In memory of Jim Waites, Dr Sperm and David Hayes, denizens all.
Head south on Elizabeth Street, turn left after Devonshire. Butt Street is more of an alley, with a slight kink at the beginning. Apartments and warehouses loom either side. You are walking towards Clisdell Street in August 1940, and on the left in the gutter is the corpse of Bill Smillie, gambler, gunman, SP standover. Next to his body is a dead cat.
Don’t be afraid. You will get used to this. Bill was a violent man who met a violent end. He was almost certainly shot by professional thieves George Dempsey and John McIvor though the case against them collapsed. He was born around the corner at 140 Devonshire Street, living in this house with his family until his death, between stretches in jail. Bill went to parties at 4 Clisdell Street when it was a mean little terrace, dilapidated, boarded up and covered in soot from surrounding factories. Next door at number 6 lived Iris Webber, shoplifter, busker, and most remarkably, lover of women, one of whom was Maisie Matthews, described in the NSW Police Gazette as ‘prostitute and slasher’. Maisie was also involved with Bill Smillie. That is probably why Iris shot him five years earlier, even though she didn’t take the rap. I have imagined her chasing him up Clisdell Street to Belvoir, a steep incline, landing bullets in Bill’s thighs. Bill walked out of Sydney Hospital three days later; he copped quite a few bullets from other crims before the fatal shots of 1940.
Stay in history, move into fiction, as you look up. See the back of Lick Jimmy’s Chinese grocery from Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948) and Poor man’s Orange (1949), set in this neighbourhood. Smell the cesspit behind another Devonshire Street premises, and the smallgoods factory. See ramshackle houses fenced with rusting corrugated iron; lanes clotted with rubbish, roamed by stray cats, rats almost as large. The kids are barefoot; men are staggering home from the six o’clock swill vomiting and fighting; soon, you’ll hear their wives copping it in the neck.
Clisdell Street runs along the base of the southernmost of Surry Hills. Down here in wet weather, the streets turned to toxic mud. The land had clay in it and until Iris’s time there was a pottery works on top of the hill, a Pottery Street, and Pottery Hotel. Opposite the pub, at 2 Lansdowne Street, a large premises that for years housed a butcher, Kate Leigh set up what would become one of her most infamous sly groggeries just after Iris arrived in the mid 1930s. You might have seen that photo of Kate on her balcony, beneficent harridan waving to the crowd of locals gathered below to thank her for the Christmas presents that she showered on them each year, from both kindness and a shrewd business sense.
You won’t see any of this now. Iris’s terrace, Kate’s beerhouse, the pottery works and its pub are gone. Gone too are the cesspit and smallgoods factory. The entire area from Clisdell to Marlborough Streets was razed from the late 1940s to make way for Northcott, Sydney’s first housing commission project. Clisdell is now a split level street, with murals on the wall where Iris’s terrace once stood, the upper level bordering Northcott. Blocks of 1950s red brick flats sit among eucalyptus, Moreton Bay figs and callistemon. On the plateau are residential towers completed later, and a park. Vegetable gardens around the flats show the care of three generations. Many tenants still live desperate lives. At the turn of this century, when my girlfriend lived a block away, we were often woken at night by police helicopters whirring overhead, spotlights trained on the social detritus below.
I remember a thread on the Facebook page of Peter Doyle, one of inner Sydney’s greatest chroniclers: ‘Clisdell Street was fucken violent in the 1980s,’ a man growled, or words to that effect. ‘There were five murders in two years.’ A decade on, in Brumby Street, parallel to Butt, a group of young queers I knew started a share house which thrived for years despite the heavy vibe. No doubt the violence was diluted by gentrification and NSW Housing’s gradual removal of tenants. The old red brick flats are light, airy and well insulated. Theatre critic Jim Waites lived in one, happy in that mix of crims and eccentrics, urban Aboriginals, long-term HIV positive poofs, druggies and the generally poor.
