Surry Hills

Yes folks, meet the environment:



Surry Hills lair of Floating Life

For some, the suburb is still famous for its association with Ruth Park and her novel The Harp in the South. As Marion Halligan writes:

…That’s what fiction does. It takes the events of the writer’s life – lived through, heard of, read about – and turns them into powerful stories. It’s a process that Ruth Park is aware of, has lived through many times, but never takes for granted, never pretends to understand:”No one can truly tell how novels are written, least of all myself. Structure, plot, storyline, creation of many characters who must, absolutely must, walk, talk, and think for themselves – all that can be explained. But the primordium cannot be defined.”
(Fishing in the Styx, p. 65)

Park is remembering how a child in a photograph of Sydney in 1899 stayed in her head for 30 years and emerged ‘as a member of a family of decent immigrants called Bow, trying to keep up their standards in a decrepit slummocky antipodean city’. She tells us that she gazed at the photograph for hours: ‘But why that child; how did I know her name was Beatie Bow? Some sorcery in the subconscious was operating in the trackless, wordless dark’ (Fishing in the Styx, p. 65). This sorcery of Ruth Park’s began its ensorcelling some 50 years ago when she decided to enter the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald novel competition. ‘There was nothing left but Surry Hills. My life there had been like a visit to some antique island where the nineteenth century still prevailed’ (Fishing in the Styx, p. 138). The result was The Harp in the South. When it won, Ruth Park probably wished that she lived in a place where even the nineteenth century held some sway, so bizarrely primitive was the reaction. I remember the furore, it’s one of those things I’ve always known about, known from adults in hushed shocked gleeful voices talking about the scandal of this novel of the slums. What shocked me when I came to look at it again was the realisation that I was six at the time; it was clearly some scandal. That was in 1946.

Ruth Park wonders what caused the outcry. Jon Cleary, the runner-up, wrote about the slums of Sydney without attracting any censure. Ruth Park suggests that it was because she was a foreigner. I think it might also have been because she was a woman, and young at that: not nice, not ladylike, to know about such things, let alone write them. And perhaps there was an assumption that slums might be seen but should not be heard…


Ruth Park talks to residents about the opening of the first Housing Commission flats in Devonshire Street, Surry Hills



Surry Hills boy 1948 (David Moore photographer)



Children from a variety of cultures in Sydney’s Surry Hills in the early 1970s



Surry Hills terraces


So there you are. Surry Hills blog.

See more!

First published in Lines from a Floating Life on Blogspot 12 June 2005.

These are the main photo sets in recent times:

shillsnight7a redfernvisions 030a darlingharbour 026b


8 Responses to “Surry Hills”
  1. Donna Says:
    June 23, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    I enjoyed Ruth Park’s Harp in the South. I don’t think slums should be hidden at all. I myself grew up in Surry Hills. I moved there with my family in the early sixties at a very young age. I was a toddler at the time, but I remember living in Riley St at first, and going to St Pete’rs primary school, and then in 1968 we moved to Marlborough St and lived there till i left home in 1985 to get married. I remember Devonshire St very well, and had school friends that lived in the housing commison flats that you feature in your picture with Ruth Park.

    In the 1970s there was no shopping centres in the area, then in 1980 Redfern Mall opened just across the road from where i lived, which i worked in for some time, in the Coles store to be exact. The area certainly needed a mall, even thought you could be in the city (especially Centre Point my favourite stop on way home from high school) in a few minutes. Then few years back they changed it to Surry Hills Mall. (Made more sense.) Now i found out its called Surry Hills Shopping Village…..

    I certainly miss those days. I now live in the western suburbs not too far in though….. I miss high school days as well. I went to St Patricks Girls High….Shame both schools have been shut down , such great historical buildings!!!……Crown St was full of small shops , lots of small businesses, flemmings, next door was an old fruit shop that turned into a large hairdresser while I was still there, small deli that belonged to a Greek family that we befriended, local cake shop, Soul Pattison chemist across the road on the corner, the local friendly butcher that my mum shopped from for years (while we were still in Riley St)……The church on corner of Devonshire St, where i had my holy first holy communion, my confirmation, and where my mum sent my sister and brother and me every Sunday for mass. Also where my aunts, cousins and other family members got married., and my 2 children got baptised……..I remember the shops on Cleveland St as well, the pin ball and games shop on corner of Young St and Cleveland St, and Turkish takeaway, a tailor, they have all gone……..I met my husband in Surry Hills too. He lived in Baptist St, ……..SO MANY MEMORIES…………………..

