The sandstone we associate with Pyrmont was formed between 500 and 700 million years ago when sand was deposited in the delta of an immense river covering the entire Sydney basin. Sandstone was then scarred by smaller rivers gouging trenches through it. Pyrmont yellowblock sandstone is pale before it is quarried: it gains its warm, golden colour when it is exposed. As it is porous and easily shaped, it became Sydney’s preferred building material in and beyond the nineteenth century.
In Sydney it was so plentiful that it was often called freestone by the early settlers who used it for housing. The Saunders quarries are best known, but as many as 50 quarries of various sizes have operated in Pyrmont. Local and international demand was insatiable: by 1928 more than half a million cubic yards may have been extracted, with dramatic effects on the landscape and environment.
Despite sandstone’s easy availability, the stone masons who worked it for industrial purposes were highly skilled and well organised. Their union won the world’s first eight-hour working day.
As extraction became more difficult, quarries were worked out. Other building materials became more available, and by the 1950s sandstone seemed old-fashioned.