Surry Hills has always been subject to the vagaries of the real estate market. The first receiver of stolen goods was Captain Joseph Foveaux in 1792, ‘granted’ 100 acres of Gadigal land south of Sydney town. It was another fifty years before the Riley Estate had streets cut into its shifting sand hills, its blackbutt and banskia cleared. This whole continent may well be a story of rapacious, illegitimate development, but the central location of Surry Hills invited the type of speculator who prefers their environment grubby, chaotic and sedimented so as to more easily hide their crimes. Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux, set in Surry Hills a couple of decades before Park’s books, is presided over by slum landlord Bill Bross, a character as vividly nefarious as any of Balzac’s.
I loved the city at night. I was never afraid in its dark streets. Or, more realistically, I was always afraid, in the way a woman must be, her fear only increasing if she is queer. I came to the city from a house on the harbour, idyllic environmentally but filled with the fear of a harsh, distant father and three older brothers who bullied me constantly, two of them fighting one another so fiercely that my fear was for others as well as myself. The question was never whether there was danger – it was assumed – the question was whether or not I could outrun it. Thus toughened, I moved into the city when I was seventeen and walked its dark streets at all hours. I didn’t live in Surry Hills until later but it has become the area I most often pass through; a decades-old repository of my history of parties, love, work and friends. The blocks further north of Iris, around Foveaux Street, were the first I came to know.
These streets on the hills facing west, I see in my mind’s eye black as pitch.
In the thirties, in back alleys, lights from those who could afford electricity or late night sly groggeries were all that penetrated the gloom. Elizabeth Street, at the bottom, was lit with round yellow globes. Trams travelled along Devonshire, Crown and Campbell Streets. Now even the narrowest alley is lit at night, the sinewy contours and steep drops giving them a cinematic allure. Stand at the top of Sophia Street, a scratch between warehouses six blocks long, so narrow at the bottom there are no footpaths, let alone trees. Now the wider streets — Cooper, Kippax and Foveaux — are planted with paperbarks and pittosporum.
Watch the sun set on the most oppressively hot days, when the western plains trap pollution over the city and the sun pulses through a fierce chemical red. The textile district lingers in cheap clothing stores and tiny back lane shops that embroider patches or sharpen scissors. Greenfields warehouse, a four-storey paradise of fabric and haberdashery, has barely changed since opening over sixty years ago.
From my bedsit on the edge of Paddington ($33 pw), I walked to the Trade Union Club on Foveaux Street, alto sax slung over my shoulder. I had begun playing around the age of fifteen for the vaguest of reasons. Like most teenagers I was lost in music; I wanted to get behind the clock of creation and the piano didn’t cut it. Music offered community, hedonism, transcendence. I loved everything – punk, Motown, jazz, blues, soul, rock’n’roll – mostly black music — and with the band scene thriving found myself in a ska group when I could barely play six notes. Too bad if the saxophonist wasn’t legal, she was in the band. What a great lurk: two gigs a week, even during the HSC. Dad had a job in Canberra, Mum went to look after him most weekends, I ran wild. A reprieve from my strict Catholic upbringing, yet anyone from a big family will tell you that by the time they get to the youngest, they can’t be bothered keeping track of you. But did I really run wild? I took the playing seriously enough to avoid smoking; I didn’t play drunk. I was, from the beginning, a worker in the twilight world, half monk half hedonist.
I couldn’t play for shit and had terrible stage fright. I always asked the roadies to set my mic up as far back as possible. By 1983, I was studying Jazz Fundamentals part time at the Con, practicing several hours a day, dropping out of uni, cleaning, cooking and collecting the dole for money, and using a bit of heroin. The art scene was centralised in Darlinghurst but the Trade Union Club was a favourite venue. I remember a festival here called Sedition that spanned a weekend, headlined by The Fall, the Birthday Party and John Cooper Clarke. I was by now in a band that played a weird mélange of psychedelia, funk, post punk, who knows? Severed Heads, the Go-Betweens, Laughing Clowns, were the bands we supported. I remember sitting in the middle room of the Tradie, surrounded by poker machines, somebody rushing over screaming, She won! Thatcher’s in! FUUUUUCKK! I was barely old enough to vote but I knew this was a disaster.
