June 21, 2024

Before the Sydney Opera House

Before the Sydney Opera House was built its location, Bennelong Point, was already an important part of the city, with a long history.

The First Fleet arrive in Port Jackson
The First Fleet arrive in Port Jackson

European settlement of Australia commenced in January 1788, when the First Fleet arrived from England.

Landing initially at Botany Bay, after a few days the fleet decamped to Port Jackson. There they found a sheltered natural harbour, fresh water, and arable land. The newly arrived colonists, a mix of settlers, solders, and convicts under the leadership of Arthur Phillip, began constructing their new township alongside the harbour.

They also encountered the local Indigenous population. There were three tribes living in the area that would become Sydney; the Daruk, the Iora and the Darawal. The tribes and the settlers kept their distance at first, and largely tried to stay out of each other’s way.

An early map of Sydney, from 1789
An early map of Sydney, from 1789

For the Indigenous tribes, the harbour had enormous importance as a source of food.

The Daruk fished mainly from the shoreline, using lines they had fashioned from tree bark. The Iora preferred to fish from canoes, which they carved from the trunks of eucalypts. All of the local inhabitants supplemented their diet with shellfish.

The shores of Port Jackson were rich with oysters, which were consumed in great numbers. Mounds of discarded shells, called ‘middens’, were found by the Europeans. They even put them to use; the shells contained lime and, ground up, they were used as mortar in early bricklaying.

A prime oyster harvesting location could be found northeast of the fledgling township, on a triangular point of land that jutted into the harbour. The Indigenous name for this spot was Inbughalee.

The tip of the point was separated from the rest by a shallow channel, that flooded when the tide came in.


Among the Iora tribe one of their number, Bennelong, soon distinguished himself.

A teenager when the Europeans arrived, but already a vigorous and energetic young man, Bennelong was curious to learn more about the new arrivals. He would soon become the first Indigenous person to learn English, and would serve as a translator and intermediary, between the two groups.

His sociable nature endeared him to Governor Phillip, who considered him a friend. And his usefulness to the colony was rewarded: Phillip gifted Bennelong a small brick hut, about 12 feet square, which was built on Inbughalee. He lived there with his wife, Barangaroo.

A number of other Iora also used the house, and there could usually be found a group of tribespeople sitting outside together. To the settlers the area became known as, ‘Bennelong Point’.

Before the Sydney Opera House: Bennelong Point, 1804
Bennelong Point, 1804

Bennelong’s fate was ultimately unhappy.

When Phillip returned to England in 1792, he took his friend with him, along with a younger man named Yemmerrawanie; the first Indigenous Australians to visit Europe.

Appearing mostly in western style clothes, he was initially feted by society, but his value as a curio quickly wore off. Unhappy and out of place, he returned to Sydney in 1795 with the new Governor, John Hunter.

‘By then, he fitted neither his old tribal world, nor the carceral microcosm of the whites.
Bennelong became increasingly pugnacious and sodden with rum, and died at the age of about 40, in 1813.’


– Robert Hughes, ‘The Fatal Shore’

By the time of Bennelong’s death, the point named after him was already being used for its next purpose.

Storming of the Bastille in 1789: the French Revolution begins
Storming of the Bastille in 1789: the French Revolution begins

Prior to the First Fleet, Australia had seen European explorers come from a number of countries, including the French and Dutch.

As the 18th century wore on, as well as needing a place to send their expanding prison population, the British government was concerned that another country may seize Australia for themselves. The land was viewed as potentially rich in resources, and could provide a safe harbour in the distant Pacific.

In 1789, a year after the First Fleet arrived, the French Revolution erupted, plunging Europe into chaos for the next two decades. England and France would spend much of that time as enemies, and the British government’s concerns about Australia were heightened.

Before the Sydney Opera House: Sydney in 1810
Map of Sydney from 1810, showing the gun placement top left

In July 1788, Governor Phillip ordered Bennelong Point fortified.

It was a good position for a defensive installation, with a view of the harbour, and the approaches to the town. Two six pound guns were placed there, behind some basic fortifications.

This was later demolished, but the point would be reinforced in 1798, as the Napoleonic Wars raged in Europe. Now six guns were stationed at the point, with more substantial protection.

Finally, in 1817, Governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered a proper Fort built on the site. He named it after himself.

The man on the $10 note: Francis Greenway
The man on the $10 note: Francis Greenway

Fort Macquarie was designed by Francis Greenway, then the foremost architect in the colony.

Greenway was born in Gloucestershire in 1777, and later established himself as an architect around Bristol and Bath. But financial problems set in; he declared bankruptcy in 1809, and was sentenced to death in 1812, for forging documents.

His sentence was commuted to transportation, and he was sent to the colonies in 1814. During the trip he met and befriended the ship’s doctor, Dr John Harris, who would provide him his first commission in Sydney; expanding the doctor’s home, in Ultimo.

While Greenway’s sentence was 14 years hard labour, skilled tradespeople were in short supply. He was assigned more architecture work, and would serve most of his sentence at his drawing table.

Greenway would design some of early Sydney’s most iconic buildings, including the Hyde Park Barracks, Government House, and St James’ Church (all still standing).

Before Sydney Opera House: Fort Macquarie
Fort Macquarie shortly after construction

His design for Fort Macquarie was a collaborative effort, with the army’s engineers. It was based around a central, two storey guard tower, 90 feet in circumference, surrounded by fortifications.

The walls were 12 feet thick, with three sides facing the harbour. Stone for the construction came from a quarry in the nearby Domain.

