Caraher Stairs

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Caraher Stairs

[media]Caraher Stairs was a large stairway that connected Lower Fort Street in Millers Point to Princes Street North in The Rocks. It is one of several stairways demolished as a result of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Merriman Stairs was another.

Caraher Stairs were designed in 1867 and the drawings and specification were signed by the City Engineer Edward Bell.[1]The stairway was comprised of three flights in a straight run and the stairs and landings were constructed of ‘bottom block Pyrmont sandstone’ with the ‘walls piers and copings…of the hardest description of Colonial Sandstone'[2]The steps were bounded by sandstone balustrades of ashlar masonry with half round coping stones and the balustrade terminated at both ends by sandstone piers ‘fair tooled on all faces’ with ‘each of the bases, shafts and caps to be in one stone’.[3]

‘the resort of people who continually lounge about them’

The stairway was heavily used and some of the behaviours and practises that occurred on the stairs prompted the local Citizens Vigilance Committee to write to the Town Clerk in a letter dated 10 July 1900:

It appears that these stairs are the resort of people who continually lounge about them and cover the steps with expectoration, tobacco juice etc. It is also stated that frequently there are rotten eggs thrown on the stairs in addition to the dust and dirt caused by continual traffic. Under these circumstances we are directed to ask that they be swept at least once a day and that they be hosed with water twice a week. In their present state they are almost impassable to ladies who wish to keep their dresses clean. [4]

The complaint was referred to the ‘Inspector of Nuisances’ for action. This letter illustrates the way in which the stairway was used at a particular historic period. It not only provided for the ‘continual traffic’, which included ‘ladies’, but it was a place where people ‘lounged about’, chewing tobacco and spitting out the juice. This contrast of ‘ladies who wish to keep their dresses clean’ and the people who lounged about chewing tobacco and spitting, highlights the mix of people from different social status using the stairway in a variety of ways.

Demolition of Princes Street

[media]When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built between 1923 and 1932, the on-ramp to the bridge from the south caused the demolition of Princes Street and almost all of the top flight of Caraher Stairs, including the sandstone piers that marked its upper entry. The land that remained between the approach to the bridge and the rear of the properties fronting Lower Fort Street was acquired by New South Wales Railways for use as a substation and fenced off.[5]The rest of the stairway remained but now went nowhere and by the Civic Survey plans of 1948 it no longer appeared on the map.[6]

With the demolition of Princes Street the practical need to climb up to its shops was also gone, the bridge not only removed the means of access to the ridge it also removed the primary purpose for that access. Other less tangible benefits such as the view and the physical pleasure of a walk were no match for the pragmatic considerations of Sydney’s rail and road transport systems which required the bridge’s construction.

There are still small remnants of this stairway in situ. A fragment of the original material, part of the original sandstone side wall and coping remain, and a darker colour to the brickwork on the building that was built while the stairway existed shows the outline of the stairway.

 

Notes

[1] Edward Bell, Specification of work to be done in constructing and completing steps leading from Princes Street to Lower Fort Street, 22 August 1867, City of Sydney Archives 65/459.

[2] Edward Bell, Specification of work to be done in constructing and completing steps leading from Princes Street to Lower Fort Street, 22 August 1867, City of Sydney Archives, 65/459.

[3] Edward Bell, Specification of work to be done in constructing and completing steps leading from Princes Street to Lower Fort Street, 22 August 1867, City of Sydney Archives, 65/459.

[4] Letter to the Town Clerk from the Citizens vigilance Committee, 10th July 1900, Complaints re dirty state of Playfair's, Caraber's and Merriman's Stairs caused by expectoration of tobacco and throwing of rotten eggs, City of Sydney Archives, 1900/2571

[5] Government plan: NSWR - Argyle Substation - Plan showing land to be acquired [Land bound by York St North, Argyle St, Trinity Ave and Lower Fort St] 16 December 1929, City of Sydney Archives, Plan G1-73/1

[6] Civic Survey: Circular Quay and Dawes Point, 1948, City of Sydney Archives, 1041/03