I became proficient on the sax, got session work, bought a soprano, loved it better, in thrall to Coltrane. I liked playing a little stoned: it calmed my nerves. I scored at a house on Richards Avenue behind Shannon Reserve. Who were these women, so kind to me, so soft with one another? It was only in hindsight that I realised they were a couple. I was sexually naïve but I knew how to slide a needle into my vein. They let me shoot up in their kitchen, solicitous no doubt due to my youth and the fact I wasn’t a hardcore junkie. You could also score from a Lebanese café on Cleveland Street but I didn’t like Middle Eastern smack. It was thick and brown, took ages to cook and delivered a heavy headachey stone. The best heroin in the world, white-pink and so pure it dissolved in seconds, was from south-east Asia and on its way to dominating our market. I had my first shot in Surry Hills too. An eighteenth birthday present from a friend’s boyfriend I’d been pestering for months. Finally he took me to his desk at Fairfax in Holt Street. He kept his works —glass syringes— in a velvet box: pure class in a time before needle exchanges. I feel a bit queasy writing about it now but I loved the drug then. Better than anything I loved my independence and just, only just, held myself back from the vortex so many friends fell into. Death from overdose was not uncommon. Inextricable with these sorrows, so many little acts of kindness, so much camaraderie.
Another Surry Hills music pub: the Strawberry Hills Hotel. Who played there? Bernie McGann? The late, great Bernie, wrinkled as Auden, virtuosic as Sonny Fortune, Arthur Blythe, any of the Afro-American stars of the time. Paris Green? They had a residency at the Palace Hotel, now called The Local, on the pointy corner of Flinders and South Dowling Streets. Sitting in with this band was a favourite pastime. Drummer Louis Burdett, polyphonic, as crazy brilliant to watch as hear, like Shiva on speed. Even when he lept to his feet to scream a few dissonant notes through his trumpet, the beat never ceased. Contrapuntal, morose soulful Louis Tillet, hunched over the ivories, bottles accumulating on the piano top over the course of these epic gigs that rolled from day to night, an endless flow of musicians across the stage including a flame-voiced adolescent called Christa Hughes.
I formed a bond with a tenor player called Diane – I probably had a crush on her – we played together, used together, partied together. Got some gigs as a mini horn section, played for a blues band one New Year’s Eve on a barge on the harbour. Sydney was half the size then that it is now, the fireworks small ones let off by locals on the foreshores. With barely a glance at one another, every note we touched harmonised: the state that Mingus referred to as playing without thinking. Another synchronicity occurred busking in the Devonshire Street tunnel. Those poor commuters, blasted to kingdom come by the fast, fierce, free jazz of James Blood Ulmer. Like all my friends, Diane was older than me. One night we crashed together after a party and she said, You can touch me if you want. I froze. Beneath the music and the drugs, a repressed Catholic girl who thought sex was about pleasing men. Diane towered over me in talent. She had done the full time jazz course at the Con that I had failed to get into, having attended the exam trashed from a night out at the Trade Union Club, followed by a few hours trying to please a man …
I loved the collaborative nature of playing in bands but hated the attention I got on stage. (Better for me, the writer’s cave.) I fantasized about being in a brass section, up the back, in the groove. At home, I ended practice playing along to James Brown or Stevie Wonder, the licks like sugar after the dour necessities of chords and scales, the rigour of 32-bar bebop melodies. In this way I learnt how necessary work was to art, how fundamental the study of form. Not from books, because my reading sadly diminished at this time. In these city streets and smoky pubs I learnt the importance of voice, rhythm and phrasing. Of timbre, pace and silence.
Travel along Bourke Street, ridge track by the eastern boundary, lined with plane trees, the most level stretch of Surry Hills, sloping gently north to south. Like Oxford Street it would have been forged centuries ago by the Gadigal. I use the cycleway often. Full length it runs from the depths of Woolloomooloo, over the top of Surro, down to Waterloo. Along with Crown and Riley, parallel, this was the high street where terraces up to four storeys tall housed the wealthiest of the district, factory foremen and businessmen, scaling down to clerks, artisans and shop assistants. In the tiny workers’ cottages in back lanes, now worth a million dollars, lived the lowliest factory workers. Many houses from the beginning were investment properties, owners holding entire terraces, families renting all their lives, many places catering to boarders alone. Some have wooden verandahs, others basement floors. Down the eastern side of Bourke Street, the attics are treetop high, filled, I imagine, with light and air from the ocean, and the carnival sounds of music and sport from the old showgrounds.
