legendary, as were the big family picnic days down at Bondi, where the children were given free ice-cream, chips and drinks.
Prior to 1980 there were 1000 personnel at the brewery including lab staff, engineers, plumbers, fitters and turners, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, coopers, trades assistants, storemen, drivers and security. No doubt many of them spent their day in a blurry stupor, as drinking on the job was positively encouraged. Each worker was entitled to three schooners a day, but many abused the system and managed to down closer to a dozen.
For much of the 20th century, Chippendale was one of Sydney’s ‘no-go’ zones, an area where prostitution, hard drinking, and crime were rife. One of the most notorious incidents was to take place in 1981 when Warren Lanfranchi, a young, handsome heroin dealer, arranged a meeting with detective sergeant Roger Rogerson. The pair met in Dangar Place where Rogerson shot Lanfranchi dead, claiming that the criminal had drawn his weapon first. A cross, etched into the sandstone gutter, still shows the place where Lanfranchi fell.
Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, named as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the incident, saw the advent of Chippendale as Sydney’s avante garde cultural precinct, a position it retains to this day. From 2002 until 2007 Lanfranchi’s was the place to go for everything from the Marrickville Jelly Wrestling Federation, to watching experimental musician Lucas Abela play amplified sheets of broken glass with his mouth.
However while Chippendale’s art scene was on the up and up, the brewery workers’ jobs were about to slide. In 1983 Tooth and Co were taken over by the Adelaide Steamship Company and the brewing assets were sold to Carlton and United Breweries. Rumours about the brewery’s demise were a constant source of stress for the employees until 2005, when the brewery closed forever.
Frasers Property bought the site in 2007 with plans for a major mixed-use urban village, blending apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and a public park. Re-invented as Central Park, with major heritage buildings retained and restored, this 5.8 hectare slab of Chippendale is now open to the public for the first time in more than a century and a half.
Nowadays Central Park has a major role in the story of Chippendale’s revitalisation. The suburb’s history may have been long and hard, but those times are well and truly behind us. While celebrating the links with its past, Central Park simultaneously looks forward to the future; a future where creativity, sustainability and liveability come together.
Welcome to Chippendale.
Shirley Fitzgerald, Chippendale, Beneath the Factory Wall, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1990
Godden Mackay Logan, Former Carlton and United Brewery Site, Broadway: Heritage Impact Statement, October 2006.
Godden Mackay Logan, Former Carlton United Brewery Site, Chippendale, Sydney:
Interim Archaeological Excavation Report (Volume 2), February 2010.
Susan O’Flahertie, Kent Brewey: The Last Shift, Focus Publishing, 2004.
Crime and Investigation Network, Tough Nuts, Foxtel (Chow Hayes Australia’s First Gangster).
Pulling the Trigger on Corruption, Sydney Morning Herald, November 2011.
Pig Mary, Lanfranchi and the plague: a short and dirty history of Chippendale