Where Sydney Harbour got its reputation for beauty I am quite at a loss to imagine. I never saw anything more forlornly ugly in the way of scenery. Undoubtedly it is one of the finest harbours from a naval point of view in the world, but there is nothing whatever picturesque about it. It is surrounded by low rocky ridges about 200 feet high, covered all over with stunted trees.
At the far end lies the town itself, which has not a single feature to recommend it. All over the ridges to the south, and on a part of those to the north, are scattered staring white villa residences. Many of these have lovely gardens and grounds, and when you get near them are very pretty spots. But the general panorama of Sydney Harbour, whether viewed from the sea or from the land, is positively ugly.
There is no distance to be seen anywhere, and nothing pretty in the way of a foreground. The sea is never a healthy blue, and the colouring of the land is a dull, dirty, monotonous green, that looks as if it had been dredged over with sand. There is invariably a sickly glare in the atmosphere, except just at sunrise and sunset, that would effectually destroy far greater pretensions to beauty than any that Sydney can boast of. I have lived in Sydney for months. I have sailed all over the harbour in a boat, and have walked round about it on land. I have seen it in every weather, under every sort of sky, but I never for a moment saw it look pretty.
The town of Sydney is by no means a pleasant one. The streets are winding and cramped, the pavement in many places being only five or six feet wide, and George Street, the main street, follows exactly the winding of an old track that went through a Blacks' camp that originally occupied the present site of the town. There are many very fine buildings in the town, but they do not show to advantage, and their position prevents any possibility of widening or improving the streets. The first thing that strikes anyone who goes to Sdney is the extraordinary number of people that there seem to be there who have nothing to do.
Crowds of loafers block up the main streets, standing in mobs at the corners, or sauntering along the trottoir [footpath] with their hands in their pockets, a pipe in their mouth, and their hat tipped well over the eyes. They never get out of anyone's way, and are a source of infinite inconvenience to anyone who is in a hurry.
Sydney Exhibition Hall
The town and suburbs are bult on a series of steep hills and valleys round the harbour, and it is impossible to go a hundred yards anywhere without going up or down hill. The best thing about the place is the Botanical Gardens and grounds of the late Exhibition, which are really quite beautifully kept.
The Exhibition itself was unfortunately burnt to the ground in 1883. It would have been an eyesore anywhere else, but was quite an ornament to Sydney, and its loss was deeply felt by the inhabitants, who entertain feelings of superstitious reverence for the supposed beauty of the place. Land in the town and suburbs has risen to such a fabulous value that, although it is never likely to be worth less than it is at present, it cannot rise much higher for some time.
The wealth of Sydney is enormous. For miles to the north-east of the town, away towards the south head, the suburbs are a mass of villa residences overlooking the harbour. Many of them are extremely pretty, and an immense deal of money has been laid out on them. But the inhabitants of Sydney never know what to do with their money, and seem incapable of having a really good time.
In the first place, society is split up into cliques, the members of which regard anyone who is not in their own set with the most unreasoning hatred and contempt. Besides this, the climate is a most depressing one, which accounts in a great measure for the prevailing listlessness of everyone in the place.
The climate of Sydney, always a detestable one, is never the same for more than a few hours. I have often seen a day there open with a hot, scorching wind, which lasts perhaps until one o-clock; suddenly a fierce, cold wind--a "southerly buster," as it is called--sweeps up from the ice-fields of the southern sea, and blows, perhaps, for two days, perhaps only for a few hours, to be succeeded either by a dead calm or a "black north-easter," accompanied by torrents of rain. But whether it is hot or cold, whether it blows from the north, south, east, or west, or not at all, there is always a sickly, enervating feeling about the air, which the inhabitants themselves complain very much of, and which a stranger at first feels unbearable. Most of the inhabitants who can afford it always go away for a few weeks in the summer, either to Tasmania or to the Blue Mountains, which is the sanitorium of Sydney, and where there are townships at an elevation of from 2000 to 3000 feet.
Sydney is, if possible, worse off than Brisbane for hotels. I have tried half-a-dozen of the best of them, and everywhere the dirt, discomfort, and bad attendance are the same. The Sydney waiter is an entirely distinct species, of which fact he is himself quite unconscious, and treats all visitors who will allow him to do so as his equals.
At the fashionable table d'hôtes, where hundreds of business-men and visitors in the town assemble every day for luncheon, the flippant behaviour of the waiters is perfectly bewildering to a stranger. His call for "waiter" will probably be answered, after an interval, by an inquiry of "Did I hear your lovely voice?" from a patronising individual, who leans on the table and begins to talk on the merits of the harbour. I have seen the astonished look on a visitor's face, who was explaining to a waiter that he brought the wrong wine, when that functionary suddenly offered to bet him five pounds that he had done nothing of the kind. His neighbour, a stranger to Sydney too, was so interested in the discussion, that he paused in his occupation of helping himself to the greens, and remained motionless, with the spoon in his hand, and an expression of blank amazement on his countenance. From this trance he was rudely awakened by another waiter laying his hand on his shoulder and remarking, "After you with the cabbage."