The Wesley Mission at the top punctures the membrane of wealth now coating Surry Hills, with its homeless slumped on the old sandstone porch. Hawkesbury sandstone, in honeycomb variegations, conjures wealth but is just as often the sign of an institution. The Children’s Court on Albion Street contains some of the grimmest cells in Sydney’s penal history, tiny windowless cellars eloquently described from first-hand experience by Robert Adamson in his memoir Inside Out. Closed 32 years ago, the Children’s Court is getting a $38 million renovation to return to its original purpose.
Move into the nineties when Oxford Street is pumping, move into queerdom. I babysit for my second sister in a house on Arthur Street, off Bourke. In this little street is also the Anglican church where Iris married George Furlong, labourer, twenty years her senior. It was 1943 and she was by now written into police files as a ‘pervert’ and ‘sexual deviationist’. This second marriage was no doubt an attempt to get them off her back, for the police did target lesbians even if it wasn’t technically illegal; indeed to be a female pervert was in many ways worse than a male one because it denoted sexual agency which in any woman was anathema. Thus our historical entwinement with whores. In the nineties, we embraced all these terms in the reclamation of pejoratives – which is why I can also remember Lebs selling pot from Habibis on Oxford Street.
In the sixties, the counterculture arrived on Oxford Street. Over the next decades, along with punk and rock venues, gay nightclubs emerged. Cappriccios, Patchs, Midnight Shift. Flo’s Palace, Tropicana. Ruby Reds lesbian bar on Crown Street where it was hard to fit in if you didn’t fit the butch-femme binary. Profiting from the pink dollar were crime boss Abe Saffron and his lesbian acolyte Dawn O’Donnell, to name just two. In the early eighties half a dozen fires ripped through gay clubs along the strip, the perpetrators studiously ignored by the police.
In the nineties I got whacky haircuts from Bernice in a warehouse on Commonwealth Street. Together we cooked up Fanny Palace, a dance party we put on in an Oxford Street nightclub with Bernice’s girlfriend Julie, and another friend Melinda. The industry was as corrupt as ever due to the strict licensing laws. You did a dance of fake negotiation: Can we stay open til six? Of course, but we only have a cabaret licence. (We’ll break the law if we can, to make more money over the bar; but if the cops aren’t onside we’ll shut you down with no notice.) We hung out with a bunch of older poofs called the Sodom boys. On Sunday afternoons, they played techno in the Carrington Hotel on Bourke Street. Between us was an array of musical and artistic talent bursting for an outlet. The party scene was going off, but it was all house, soul and disco. We wanted something darker, deeper. The boys began to put on Homo Eclectus, Ffierce and Filthy. We performed at each others’ parties. Next door to the girls’ warehouse was Imperial Slacks artist warehouse. Down on Elizabeth Street the massive Hibernian House is the last warehouse standing today, the smell of decades’ accretion of pigeon shit in its labyrinthine stairwells the smell of Sydney’s alternative art history.
On Commonwealth Street, opposite the girls’ warehouse, you would see Chinese people playing mahjong on their verandahs in the afternoons, in houses possibly bought by their great grandparents. Chinatown once extended all along this north-western belt of Surry Hills. Even now, in a back lane, you might see a garage door raised and four generations of Australian Chinese having lunch at trestle tables. Here for decades were Chinese grocers, herbalists, laundries and cafes, observed by Park and Tennant. They didn’t stand a chance of fair treatment in White Australia and so this area, further to the louche and sordid delights traditional to slums, also specialised in services to non-whites and other fringe-dwellers. In Come in Spinner, Cusack and James describe a second world war brothel on Campbell Street catering to black American servicemen. Up the road on Wentworth Avenue, in Iris’s time, was the Avenue Club, run by a character remembered in oral histories as Black Ada, this name often applied to the club as well. Here, men could dance together, and probably women as well. Ada was the drag name of Roy Sayles, an Australian of Indian-African heritage with a history in vaudeville and radio. Ada/Roy claimed their club was a dance studio. When the Dees came up the stairs Ada would alert the clientele who quickly switched to heterosexual partnering, Ada shouting, And one and two and – !
