Evictions, 1890s to World War II

Industry boomed in the late nineteenth century.  As jobs were created, the population mushroomed.  Before long however, industries needed to buy – and demolish  – cottages. As the housing stock shrank, landlords became more demanding.

The maritime strike of 1890 brought matters to a head.  When the strike imploded, wharf labourers and seamen were in dire straits.  The Star (29 November) reported

To sum up the situation take the words of a victim: “We are being both beaten and kicked, and it will never be known how far the fight has affected us.”

Infrastructure also displaced houses.  A railway line to Darling Harbor destroyed 150 houses, and alienated land from St Bartholomew’s church and some industries.

The rabble-rousing Truth (23 July 1911) reported an ideological dimension.  The Colonial Sugar Refinery provided houses for some managers.  An impressive house on Harris Street backed onto three cottages (38, 40 and 42 Mount Street).  Truth ascribed the basest of motives to CSR when it bought the cottages and evicted the tenants.  They appealed in vain. 

Mr. Martin went to work on Wednesday night and came home on Thursday morning for breakfast. While he was seated at the table with his wife and two little ones, the door of his residence (No. 38 Mount-street), was bumped open, and one of the SUGAR COMPANY’S OFFICIALS entered … accompanied by several labourers and two policemen. The representative of the Company told him that they had come to pull the house down, and he must get out at once.

The only PLEASING FEATURE is the kindness shown by the neighbours— poor people themselves. The men of the street were away at work in most cases, but women and children vied with each other to make things easier for the unfortunates. The goods and chattels have been stored on verandahs and in sheds and laundries, and the evicted families invited into the already overcrowded houses close by.

Neighbours rallied, but evictions continued.  Next year residents in 42 cottages received notice to quit, to make way for a wool store.  They won a six weeks stay of execution but (Sun, 18 July 1912) when the day dawned, 22 were still in possession.  This was awkward for elected officials, such as “the Chief Secretary, Mr Dooley, who is Ministerial head of the police force, [and] has given instructions that assistance in these evictions is not to be given by the police, but that any request for such assistance is to be referred to him.”  Perhaps wisely, Mr Dooley was out of town on the day.

Not all politicians squirmed. Sir Allen Taylor, timber merchant and alderman, took delight in “slum clearance”.  According to Alan Roberts in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

Persuading parliament to grant the council additional powers of resumption and borrowing money, as lord mayor in 1905-06 and 1909-12 Taylor embarked on a vigorous programme of civic improvement. Like a child with building blocks, ‘he arranges, alters, amends, improves, develops’.

There were political costs for gung-ho development.  Surprisingly it was the Gundagai Times (13 December 1912) who summed this up most crisply. Taylor lost an election,

But it was hardship which was inflicted on Pyrmont residents by Sir Allen’s resumption policy, and the consequent wholesale evictions, when other dwellings were almost unobtainable, that sealed the fate of Sir Allen, not at all the merits of the opposing candidate.  If the Labor men don’t set their house in very much better order, they can see in the result of the Sydney municipal elections a reliable indication of what they may expect when the electors of the State have an opportunity of dealing with them.

After the war, as evictions resumed, politicians again wrung their hands.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported (June 1920) that

The Lord Mayor… at the request of Aldermen Lambert and Burke, promised to appeal to the owners of the 50 houses at Ultimo, which are being pulled down to provide a site for a wool store, to give the tenants the longest possible time to secure new homes. He also promised to bring under the notice of the State Government the plight of these families, and ask them to do what they could to provide some housing accommodation for them during the inclement winter weather.

Nothing changed.  Sun (25 August 1920) reported:

“Five hundred people have been turned out of their houses in connection with this proposal, and some of them are sleeping in backyards now,” said Alderman Lambert at last night’s meeting of the City Council, in opposing the granting of a concession to Messrs. Hill, Clark and Co. in connection with the Bulwarra-road wool store….

Alderman Lambert referred to the industry as an “unhealthy” one. 

Alderman Marks: That is ridiculous — wool is absolutely healthy.  Pyrmont must be the main wool centre, and it is impossible to get the stores nearer the railway.

Alderman O’Connor: … We should have our residential areas defined. Our obsolete Act will not permit us to block a wool store in the heart of the city.

In the end (Evening News, 3 September 1920 and Sydney Morning Herald 4 September 1920):

The last half-dozen houses of the 40 bought… by Hill, Clark, and Company in Bulwarra-road, Pyrmont, for the erection of a factory, were evacuated by their tenants this afternoon, in compliance with an order of the Court.

One woman … became hysterical at the last moment and refused to leave. The police, exercising great tact, quietly removed her furniture out the back, where kindly neighbours took charge of it and comforted the weeping woman. 

Not everyone wept.  The Construction and Local Government Journal (6 September 1920) denounced the press reporting:

Hill, Clark and Co., a large wool firm, desires stores built to cope with the progress of the State.  To get as near as possible to the best point of discharge, they purchase land at Pyrmont. There happened to be a number of cottages upon it, so they gave a very long notice to the occupants to leave, but a number found difficulty in finding other places, so on the termination of their very lengthened period, the sensational evening journals pander to the morbid and sensational.

During the 1930s tenants became better organised, with help from the Communist Party and some of the Labor Party.  The Workers Weekly (28 February 1936) quoted the N.S.W. Council of the Unemployed and Relief Workers on the subject of rising rents:

The protest against increased rentals is daily growing. Successes have been met with in Pyrmont-Ultimo and elsewhere, where tenants have banded themselves together …

In many cases … landlords and agents have backed down and the tenants have won the day. Part of the struggle against increased rentals is taking the form of support for the demand for a Fair Rents Act.

The Workers Weekly (22 July 1938) also reported direct action.  When Mrs R Bates had to quit her house in Paternoster Row, she applied through the Unemployed Homes Trust for land at Malabar and building materials.  The Pyrmont Branch of the Communist Party organised a working bee to build the house.  Meanwhile Charlie Shaunessy, who represented Mrs Bates, won a three month extension of the eviction notice.

In the same source (16 June 1939) we learn that

16 families in Bulwara Road and Allen Street, Pyrmont, and Burlinson Street, Ultimo, are facing eviction.  Their homes are to be demolished in preparation for the erection of factories. 

They were advised by the secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party.  Next year (Workers’ Weekly, 30 June 1939) another six families were “defended in court by Charlie Shaunessy, well-known Communist and Workers’ Weekly seller.”