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 (#@%*!#)………


30 thoughts on “Surry Hills

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

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