Dictionary of Sydney

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Chard Stairs

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Chard Stairs

Chard Stairs is located in Darlinghurst and connects Forbes Street with William Street.

The stairway resulted from a project to widen the original William Street in 1916. This widening necessitated large scale demolition of buildings and the reworking of the topography.

Widening William Street

William Street was created in 1830 as part of the road that lead to South Head and despite Surveyor Thomas Mitchell describing the street as unsuitable ‘for heavily-laden vehicles by reason of its steep gradients’,[1] it became the main route of traffic to the eastern suburbs. In 1908 The Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City, which happened to include several commissioners who lived in the eastern suburbs, recommended that William Street be widened in order to assist the development of the Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst districts.

It took several years before political will within the City of Sydney Council made these improvements possible. Finally the day of resumption was set at 1 June 1916, with demolition to start three years later.[2]

The resumption and demolition necessitated by the road widening affected many people’s lives and livelihoods. It also created or increased topographical challenges in the roads leading into William Street. At the junction of William Street with Forbes Street, already steep before the road widening was undertaken, the widening increased the grade so that it was no longer possible for vehicles to use it and eventually this situation resulted in one of Sydney’s most elaborate stairways.

‘a very great convenience’

In 1920, the City Surveyor, Albert Henry Brigg, wrote a letter to the Town Clerk, outlining the problem of the Forbes Street gradient. The letter stated:

In connection with the widening of William Street it will be necessary to close Forbes Street between William Street and Premier Lane. This is necessitated by the setting over of William Street 34 feet, which if carried out, will increase the grade of Forbes Street to such an extent that it would be dangerous to vehicular traffic. I have, therefore, had prepared four alternative designs which I submit herewith showing how this area might be treated to provide free access for pedestrian traffic.[3]

The closure was approved but it would appear that the City Surveyor’s designs were not well received as the City Architect was requested to provide ‘some more suitable design’ to the Works Committee.[4] In March of the same year, the City Architect and Building Surveyor, Robert Hargreave Brodrick, submitted two designs with associated costs but by June of 1924 nothing had happened and a property owner neighbouring the site, William Chard, wrote to the council, pointing out, ‘that it would be a very great convenience to people desirous of getting access to Upper Forbes Street from William Street, if the proposed wall and steps were completed', and hoping that they would start work soon.[5] To move things forward Chard had commissioned the architects Pitt and Morrow to put together a concept for the stairway which he forwarded to the Council for its consideration.

The final drawings for the stairway were prepared by the Assistant City Architect, James Henry Merriman, who initialled the drawings ‘JHM 21.6.24’, and which were signed off by Brodrick.[6] Construction on the stairway began in December 1924[7] however the electric lights that were an integral part of the stairway’s design had not been fitted by May of the next year, prompting Chard to again write to the Town Clerk:

Owing to the fact that no lights are fitted on the new stone steps in locality named, people at night commit nuisance there (in solid and liquid form) and also hang about behind the steps & outside my building in Premier St., drinking beer, & making the place uncanny for Ratepayers [sic] and civilized residents.

The creation of the stairway also provided a convenient platform from which ‘boys and thieves’ were able to enter the first floor of the premises of Larke, Hoskins and Co Ltd, importers of motor cars.[8]

William Chard

It was not until 1986 that the stairway was named after Chard, the man who had been instrumental in the creation of the most highly detailed and decorated stairway in the city.[9] A merchant who dealt in wool, skins, hides and tallow and was an agent for an American fur company,[10] Chard was the author of a book on the history of the Australian wool market[11] and also commissioned the construction of Chard’s Building on the corner of William Street and Forbes Street, just to the east of Chard Stairs.



[1] Report of the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs, New South Wales parliamentary papers, 1909, xlix, cited in Max Kelly, Faces of the street: William Street, Sydney 1916, Paddington, NSW: Doak Press, 1982, 4

[2] Max Kelly, Faces of the street: William Street, Sydney 1916, Paddington, NSW: Doak Press, 1982,16

[3] Letter from the City Surveyor to the Town Clerk, 12 February 1920, in Proposed steps to Forbes St between William St & Premier Lane, City of Sydney Archives, 750/20

[4] Handwritten note at bottom of letter. Letter from the City Surveyor to the Town Clerk, 12 February 1920, in Proposed steps to Forbes St between William St & Premier Lane, City of Sydney Archives, 750/20

[5] Letter from W. H. Chard to The Sydney Municipal Council, 9 June 1924, in Upper Forbes St. from William St. Re access by steps, City of Sydney Archives, 2432/24 

[6] Although the site plaque says “The City Architect prepared the final drawings” this is not accurate, it is the initials of the assistant architect J. H. Merriman which match the writing on the drawing. The signature of R. H. Broderick, the City Architect, appears below the titleblock of the drawing. Standard plan: Forbes St, retaining wall & steps, 21 June 1924, City of Sydney Archives, E3-92/3

[7] Upper Forbes St. from William St. Re access by steps, City of Sydney Archives, 2432/24 

[8] Upper Forbes St. from William St. Re access by steps, City of Sydney Archives, 2432/24 

[9] THE COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF SYDNEY.—Local Government Act 1919.—Ordinance No. 30, Clause 52.—STAIRS, Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales, 25 July 1986, 3660. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231298356 viewed 8 February 2018

[10] Hides, Skin and Tallow, The Queenslander, 25 October 1919, 35 

[11] William Henry Chard, Australian Wool Markets: Historical sketch, Sydney: W. H. Chard & Co. 1926