The town of Sydney suffers from an odious nuisance in the shape of steam tram-cars, which run along several of the main streets. The shares of the company that works them are about the best paying thing, next to the telephone, that has been started for a long while in the colony. But the cars themselves are a perfect infliction. They rush down the most crowded thoroughfares, terrifying the horses, and killing, on an average, about two foot-passengers a week, besides maiming numerous other ones. There are omnibuses and hansoms all over the place, and, of course, any number of private carriages to be seen. But although many of the latter are well-appointed, and the quality of some of the horses undeniable, it is remarkable that one never by any chance sees a coachman decently got up. There is something quite pitiable in seeing the effect of a really good turn-out entirely marred by an apparition on the box with check trousers, an acre of green tie, and a moustache.
Altogether Sydney strikes one as a steady-going, sleepy old town, thickly covered with blue mould, without any of the rowdyism of the north, and with little of the vigorous life of Melbourne.
Nowhere in Australia are there to be found pleasanter people than in Sydney in their own homes. But they do not care to go much out of them, and take life very quietly. Money comes to them more by accumulation than by speculation, and they spend it lavishly in beautifying their residences by the shores of their beloved harbour. The lower orders in Sydney drink heavily, but the middle and upper classes drink less than any community in Australia, and the ascending scale of sobriety attains its zenith in the present head of society, who, when he gives a ball, regales his guests with nothing more potent than raspberry vinegar and lemon syrup.
Sydney keeps several newspapers going, the chief of which is the Sydney Morning Herald. Except to the readers of advertisements, it is impossible to imagine a more dreary publication. It contains the "latest intelligence" only in the sense of its being a week later than anywhere else, and most of the space allotted to news is occupied with hypothetical accounts of what would have happened if something else had taken place that never occurred.
For instance, its readers are informed that H.M.S. Wolverene [sic] has left Fiji for Sydney. After following the editor in an intricate calculation as to the different dates on which she may be expected, supposing the wind to be favourable or not, and supposing her to steam seven knots or eight, they are next informed that it is quite uncertain whether the destination of H.M.S. Wolverene be Sydney or not. This involves more calculations as to how long she will take to arrive if she goes round by New Zealand, Hobart, or Melbourne. Finally those who have had patience to read to the end find a telegram to say that H.M.S. Wolverene entered Sydney Harbour from Fiji that morning.
Finch-Hatton preferred the Bulletin magazine, for its lively style:
But the Sydney Bulletin, a weekly publication, is probably the wittiest and most amusing social paper in the world. It sticks at nothing, and never troubles its readers with asterisks instead of names. The editor is constantly in hot water, and has more than once been heavily fined for libel; but he is far too valuable an institution to be parted with, and his supporters subscribe freely to see him through a bad time, and the fire of sarcasm, raillery, and scandal never ceases. Of its kind, the Sydney Bulletin is perfect, and all the wretched wit of The World, Truth, and all the London social papers put together, might be clipped from it without being missed.
The harbour always presents a most animated appearance. Vessels of every description, from a yawl to a 4000-ton steamer, are constantly passing in and out, and endless little steamers ply between the different bays all round. Yachting is a very favourite pastime with the inhabitants, and sometimes the whole harbour is alive with a flotilla of small craft. The largest vessels can come right up and lay alongside the quays right against the town.
In New South Wales the feud against the squatters among the lower classes, which obtains all through Australia, is very violent. Following the example of Victoria, the Government have dealt with the land question in a manner that has brought the transfer of leasehold land throughout the colony to a dead-lock, and a Bill is now before Parliament by which all squatters holding leases will be deprived of half their runs; but the squatting element in New South Wales is still very powerful, and it is probable that they will obtain compensation for improvements.
The line of railway is completed now from Sydney to Melbourne, but, of course, the jealousy of the two colonies has impelled them to adopt different gauges, so that through traffic is at present impossible. The population of Sydney is 237,000, and that of the whole colony of New South Wales 840,000.
There is a railway from Sydney to Melbourne, and the journey across takes about twenty-three hours. It is very comfortable travelling, the berths in the sleeping-cars being certainly above the average in point of size and cleanliness. There is nothing that could by courtesy be called an express train, and on the Victorian line all the trains stop at every station, and at about every third one there is an extra pause for refreshment.
On the New South Wales line the sale of liquor is everywhere prohibited, and the consequence is that both the guards and the drivers lay in a store of liquor to take with them, and consequently drink a great deal more than they would if there were a bar at every other station, which is shown by their being much more frequently drunk than the employés on the Victorian lines, who can get liquor whenever they want it.
Jim Foley || Email me