THE BIG DIG ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE, THE ROCKS
Our introduction to the Big Dig by Dr Wayne Johnson, curator and archaeologist with Property NSW, was on the rooftop garden of the YMCA building (built over the Big Dig) for fantastic 180 degree views over the city, Circular Quay, the Opera House and down the harbour to the Heads. He talked about the arrival of the First Fleet and how The Rocks housed many of the convicts.
Their days were long, labouring to transform the rugged area by cutting, terracing and draining the landscape. Tracks leading up from Sydney Cove were cut into the rocks. Dr Johnson referred to the many school groups that visit the site, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to the early history of Australia, a fact lamented by our group. Dr Johnson took us downstairs to view the Big Dig site, a rare insight into early urban life with excavations uncovering over 750,000 artefacts dating from around 1795.
Early residents on The Big Dig site: The names of the earliest European occupants of the area are unknown. In 1795 two convicts, George Legg and Ann Armsden, built a slab hut on the site. George drowned in a boating accident in 1807; Ann married a local baker, George Talbot, in 1810. Together they rebuilt on the site, constructing a small two room cottage with an addition room behind that had a large fireplace and deep water cistern, which may have been used as a small bakery. Irish rebel, Richard Byrne, lived on the site from around 1805. Richard was a stonemason and probably quarried parts of the site for stone to build the foundations for his weatherboard cottage, as were many of the earlier houses on the site. Richard, his convict wife Margaret and their family of seven children lived in this house until the 1850s.
From 1809 to the late 1820s, George Cribb lived on the site, building a handsome two storied Georgian house on the southeast side of Cribbs Lane. George was typical of many early convicts who prospered from the opportunities of the new colony. Though a convict on a 14 year sentence, he ran his own butchering business, slaughtering cattle, sheep and pigs to sell as meat to the colony and to visiting ships. As Cribb’s fortune grew, he built a row of four tenements, which he rented out to other convicts and settlers. His slaughterhouse was in the centre of his property and took up the majority of land on the southern end of the site. It was here that he buried the discarded carcasses of the slaughtered animals, poisoning his first water well in the process. Around 1818 a number of household items were discarded down his disused water well, including fine hand-painted Chinese porcelain, a sharp butcher’s filleting knife and a small alcohol still. George had been under surveillance on suspicion of dealing in illegally produced alcohol, which was effectively used as currency. He was arrested, but no evidence could be found to convict him – until the archaeologists found his still 180 years later! By the late 1820s George was in financial difficulties and was declared bankrupt. His property was purchased by land speculators ‘Raine & Ramsay’, who sold the land off in smaller subdivided lots. In 1830 George’s former home was re-developed into a larger building with stables behind, later known as the Whalers Arms Hotel.
Subdivision and Development: Over the next 70 years, these and other houses on the site were occupied by immigrant families from England, Ireland and from across Europe. In many of these houses, rubbish was disposed of under the floorboards. It is this rubbish (roughly 40 centimetres deep, built up over 50-80 years) that tells us much about the daily lives of the people that lived on the site. They ate well, serving their food on fine china; beef, lamb, oysters, fish, chicken and duck, and they dressed their salads and vegetables with oils, pickles and chutneys. Their houses were decorated with figurines and vases of flowers and sometimes with cowry shells and colourful coral. They sewed their own clothes, wore fashionable jewellery and smoked clay pipes. Their children played with dolls, miniature tea sets, marbles, toy soldiers, chess and dominoes.
Dr Wayne Johnson gave a fascinating talk which everyone responded to with insightful questions. We expressed to Dr Johnson our sincere thanks for looking after our group so well.
We adjourned to the Australian Heritage Hotel a few doors away. On 12th August 1824, The Sydney Gazette announced that the Australian Hotel was officially opened for business on George Street. When the plague hit in Sydney in 1900, the hotel was pulled down and the license transferred to a new building called the Australian Heritage Hotel, located on the Archaeological site nearby on Cumberland Street. A century later the Hotel remains a favourite watering hole for locals, a unique example of tastefully preserved Edwardian style architecture. And the food is good too!
© Arthur Phillip Chapter of Fellowship of First Fleeters 2019-