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Sydney’s Circular Quay – then and now


Sydney’s Circular Quay on Sydney Cove, framed by the twin icons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the west and the Sydney Opera House to the east, is perhaps the most readily recognisable location in Australia.

As the chosen landing spot for the British First Fleet in 1788, it has the longest post European settlement history.  It has changed substantially of course and it is still changing.

Here are a few key moments in the story of Sydney Cove:

  • Sydney Cove was chosen as the settlement location for two main reasons – it’s source of fresh water (known as the Tank Stream, which now flows under the CBD, encased in a concrete drain) and its deep anchorage.   The first Governor of the British colony, Captain Arthur Phillip, wrote that Sydney Cove was one ‘in which ships can anchor so close to the shore, that in a very small expense quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload‘.  Today the largest ships in the world discharge their passengers on the western side of the Quay.
then and now
Drawing by William Bradley of Sydney Cove in 1788 – from his journal, `A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1802 
  • There were more than 19 Aboriginal clans in the Sydney basin area prior to European settlement. The traditional owners of Sydney Cove, the Gadigal, are part of the Eora Nation or language group whose country stretches from Sydney to South Head and to Petersham in Sydney’s inner west.
  • The eastern side of the cove remained largely uninhabited in the early years of the colony.  A notable inhabitant was local aboriginal man, Bennelong, after whom Bennelong Point was named and where sits the Sydney Opera House.
  • Circular Quay was constructed in 1837-1844 by reconstructing the southern section of Sydney Cove with an artificial shoreline. The mouth of the Tank Stream, which flowed into Sydney Cove at the western end of Circular Quay, was in-filled. Though it still trickles below the streets, it is described as ‘little more than a stormwater drain’.
  • The harbour was originally known as “Semi-Circular Quay”, which describes the actual shape of the quay. The name was shortened for convenience.
then and now
View of Sydney Cove from Dawes Point (under the Harbour bridge south pylon) by convict artist, Joseph Lycett, 1819
  • With its throngs of city commuters, tourists, buskers, restaurants, galleries and bars, it’s hard to imagine that The Rocks area, on the western side, once had a decidedly dubious reputation.  By the 1840s, the settlement was experiencing wealth and prosperity but parts of The Rocks area – especially near the foreshore – were renowned for drunken debauchery, brothels and unsavoury characters. Its history of being populated by convicts and their descendants, only enhanced this reputation.
  • In 1900, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney, which began in The Rocks.  From March to July 1900, The Rocks and other parts of the city, especially the waterfront areas, were barricaded off. Locals were given the task of cleansing, disinfecting, fumigating and lime-washing the buildings. The Rocks area acquired the stigma of a slum, however of the 103 people who died from the plague, only three were from the local area.
then and now
Circular Quay 1892


then and now
Circular Quay as we know it today




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