  2. ninglun Says:
    June 23, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks for that wonderful comment, Donna. I first knew Surry Hills between 1955 and 1959 when I passed (ran!) through it every day on my way from Central to Sydney High. It certainly is a different place fifty years on!

  3. Denys Says:
    August 27, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    I know that building as I’m an old Surry Hills resident myself. Inner west now. Can you tell me whether the bottom photo was in Riley Street?

    I know I’m being pedantic but isn’t Baptist Street in Redfern.

    You have an interesting blog sir. Cheers.

  4. ninglun Says:
    August 27, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Yes it is Riley Street, and Baptist Street is in Redfern, but so is the Surry Hills Shopping Village!

  5. Denys Says:
    August 27, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you Neil.

  6. Donna Says:
    August 27, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Yes Denys Baptist St is in Redfern, but if you take note , Marlborough St was just across the road from Redfern. So you can look at it two different ways, I either lived at the end of Surry Hills just where Redfern starts, or I lived at the beginning of Surry Hills where Redfern ends. lol

  7. Denys Says:
    August 28, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Donna, I’ve always loved this sign on a building in Regents Street, Redfern.

    “Welcome to Redfern. Gateway to Waterloo.”

  8. Donna Says:
    August 28, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Denys, lol i can think of other names for a Gateway in Redfern,…..Welcome to Redfern Gateway to (#@%*!#)………

34 thoughts on “Surry Hills

  1. I would like to know more about Else Leonard and her partner we called Mr.Ardini who taught acrobatics. I have been searching for a photo of them for a while.I lived in Arthur Street in the 40.s and 50.s and did all my tap and ballet exams with her teachings.It was a wonderful time in my life.Elsie put a great deal of her time and effort to the great concerts she put on at the Conservatorium yearly.

  2. My father, Fred Schweickle, Sydney trumpeter and bandleader played for the Jack Keating dance championships at Newtown.

  3. I didnt know Elsie Leonard had a dancing school way back when. Love hearing the stories. Looking forward to seeing that class photo with Elsie in it. I also remember tap routine Hello Dolly and the Dutch Clog routine.

    • Elsie Leonard was my auntie, she lived with my nan and pop at mascot back in the late 70s .
      I would love to see any photos of her. She was an amazing lady…. whom loved her KFC on a Saturday afternoon.

    • Hi Gloria, I remember you well also the girls in your class. I remember two outstanding routeens “Honey Hush” and “raphsody in blue” which included male dancer Sony Hosey. If only it were recorded. I have a group photo which includes as Miss Leonard would say The Bay and City schools with the Espinosa Cup that was awarded to her, I guess for having the school with the most Honor passes in the Tap Exam. Unfortunately she is not in the photo.
      PS I was in the next class down from you.

  4. I started classes at Elsie Leonard’s school when I was 7, back in the 40’s. We wore white singlets with EL on them and red pants with a white stripe down the side. I lived in Redfern but walked to classes up Devonshire Street. We were allowed to look into the hall where Channel 9 first started when they had it set up to go. Miss Levato played the piano and when she died Miss Coutts took over. I remember her nephew Warren coming to watch her taking classes when he was quite young. I went to both Miss Levato’s and Miss Leonard’s funerals, although I hadn’t seen Miss Leonard for quite a few years. I can’t recall the dates. Also danced on some Sunday nights at Jack Keating’s studio at Newtown. Lots of happy memories during my years in Surry Hills and also in Double Bay at the Masonic Hall.

    • Hi Gloria, I believe I was there the same time you were. Is your maiden name Bisset? Your mother I remember made a lot of the dance clothes! Do you recall the names of the other girls.

  5. Hi Ursula

    I was wondering where the studio was in Double Bay – didnt realise it was the Masons Hall. ! thanks for infos. yes its been bugging me for years too. I do remember the pink tutu and satin ballet shoes in the window of the Cleveland St studio. The stage at the back and the dressing room behind. Our satin pleated tap dance skirt and white ruffled top under for exams…memories! Trying to remember the tap teacher who used to come in – she was blonde probably late 30’s at the time …Miss Greer ?

    • There was a studio at the Masonic Hall, Double Bay. My brother and myself went to Tap and Ballet classes run by Elsie Leonard. We had concerts in the old Conservatorium in Sydney. This was about 1952 to 1954.

