From the 1860s onwards quarries and industries drew hundreds of men and their families to a crowded precinct. Many jobs were unskilled, unhealthy and seasonal: workers’ housing reflected this. In 1876 the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board confirmed the shocking conditions in which people lived, and matters did not improve. Bubonic plague at the turn of the century encouraged the City Fathers to see Pyrmont and Ultimo as slums to be demolished and its people removed. Obvious poverty helped reinforce middle class assumptions that the working class were innately immoral and coarse – and predisposed to crime.
Throughout the next century, Pyrmont endured – or sometimes relished – a dreadful reputation for crime. On Boxing Day 1905 the Australian Star prefaced its report of an affray in these terms:
Just about as bad as they make them in Australia are the pushers of Pyrmont, who … bear a vindictive hatred that can be hardly stamped out by death to rival “pushers”… And the manner in which a section of the lower classes stick together in this suburb … has gained for it the title of “Perjured Pyrmont”.
Two incidents were cited. One was a Christmas Eve fight in Hay Street between noisy “ruffians” and policemen, attracting other “blackguards” and “roysterers”, with injuries on both sides.
The second took place in Harris Street Ultimo, when John Kenny was set upon. The reader must imagine:
a mob of howling ruffians kicking into a condition of insensibility a harmless fellow-creature proceeding on his way home on Christmas Eve. And yet we make collections, and send away thousands to keep up foreign missions when the Heathens remain loose at home.
The report did concede that Kenny may not have been a completely harmless fellow creature, but that hardly improved Pyrmont’s reputation.
In 1912 (22 September) the Sun’s roundup of the week’s crimes had Pyrmont over-represented – yet the list of loot included six canaries, and a Mrs Ben of Jones Street did surprise and repel a burglar.
A ponderous analysis of Sydney criminality (Sunday Times, 11 January 1920) included Pyrmont in a list of “slums” that bred criminals and should be demolished. Because Balmain was far from the city and “set about with bridges”, “serious crime has never been prevalent there” whereas criminals flocked to Surry Hills, Ultimo and Pyrmont, because they were close to town. “Here you will always get the burglars, the housebreaking and garrotting class.”
The contrast between lurid language and minor incidents is so stark that we might dismiss the analysis out of hand. The association between poverty and criminality – summarised as “slum” – survived from the nineteenth century, and predisposed journalists (and their readers) to see innate criminality in relatively trivial events.
Yet there are germs of truth in the reporting. Felons on the run were bound to be drawn to Ultimo’s and Pyrmont’s narrow and badly-lit lanes. When two thieves snatched a factory’s wages, they whipped up their rented sulky and horse and disappeared towards Pyrmont. (Maitland Weekly Mercury, 7 May 1904). Thirty years later a Government paymaster was robbed of £1300 on George Street, despite his armed escort and a driver. The thief jumped into a car, drove towards Pyrmont and crossed Pyrmont Bridge just before the span opened. (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1934).
Whether any or all of these law-breakers lived here is another question. Perhaps they refrained from burgling their poor neighbours or garrotting them. The later boast that “we never locked our doors” may be bravado, but it may also be true.