There’s a warship next door… It may be something I ate… but, no, I look again and it’s still there…
There were only two bottles of beer in our lovely complementary fridge last, night, on our arrival in Sydney, and I managed, in my sleep deprived state, to spill a third of the contents of one of them on the carpet…. I did my best to mop it, using a dampened hand-towel from the bathroom.
So, it can’t be the beer, and we’ve had the first proper sleep in what feels like a week of travel; so the warship is real and needs integrating into my ‘now’.
Philosophically, I don’t take every such visual symbol at its face value, but a bloody great warship is quite a challenge….
So, I should explain, assuming you have persevered this far…
The warship is on a quay in a place whose name has far too many ‘O’s. Deep breath… Woolloomooloo… Told you… Back in Cumbria we have a place called Melmerby, which catches people in the middle with a recurring stammer-trap of the Ms, sounding much like the starter on my dad’s old Ford Anglia – ‘Mmmmm, mmmm, el mmmmmm errr by’.
We once went, for Bernie’s birthday, to a place near Cork, in Southern Ireland, to a well-known cooking school, run at the home of a famous lady chef, Doreena Allen. Its name was Ballymaloo. Between the one and three quarters beers last night I worked out that the only way to say Woolloomooloo is to run Ballymaloo in your head and sneak in the ‘Wool’ quickly before the mouth starts to work…
Woolloomooloo has a great story of people perseverance. In fact, it’s very similar to how Covent Garden was saved from the developers in London.
Woolloomooloo is a district of Sydney, on the waterfront about a mile to the south. Getting our bearings, we found that the peninsula is also the home of a large naval base, and hence the warship in the window. Any closer with the photograph and I might have been in jail, we later discovered.
Having spent two full days, mainly without sleep, in Singapore, we are finally in Australia for one of our bi-annual visits to the chosen home of my eldest son and his family – including our young grandchildren. They live in Adelaide, which is a three hour flight away, but we are having the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ in the antipodes while still young enough to enjoy, it. Our itinerary will take us from an exploration of Sydney – over the next two days – to boarding our first-ever cruise ship, which will take us via Melbourne to a journey up the coasts of New Zealand’s South and North islands. The ten-day cruise ends in Auckland, from where we will fly to Adelaide to spend the final week with the family. They are both doctors, so getting time off it difficult. We are all going to stay in an AirBnB on Kangaroo island, not far from their home.
The story of Woolloomooloo, its historic significance and its rescue is worth telling.
As the photo shows, the old dock (the home of the present hotel Ovolo) was given over to a giant dock warehouse, originally constructed in timber. It was a bustling workplace for most of the 20th century. The dockers were called ‘wharfies’. Their role in a pre-containered world, was to load and unlock cargoes by hand and winch. The working conditions were harsh, dirty and dangerous – but that didn’t stop the work being sought after. Hungry people need work. The work was allocated daily and work today did not mean a job tomorrow – much like how present day billionaires advocate the ‘new’ zero-hours contracts.
Daily work was handed out at the wharf gates by the ‘bull system’, which favoured the biggest men and those least likely to complain about the harsh and often dangerous working conditions. Broken bones, torn muscles and diseased lungs were common among the workers on the wharves. The Waterside Worker’s Federation fought to improve working conditions – and was met with the usual violent opposition from the employers. During the 1930s ‘Great Depression’ the horrific lack of jobs weakened the union’s stand…
The Second World War strengthened the WWF union’s position, and with the bull system ending, working conditions slowly improved. This period was the key to the preservation fight that followed, because the Woolloomooloo Wharf had become synonymous with the fight for better social conditions and a national consciousness of the important of this for Australian society.
During the 1970s, shipping changed, forever, and the methods used at Woolloomooloo Wharf were left behind, as they were across the world. The growth of much larger container ports and cruise liner terminals gradually replaced the Wharf’s functions. The work and workers moved with them. For nearly a decade, this enormous building lay derelict and decaying.
Then, in 1987, the State Government decided to demolish the Woolloomooloo Wharf, with plans to replace it with a new marine. And, to their surprise, all hell broke loose…
After more that seventy years at the heart of Sydney’s cargo and passenger handling, Woolloomooloo had become a deeply embedded ‘folk symbol’ for the community’s struggle for economic and social justice. Now that emotion was mobilised…
The National Trust and the Royal Australian Institute for Architects both sided with the protesters. The local MP was outspoken in her opposition to the redevelopment. Powerful property developers compared it to a giant toilet and favoured ‘blowing it to bits’. The minister assisting the Premier condemned it as an ‘eyesore’. For the next few years the battle raged, with a ‘Green Ban’ being raised by public outrage to prevent covert demolition. Eventually, the government, backed off, but refused to restore the wharf, rather than demolish it.
For another year, the place lay in limbo. The government, sore at having its plans thwarted, were content to let it rot. The minister even said, “… it will just sit there and nothing will happen.”
Eventually, in 1992, in the face of continued outcry, the government relented, and work began of one of modern Sydneys most iconic landmarks.
Today, Woolloomooloo is thriving. The centre of the old dock building has been converted to a hotel, which is were I began this story. It’s quirky and wonderful… and they leave you free beer in the fridge when you get in, dog tired from Singapore.
Far from being an ‘eyesore’, it’s much sought-after as a base for millionaires’ boats. There are tens of restaurants and, on Gold Cup day, which it is, today, its packed with Sydney’s finest in their best clothes.
Woolloomooloo, add it to your ‘must see’ list! You won’t be disappointed.