  6. I also had ballet lessons from Elsie Leonard, but in Double Bay. This was in the late 60’s. She was fairly elderly & I seem to recall had dyed red hair. I wonder if it was the same lady?

    • Hi Jan, yes I believe it was the same lady, a wonderful teacher. I would love to know more about her dancing career. Regards Maria.

    • I had ballet and tap lessons from Ms Leonard in the old Masonic Hall at Double Bay in the late `60’s and early `70’s. I have been trying to find more information about her or even a photo, as I remember little about her except that I thought she was fabulous and was a strict but wonderful teacher. So far only found out that she was the aunt of Warren De Maria, a solo ballet dancer with the Australian Ballet in the 1960’s – see

      If anyone finds out more about her I would love to know – it’s been bugging me for years……

  7. My first dance class Dane was at Miss Hananberys Studio in Oxford Street and Later at Elsie Leonard’s Studio St David’s Hall Surry Hills 1947-1955. We would take the bus out to Double Bay to combine the two studios in preparation for the end of year concert which was held at the Conservatorium.
    Ms Levato was the pianist. Ms Leonard put us through our Tap and Vallet exams which was held at Broadway. There were photos of her on the wall and she held the Espinosa Cup for many years.
    Ms Leonard gave concerts for many charities. We Los danced at Jack Keatings dance studio in Newtown when the ballroom dancers took their break. I attended Crown Street School. Made my Holy Communion at St Francis Albion Street, Vonfirmation Sacred Heart in Darlinghurst.
    As a teenage I went to Paddington Town Hall social Dance and the Trocodero, where I met my husband.
    We grow up in Taylor Square Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills.
    PS. Ms Leonard had the use of two halls in Arthur Street, at times we could only use one as the other was one of two sites used by channel 9. First tele broadcast took place on Sunday September 16 1956.

    • Hi Maria
      I didnt know Elsie Leonard had a studio in Arthur St – but then that must have beenbefore she had the studio in Cleveland St near baptist st. Where exactly was the Double Bay studio?. I do remember every 2nd year was the concert at the Con. So many memories!
      I later went to Rudas School of Stage dancing near Railway Square. (1974-75). and Saill Academy at the Quay 1978.
      thanks for your infos.

  8. Hi Kerry – sorry hadnt checked this in a while – yes Elsie had a dance studio in Double Bay. I forgot the older lady who played the piano think she died back then. Elsie would be over 100 now! doubt she is still around 😉 We went to Bourke St school from 1964-1972 (between my sisters and I ). I had friends that went to St Peters. and Crown St Primary…

  9. In response to Robyn…I too went to Elsie Leonards dance studio…what year’s were your there????? I used to have a dance program but somwhere over the years it was lost…I do have my awards and medals… you also remember that Miss Leonard had a school at Double Bay as well????
    I was born at St Margarets…went to school firstly at St Francis in Albion st and then to St Peters from 2nd class in 1963 to 6th class in 1966..we were the 2nd generation to go to St Peter’s school..I would love to hear from anyone about these times…we lived in Riley St..behind crown st hospital…..

    • Hi Kerry
      Yes I remember Elsie had a ballet school in Double Bay. I remember that at the end of every second year Elsies school was one of the ballet schools that would to perform at the Conservatorium of Music in the city. She would not be around now as she would have been in her 60’s back in the 60’s.

  10. Hello,
    I was doing a google map search of my house to send to a friend for directions and stumbled upon this blog. I live at 25 Lansdowne St Surry Hills. Tracey, it was quite incredible to read that your ggg grandfather lived here in the late 18oo’s. Life was so much tougher back then and it sounds like he had a lot of heartbreak. Wonderful to hear some history about previous people who have shared these walls.
    Thank you Tracey and Thank you Neil for your blog. Great work.

  11. Hi Robyn i lived in Surry Hills same years as you , (but left in 1985) and i did my holy communion same year as you 1970 , maybe we know each other from those days??? i remember all the shops you mentioned, flemings etc and yes that little fruit shop next to flemmings little old man think we called him Pops???

    • HI Deidre,

      Sorry to all for my slow reply – maybe we knew each other back then. I lived in Arthur St near South Dolwing St. I have pix from my Holy Communion and I do remember the little old fella in the fruit shop!…not sure of his name….

