Susannah Place Museum guidebook
The SiteBuilt in 1844, Susannah Place is a small terrace of four brick houses including a corners grocer's shop, located in the heart of The Rocks, Sydney.
Susannah Place has never been substantially remodelled; it has never been converted into offices or degenerated into factories or warehouses. Rare in the City of Sydney, it has a continuous history of domestic occupancy by working class families and demonstrates the ways these houses were lived in from the mid-1840s to the late 20th century. This is the heritage significance of Susannah Place.
Each house is solidly built with, originally, six rooms on three levels, including a basement kitchen. Each has a fire isolation and ventilation, water supply and sewerage arrangements. These challenge popular ideas about the standards of housing in The Rocks in the mid 19th century.
The intactness of the amenities in the houses and backyards records the great changes in household technology and power sources with a shift from dependence upon oil, candles, wood and coal to gas and electricity for light, cooking and heating. Susannah Place was probably connected to piped water by about 1855 and to the sewer line by about 1858.
Behind the houses are original brick privies and generations of outbuildings. Early last century corrugated iron bathrooms and partly open laundries with laundry tubs and coppers were added. These amenities are some of the earliest surviving washing and sanitary arrangements remaining in the City of Sydney. There was slum housing in this part of The Rocks, and indeed in other parts of the city last century, but Susannah Place was well built and well kept and not one of the 'plague and pestilential dwellings'.
The diversity of 19th and 20th century decorative finishes, wallpapers and floorcoverings surviving in the houses tells much about the decoration and furnishing of working class interiors, and documents changes in ownership and the contributions made by individual occupants to the updating and refurbishment of their homes.
HistoryPart of Gloucester Street had been formed by 1807 and, up to 1836, maps of the period record a scattering of small buildings in the area. In 1836 the site of Susannah Place was granted to James Byrne, a licensed victualler, for a yearly rent on the condition that he 'erect a permanent dwelling-house, store or other suitable building'. Byrne died in 1838 and there is no reference to this site in his will.
Susannah Place was built in 1844, probably for Edward Riley, the first owner, noted in the Sydney Council Rate Assessment Book for 1845. Comparison of houses in The Rocks in the mid 19th century, in numbers of rooms in houses and available facilities shows that Susannah Place was, comparatively, very comfortable. The annual rents in 1845 indicate that Susannah Place was in the middle of the scale of rents for that area.
Edward Riley and his wife Mary arrived in Sydney in 1838 as assisted immigrants aboard the Amelia Thompson. The shipping list describes them as Irish Protestants who could both read and write. Edward, age 30, was a farm labourer from Wexford and Mary, aged 31, a nursery governess from Glenegal, County Carlow. Accompanying the Rileys was their 19 year old niece, Susannah Sterne, a milliner from Wexford. It is possible that the terrace was named for her. Little is known about the family's early life in the colony. Given the depressed economy during this period, Edward Riley's transition within six years from assisted immigrant to owner of four houses is intriguing.
By 1846 the Rileys had taken up residence in No. 62. In 1853 Edward Riley died; his widow became the owner and lived there until her death in 1874. As owner and occupant for nearly 30 years Mary Riley provided a constant and stable presence, contrary to the more common practice in The Rocks of absentee landlords.
Mary Riley left the shop and adjacent house, Numbers 62 and 64 to Susannah Sterne's daughter, Mary Ann Finnigan. For a brief period Mary Ann and her husband John ran the grocer's shop but by 1886 they had moved to the outer suburb of Granville and the houses were rented. Mary left the other two terreces, Numbers 58 and 60 to the Church of England, to be divided between the parishes of St Philip and Holy Trinity but the pattern of tenancy continued.
Research has established the names, occupants and other biographical details of many of the tenants and their families: they were principally artisans, self-employed tradesmen, members of the maritime work force and skilled labourers living in this area near to their work. Their listed occupations included grocer, mariner, compositer, baker, shipwright, painter, policeman, and lodging house keeper. Continuing investigation of their histories will help interpret the domestic patterns of the urban working-class community in The Rocks from 1844 to 1990.
Following the outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900 the wharves and adjacent residential areas were resumed by the State Government and placed under the control of the Sydney Harbour Trust. Susannah Place was included in this resumption. The Sydney Harbour Trust was established to eradicate slum housing, to improve sanitary conditions and to direct the development of the area. The practical results were widespread demolition of sub-standard housing, the realignment of streets including Gloucester and Cambridge Streets and the construction of model tenement houses for workers, such as those next to Susannah Place.
The resumption does not appear to have changed the tenancy pattern of Susannah Place: its occupants continued to be largely labourers or maritime workers - seamen, coal lumpers, stevedores, wharf labourers - and their families. In 1936 the Sydney Harbour Trust was reconstituted as the Maritime Services Board. The board continued the role of responsible landlord until 1970. With the construction of the approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and, later the Cahill Expressway, many streets were blocked or destroyed and the physical character of The Rocks changed significantly. Susannah Place changed little and was well maintained.
In 1970 the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority (SCRA) became the landlord of 25 hectares of The Rocks. Its charter was to redevelop the area with offices, shops, hotels and high and low rise housing. Strong local opposition to this scheme resulted in the formation of the Rocks Residents Group. Faced with higher rents, increased pressure from the Authority to move, and poor property maintenance, the residents enlisted the support of the NSW Builders' Labourers' Federation. A 'green ban' was imposed by the Federation on all demolition and new construction work in the area.
In 1973 The Rocks Residents Group, in conjunction with a group of interested professional planners, architects and academics produced 'The People's Plan' which advocated alternative developments for The Rocks, chiefly focusing on the preservation and rehabilitation of its historic buildings. A measure of compromise was reached between the Authority and the local residents and the 'green bans' were lifted.
The tenants of Susannah Place were caught up in the battle to save The Rocks. The building had been assessed by SCRA as at the end of its economic life and occupying a site required for redevelopment. By 1976 three of the terraces had been vacated by their tenants, including one family who had lived at Susannah Place for four generations. The remaining tenants, in No. 62, assumed the roles of unofficial caretakers of the terrace. Despite their efforts to repair and maintain the houses, the lack of proper maintenance, water penetration and termite infestation resulted in major damage to the interiors and structure of the three vacant houses. With their departure in 1990, the history of the proud, respectable housekeeping of Susannah Place by its tenants had ended.
In 1988, signifying a change from development to an emphasis on preserving and recycling the buildings of The Rocks and promoting its historic character, SCRA dropped the word redevelopment from its title, becoming the Sydney Cove Authority. The conservation of Susannah Place was a joint project of the Historic Houses Trust and the Sydney Cove Authority since 1987. In 1999 the Sydney Cove Authority was amalgamated into the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.
Recognising public interest in normally hidden 'behind the scenes' process of conservation, the concept of a Museum in the Making gives visitors access to Susannah Place during its development as a house museum. While conservation work, research and interpretation continue, there is the opportunity to learn and participate. Visitors will be exposed to a wide range of ideas about museums and their aims through guided tours, an introductory video, recreated interiors from different periods including a working corner shop, a volunteer program for interpretation and research and the development of a range of education and community programs. We hope to foster links with the local community, to encourage its involvement with the museum and to learn from visitor's responses in order to evaluate our interpretative programs.