Three large cannon were stationed at the fort, manned by a small, permanent garrison of troops who lived in the central tower.

Fort Macquarie was constructed with convict labour and took four years to complete, becoming fully operational in 1821. It would stand on the site for 80 years.

Before the Sydney Opera House: Fort Macquarie, 1900
Fort Macquarie, 1900

In 1901, the State Government decided to replace the fort.

By this time it was barely used and in run down condition. Sydney had grown into a thriving metropolis, and modern military installations established elsewhere. Bennelong Point would now serve a new purpose, as part of the city’s push to modernise.

A Sydney 'O Class' tram
A Sydney ‘O Class’ tram

Trams had been a key piece of Sydney’s transport infrastructure since the middle of the previous century.

The first tram line had been horse drawn; established in 1861, it ran the length of the city down to Circular Quay. Steam trams had followed from the 1870s, and electric trams from 1898.

The first electric tramcars were the C and D Class, followed in 1908 by the O Class, which became the best-known Sydney tram of the era. The O Class was known as a ‘toastrack’ or ‘footboard’ tram; it had neither windows or doors, and bench seats that spanned the width of the vehicle, without an aisle.

Conductors sold and checked tickets by shuffling along the outside of the tram on footboards, which made for a dangerous occupation.

The state government began electrifying the existing tram network, utilising the same parts and equipment that had been used in the New York subway system. Progress was swift, and most of the network had been upgraded by 1910.

Before the Sydney Opera House: Fort Macquarie Tram Depot
Fort Macquarie Tram Depot

The government also constructed a new city tram depot, on Point Bennelong. Built on the site of the former fort, and named after it, the Fort Macquarie Tram Depot was finished in 1902.

Its design was unusual, and mimicked the military installation it replaced, replete with a tower and castellated battlements.

Twelve tram lines ran from the depot, with a loop line of track around the outside. A short stretch of double track connected the depot to the wider tram network, via Circular Quay.

Trams on George Street, Sydney
Trams on George Street, Sydney

Sydney’s trams were popular, and the network continued to grow through the early 20th century.

By the 1930s, it was the largest in the southern hemisphere, with hundreds of kilometres of track, and 2 500 tram carriages in service. But it was becoming a victim of its own success.

Central Sydney had not been planned, like Melbourne, and had instead been left to develop organically. The result was a messy arrangement of streets.

As more people bought their own cars, road traffic became difficult to manage.

Sydney press reports the change from trams to buses
The press reports the change from trams to buses

While public transport is often seen as the solution to congestion problems, in Sydney at this time the tram network was seen as part of the problem. The trams mostly shared the roads with other vehicles, there were only a small number of dedicated tramways, and drivers found them a slow and cumbersome obstacle.

The NRMA, the peak local motoring group, began lobbying for their removal.

The tram network was also the victim of neglect. Cost cutting through the great depression, and then World War II, had left the network in a poor state of repair. Maintenance was urgently needed on a number of lines, and the tram cars in service were largely outdated.

After the war, the State Government commissioned a report on the future of public transport in Sydney.

Taking its cue from London, which had recently begun a successful expansion of their bus network, the report recommended a gradual phasing out trams. Busses, and an associated series of new roads, would replace them.

‘Rather than repairing all the tracks, repairing all the overhead lines on a massive tramway network, it was considered easier just to bring the buses in to take over.’


– Professor Robert Lee, Sydney historian

While many people blamed trams for the congestion on the city’s roads, they were still popular. And so a lot of the line removal was done by stealth; the overhead lines demolished at night, the tram tracks themselves not removed at all, but simply covered up with asphalt.

The last tram line was closed in 1961.

Before the Sydney Opera House: Fort Macquarie tram depot shortly before demolition
Fort Macquarie tram depot shortly before demolition

The Fort Macquarie tram depot was decommissioned as part of this program: it closed in October 1955, and was demolished three years later.

The Government once again had a new plan for the site, one befitting its location alongside what had become a world-famous harbour. They would build a new concert hall and opera house.

This project was the brainchild of Eugene Goosens, the director of the NSW Conservatory of Music. Goosens had been lobbying for a new concert hall since the 1940s, and it was his suggestion to locate the building on Bennelong Point.

Utzon's winning design for the Sydney Opera House
Utzon’s winning design for the Sydney Opera House

The plan eventually found a sponsor in Premier Joseph Cahill, who launched a design competition for the building in 1955. 233 entries were submitted, from architects in 32 countries.

The winner was Jorn Utzon, a relatively unknown architect from Denmark. According to legend, his radical design, featuring the iconic ‘sails’, was rescued from a pile of rejected entries by one of the judges.
Construction of the building began in 1959.

The project would be beset by cost overruns, construction difficulties, and much controversy. The design of the sails was one major issue, as constructing them with the materials of the time proved fiendishly difficult.

A number of politicians agitated for the building’s abandonment, largely due to the ballooning price tag. Utzon himself, who moved to Sydney to supervise the project, would not see its end; he resigned in February 1966, following a dispute over proposed changes to his design.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

The building was not completed until 1973. The eventual cost, $102 million, was 5 times what had originally been budgeted (although it seems like a steal, by modern standards). Queen Elizabeth II oversaw a lavish opening ceremony.

Utzon was not invited.

Bennelong's Hut replica, overlooking the Sydney Opera House
Bennelong’s Hut replica, overlooking the Sydney Opera House

A replica of Bennelong’s hut now stands in the nearby domain, overlooking the point where he used to live. The Sydney Opera House was made a UNSECO World Heritage Site, in 2003.


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