People gathering on the corner of Cumberland Place and Cambridge Street in the Rocks area, Sydney. Photographer unknown, 1901. State Records NSW
The Rocks had grown haphazardly from its early convict days. Land was subdivided and crammed with housing onto ever-diminishing plots.
Between 1851 and 1881 the population of the area doubled to around 12,000 people. Existing sewerage and water facilities were inadequate and the largely absentee landlords did little to maintain or improve their rented properties.
But for the tenants of Susannah Place it was a different story; by the 1860s their houses had been connected to sewerage and water, and in the 1880s small, enclosed timber verandahs were added to two of the houses.
By the beginning of the 20th century, The Rocks with its overcrowded housing, numerous rowdy pubs, narrow laneways and working-class population was being labelled a slum.
The government seized on the outbreak of plague in January 1900 as an opportunity to reshape and renew the harbour foreshores.
During the clean-up operations that followed, houses and businesses were inspected, cleansed, photographed and hundreds of houses identified as ‘slums’ were demolished. New ‘Model Worker’s housing’ (like that next door to Susannah Place) was built to provide accommodation for displaced waterside workers and their families.
Large group of people, including children, in laneway in Sydney’s Rocks area with terraces, shops, hotels and steps and the Cheap Cash Grocer on the wall of Susannah Place in the background.
By the 1900s the majority of Rocks residents, including those who lived at Susannah Place, were waterside workers. Wharf work was irregular (men were only employed when a ship came in), physically hard and often dangerous work with low pay and poor conditions.
At home wives and mothers struggled to cope – families fell behind paying the rent, groceries were put on credit at the local shops and occasionally household items were pawned to make ends meet.
Children were expected to finish school at age 14 and find a job. For some families the pressures of everyday life took their toll with households shattered by domestic violence.
Yet the harbour also offered relief – outings on ferries, cooling sea breezes, a place to swim and fish, and, until the 1980s, tenants enjoyed the magnificent views of all the activity on and around the waterfront.