The police shut down the Avenue Club during the war.
Wentworth Avenue was already a street of motor car showrooms. In the early 1900s Wexford Street, a narrow lane also populated by the Chinese, was demolished to make way for it. The whole area up to Riley and Campbell Streets was considered the worst slum in Sydney, blamed for the plague, and razed to the ground. Milk Street, Wemyss Street, Milk Lane: names that conjured opium dens, ginger joints, gambling halls and houses of ill repute. Frog Hollow, originally a gully full of amphibious lives, then a fetid ditch of hovels packed one on top of the other, most famously housed Jewey Freeman, who in 1914 pulled off Australia’s first armed robbery with a motorcar. His paramour Kate Leigh perjured herself for him, to no avail. The 1928 Crash interrupted the slum clearance project of this area, and the so-called Brisbane Street Resumption languished for decades. In the 1950s the state government finally bought the land, obscuring this history of vice and squalor with the biggest police station in Australia.
We passed Surry Hills Police Station all the time on our way to parties, dressed like freaks, carrying drugs. A wild frontier to me in the eighties, Surry Hills was by this time familiar. Between public parties, the Sodom boys put on progressive dinners that were operatic in grandeur. The least you could do was plan your outfit months in advance and spend all day getting ready. The dinners began at a civilized hour, perhaps in Lance’s cellar flat in Reservoir Street, moving to Mark and Steven’s warehouse in Little Oxford Street, or Dr Sperm’s or Michael and Wayne’s or Lanny and Greg’s in Commonwealth. We didn’t eat much. A piece of cabanossi washed down with acid punch. You didn’t really need that either, such was the intensity of the performances, costumes and décor. Once Mark and Peter made us enter their Corben Street house by crawling through a tunnel. A tight white passage, no depth of field, just breathy squeaking. Suddenly the legs in front of me stopped. It was another Wayne, whom I hardly knew, frail and emaciated with AIDS. For what seemed an eternity we were stuck, and my heart began to pound. Finally, Wayne moved again and the tunnel rose, disgorging us into boundless space. The entire room had been painted white and filled to head height with white balloons. I thought I was hallucinating. Wayne died not long after that party.
Part of the pleasure of these events was the journey from dwelling to dwelling through the night streets of Surry Hills at a time when queer bashing was common. We had safety in numbers. Menace still lurked. A group of young men – it’s always a group of drunken young men – laughing as we passed, You’re the slickest cunts I’ve ever seen. High, cocky, we strutted on, only realising around the corner they had said sickest, and were after us. We fled. Did I put that into a book? The bravest of all of us was Raven, sylphlike Goth, always cross-dressed, tottering all the way home alone to Erskineville. One story that cheered me from this time – apocryphal or not – was of a poof being set upon behind Crown Street; a couple of leatherqueens happened by and dispatched his attackers pronto.
Parties in Sydney before the war. The war on terror, the war on drugs, the war of church and state on freedom and pleasure. In the late nineties I met AñA, who lived at the Bourke Street end of Devonshire in a small warehouse called Brackenbury and Austin. Once a tile factory, it still had a gantry across the centre beam, and a hatch that opened onto the street below. Downstairs were dealers David and Lani in an ingeniously renovated two-storey cave. There was also a Master’s dungeon. The little shopfront on Devonshire Street, for good measure, was rented to an astrologist.
