The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Sydney’s cultural life

Hyde Park, St James Parsonage Dispensary, afterwards the Mint, and Emigration Barracks 1842 by John Rae Credit: Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (a928373 / DG SV*/Sp Coll/Rae/16) Hyde Park, St James Parsonage Dispensary, afterwards the Mint, and Emigration Barracks 1842 by John Rae Credit: Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (a928373 / DG SV*/Sp Coll/Rae/16)

We’re coming into the festival season, when our city seems to come alive with a variety of cultural events and activities. Let’s go back to the 1800s and see how culture developed in Sydney, from unruly pastimes to popular sports and theatrical pursuits. Listen to the podcast on 2SER radio.

Many of our city’s most popular sports and activities today had their beginnings only a few years after the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove. Though Sydney did not immediately replicate English cultural practices during early settlement, officers and free settlers were active in promoting certain sports which they felt demonstrated upper class respectability. While this part of colonial society focussed their energies on sports such as horse racing and cricket, convicts reproduced old habits in the form of drinking and gambling. They manufactured their own playing cards and frequented taverns and sly-grog shops.

Consequently, governors sought to provide alternative means of recreation. As early as 1796 authorities allowed a group of ‘the more decent class of prisoners’ to open a playhouse in The Rocks. Over the next decade the company presented a number of plays, including comedies and tragedies and even a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. And just as with English audiences, Sydney’s playhouse theatregoers could be quite rowdy and disorderly!

Another popular feature of the early colony were the various alehouses and inns, with the first two licences to sell liquor granted in 1792. Cockfights were held in Sydney from the earliest years of settlement, in particular in the wharf areas as well as Brickfield Hill, an area bound by George and Liverpool streets. There were also bare knuckle fights, with the first ones held as informal grudge matches until it became institutionalised in 1811. Horse racing was also popular, with the first official race meeting being held in Hyde Park in 1810.

In promoting these activities, authorities attempted to divert attention away from the less desirable pursuits of drinking and gambling. Of course this didn’t quite work, as racegoers at the first Hyde Park races became so intoxicated they were unfit to work for several days, while gambling booths thrived as an entrenched part of all meetings.

Sydney’s theatre scene gained momentum in the 1830s, with the Theatre Royal on George Street being popular among Sydneysiders, even though the first few performances featured rowdiness in the pit and gallery! Unlike contemporary programs, the Royal not only featured a main play, but light entertainments between acts as well as afterpiece farces. But as programs mellowed over the decades to include rather more sophisticated performances like opera, so too did theatregoers.

The gold rushes in the 1840s to 1850s transformed Sydney’s cultural life as immigrants arrived from all over the globe in much larger numbers than before. Between 1851 and 1914, the city’s population went from 54,000 to 648,000. And during the late nineteenth century, Sydney’s culture was also shaped by modernisation. Sports such as cricket, football, horse racing and boxing all became subject to the standardised rules, regular competitions and professional administrators.

Housing and demographic change also impacted the city’s cultural life. While the poorer classes were housed in older areas of the inner city zone, more well-to-do individuals began to move further out of the city centre into suburban areas with better sanitation and lower density living. What a difference to today’s trends, as people scramble to live closer to the city and areas once considered slum districts have turned into gentrified cultural hubs!

If you missed Nicole’s segment on 2SER this morning, you can catch up on the podcast here.