In Sickness and in Health
Reports in the 1860s and ’70s described housing conditions in Mount and John Streets and Bowman Street: The toilets were “frequently dilapidated … and so badly constructed that a slight shower of rain causes them either to overflow or soak into the surrounding soil, creating a great deal of disease”.
A later inspector noted:
it would be utterly impossible for a housewife to keep a bad house tidy. When she is placed in such a house, she soon ceases to strive to preserve order and cleanliness in her house; the husband does not care about coming home to his wife; she becomes careless and neglects her children; their diet is also neglected, and they are allowed to expose themselves to the sun.
At the top of John St… there is a cow-shed (remnant no doubt of the original farm) the drainage from which was lying in pools in the yard, stinking and creating a nuisance”.
Descriptions of Bowman Street put this into perspective: “… we came to four houses built of rubble with corrugated iron roofs”. They went into one but “were obliged to leave hastily – we could not stand the smell. The drainage of these house runs down along the surface gutters to a vacant piece of land close by, the stench of which is something frightful.”
Many people gained cheap protein from the nearby abattoirs or animals in their own allotments. However, one account listed “stale bread and dripping, brown bread, potatoes, treacle and salt.” “Meals were cooked on an open fireplace in their rooms”.
Despite improvements in sewerage from the 1870s, bubonic plague erupted in 1900 with 197 cases and 66 deaths. There were nine cases and three deaths in Pyrmont. This outbreak resulted in the formation of the Sydney Harbour Trust whose activities included dredging around Pyrmont wharves, Darling Harbour and the CSR wharves.
A Report before 1900 on living conditions in inner city suburbs refers to: “overcrowding, poor and non-existent sanitation, little ventilation, poor sleeping accommodation and contaminated water and food supplies… Narrow streets and lanes, many ending in cul-de-sacs or courts together with high residential densities, enabled the maximum number of workers to be housed in the minimum space”.