David had come from Darlinghurst where he had put on a street party every year during Mardi Gras. He transposed the tradition to Wiltshire Street, a lane bordering the warehouse from Devonshire Street. David, Lani and AñA would flyer the area, semi-commercial at that time, then one Sunday in February, block the rarely used lane. A dancefloor was laid, bunting strung, a little stage mounted for shows. People came from near and far to dance into the night. There were themes for dress-ups, such as Ship of Fools. The cops would cruise by on a routine visit before nightfall, chat to the hosts, then satisfied, move on. AñA’s show usually consisted of her being lowered through the hatch to throw glitter, fake money or other offerings to the crowd below. Around midnight we would switch off the mirror ball and clean up. Everything down to the last bottletop was swept away, making the lane cleaner after the party than before. Gradually, doors closed. The Olympics, September 11, Bob Carr’s law and order election campaigns, Bob Carr’s sniffer dogs. One year the police issued a noise warning. The next year it became a threat of a $40,000 fine. There had been no complaints: the neighbourhood loved the party, but finally it had to end.
Much has been written about the post-war immigration of continental Europeans to our cities. D’Arcy Niland, Judah Waten and Fay Zwicky are some of the writers who inscribed their earlier arrival. Ruth Park’s husband, Niland, in his benighted classic The Big Smoke, described a rich mulitcultural inner Sydney of the early twentieth century. The Greeks came to Surry Hills in the nineteenth century, building in Bourke Street the Ayia Triada, the first Orthodox church in the southern hemisphere. AñA’s Polish grandparents arrived in the 1920s, setting up a sausage factory near Central. They lived in a house on Bourke Street long enough for AñA to spend her early childhood there. One day, noticing it was for sale, we went around to look. AñA took me through the rooms, telling me stories. In this fireplace, before it was bricked up, my sister and I hid a message in a bottle; in this room, my grandfather shot himself. The house was bought by an architecture firm. AñA visited when they were renovating. As the fireplace was dismantled, she found her bottle, message intact.
These were the halcyon days when we could support our art with sex work. Eventually, they would come to an end. We worked privately from AñA’s, with other dominatrix (we called ourselves Mistresses in those days). Surry Hills has long been a place for ladies of the night. Salon Kitty’s (Salon Shitty’s) down on Cleveland Street. Touch of Class (Touch yr Arse) on Riley for our straight working sisters. The Black Cat massage on Elizabeth Street where other friends worked. I spent seven years in this area, working, partying, making props and costumes for performances, and I loved it.
And it was in this period that I first discovered Iris Webber. She drew me in through sheer force of personality. To then find so much of her history directly beneath my feet increased the sense of ghostly calling. Her lover Maisie had a room on Buckingham Street, past Clisdell, and another on Crown Street three blocks from Devonshire. It was here that Maisie moved in 1937 after getting out of jail for a slashing. Slim Maley, with whom she was also involved at this time, moved in with her after getting out of jail a few months later, for another slashing. Why did they fight that night in September, why did Slim hit Maisie with the enamel basin? How did Iris and their mutual friend Kathleen McLennan know to come up and rescue Maisie? What did the three women talk about down at Clisdell Street, after effecting Maisie’s escape? Did they sleep that night? Why did Iris open the door to Slim the next day when he was drunk and violent and threatening to cut her [Maisie] in half!? Did she mean to pull the trigger?
All of it, and this now too, is history.
Adamson, R (2004), Inside Out. Text, Melbourne.
Cusack, D. and F. James (1951). Come in Spinner. Melbourne London Toronto, William Heinemann.
Doyle, P. and Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales. (2009). Crooks like us. Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
Faro, C. w. W., Gary (2000). STREET SEEN; A History of Oxford Street. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.
Keating, C. (1991). Surry Hills, the city’s backyard. Sydney, Hale & Iremonger.
Niland, D. A. (1978). The big smoke. Ringwood, Vic., Penguin Books Australia.
Park, R. (2009). The harp in the south novels. Melbourne, Penguin.
Tennant, K. (1968). Foveaux. Sydney, Angus & Robertson.
Whitaker, A.-M. (2002). Pictorial history South Sydney. Alexandria, N.S.W., Kingsclear Books.
Wotherspoon, G. (1991). City of the Plain. Sydney, Hale & Ironmonger.
We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.