  12. I loved reading the comments above…and can relate..

    I was born in St Margarets Hospital in Bourke St Surry Hills early 60. We lived down the road in Arthur Street near South Dowling Street (Moore Park). I have lots of great memories too. My parents moved there when my sister was born (1956). My father Jack passed away in Oct 1975 and we stayed on until Late December 1977. I think we lived there in the best times…YES it was quite boheme and we had hippies live next door, old families, a brothel in Phelps St. A rifle shop in Bourke St aroudnthe corner opposite the Carrington Hotel. Also the Tip Top Bakery behind our house… free buns in the afternooon.There was a laundry on the corner of Phelps with George and Dinas Shop opposite. Next door to them was a small butcher…then the RSL etc etc
    I went to pre school in JJ Carroll kindergarten & Primary school at Bourke St from 1966-72. It was about 50% ethnics back then…mostly Italian, Greek, Turkish or Maltese. The principal of the school at that time was Mr Finnegan. I do remember the names of my primary teachers !
    My mother was manager of the Opportunity Shoe store in Cleveland St Surry Hills from store was a Hardware Store owned by Mick Murphy…he is part of our family today!
    My sister and I went to Ballet school in Cleveland St opposite the chemist – Dance classes every Sat and tap on Wednesday. Elsie Leonard was our teacher! Always remember the old pink tutu in the window. I thinkits a restaurant now…
    I also remember Harry Blandys shoes store in Cleveland St, between Crown and Bourke..and my friends parents owned the dry cleaners next door…
    Yes my first job was in Flemings – Crown St – next door was a fruit shop – they made great frozen fruit ice blocks for 4cents. Next to them was a nightclub called “The Clique” it was there for a while but closed down (fire trap probably).
    I didnt last long in this job as I was more interested in ice skating at Pat Burleys Iceland at Prince Alfred Park…good times. Met my first boyfriend there….
    I remember the Deli in Crown St – next door to the Crown Hotel. The Venusses owned the deli…
    Am I babbling?????
    I also remember the Milk Bar on the corner of Cleveland and South Dowling St…they had the best burgers and pinballs. We would sit in a booth and listen to the Monkees or Russell Morris on the juke box…
    Yes i made my first Holy Communion and Confirmation (1970) at St Peters Church..we had a starlet making hers too – Tommy Leonetti’s daughter Kim. (Tommy was an American nightshow host in 1969).
    …..I could ramble on – I must so a recon back to Surry Hill soon…
    Let me know if you are interested in joining a walk down memory lane..

  13. Just wander at will, Clare; I am sure you’ll see much change and much the same. Do make sure you wander down Crown Street and maybe Devonshire at least.

  14. I hope this blog and website is still current as I have really enjoyed looking at the photos. I lived in Surry Hills from 1953 to 1956. My father and mother had the shop on the corner of Bellevue Street and Albion Street Surry Hills. We lived upstairs from the shop – 4 children under 5 when we first moved in, having come from out parramatta way. Even though I was only aged from 3 to 7 years during my time in Surry Hills I have very vivid memories of the place. By that stage the Irish must have moved on the greener fields as I recall the great part of the population in out area were Maltese. We learned some amazing things from these kids and got such good support from their families as Mum and Dad worked in the shop till all ours. These times were evoked recently when I went to check out the area for the first time in 54 years. I see where our shop now is called AbsintheSalon which is really cool as I have always wanted to experience some of the more deleterious effects of absinthe!
    Anyway I am gathering my siblings and their families together for a walk around Surry Hills in early January 2010 and I was wondering if anyone out there who has still kept in touch with the area could tell me some palces outside of Albion Street to visit. I think this could be the beginning of my love affair with the area again as new memories get created. Kind regards, Clare

  15. Hi Neil,
    I had forgotten all about my request – thank you so much for the photos. It’s hard to reconcile these lovely homes with what life must have been like for my ggg grandfather. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to post the pictures for me. Kind Regards, Tracey

  16. Hi Tracey, and thanks for that insight into the earlier social history of Surry Hills. I will take a picture of 25 Lansdowne St and post it soon — as soon as the current Chinatown series has come to an end. 😉

    • I too attended dance classes with Elsie Leonard at surry hills. I wa wondering if any one has any info on what became of miss Leonard, if and when she passed away. Much appreciated. Dan

  17. Hi Neil,

    My ggg grandfather lived at 25 Lansdown St, Surry Hills in the 1870-1880s. Life was tough – he was a carpenter and declared insolvent in 1880. His first wife died in 1877 as did his youngest son, aged 6 weeks. Another son died in 1880 aged 10 years, and a daughter in 1890 aged 16 years. Do you have any pictures of 25 Lansdown Street please?
    thanks, Tracey

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