Newtown 1892-1922: A Social Sketch



Life in Newtown was quite different in the years from 1892 to 1922 than it is today. The suburb had a retail and trade bias although there was a mixture of all social groups. Suburban life had a distinct character. Hawkers sold their wares in the streets where children played while their parents worked at home or nearby. Houses were cleaned without the modern devices of the 1920s and people amused themselves before radios and televisions became household objects.

First we should consider what type of people lived in Newtown. Table 1 divides them into occupational groups. By comparing the figures for each census year changes in the population can be identified.

Occupation 1891 1901 1911
Building Trades: mason, builder, carpenter,
painter, plumber, bricklayer, plasterer, etc.
(20. 5)
(12. 08)
(6. 13)
Service Tradesmen and Shopkeepers: grocer,
butcher, fruiterer, wood and coalman, tailor,
draper, dressmaker, blacksmith, bootmaker,
baker, etc.
(38. 44)
(41. 5)
(47. 71)
Other Tradesmen: boilermaker, upholsterer,
coach builder, currier, farrier, printer,
compositor, etc.
(15. 77)
(15. 15)
(17. 84)
Semi-Professional: clerk, commercial
traveller, cab-proprietor, engraver, hotel
proprietor, draftsman, etc.
(11. 69)
(13. 3)
(10. 63)
Professional: engineer, solicitor,
teacher, surveyor, auctioneer,
journalist, chemist, surgeon, dentist,
minister of religion, etc.
Total sample: 2206 1564 1289
(Bracketed figures show percentage of sample over total for year)

Table 1. Occupational Groupings, Newtown, 1891-1911.1

  • 1. Compiled from Sands’ Sydney Directory, 1891, 1901, 1911 (Occupations ceased to be included in 1919 in the municipal listing so no figures for 1921 are given. ) Table based on Max Kelly, Paddock Full of Houses Paddington 1840-1890, Doak Press, Paddington, 1978, p. 162


From the table we can see various trends in the population of Newtown. It is fair to say that Newtown had a mixture of classes. All tradesmen and shopkeepers together account for 70-75 per cent of the working population. It is evident that retail and service trades dominated the suburb increasingly throughout the period. As expected, there was a decrease in building trades which followed from the depression of the 1890s which ended the housing boom. It is significant that other tradesmen by 1911 are the second largest group. Whether the trend continued into the 1920s and 1930s would be worth consideration for the changing social pattern of Newtown. Semi-Professionals after a rise in number fell betraying the beginning of middle class movement away from the inner suburbs. Professionals increased probably more than can be accounted for by a division between their residence and business place. By 1911 a great number still lived in the suburb. Women, included in the figures, tended to be employed in service trades. The commonest occupations given are dressmaker, milliner or midwife, female domains. Undoubtedly many were not listed for they worked at home while their husbands also worked. A few ran public houses. Overall the occupations show that Newtown was fairly self-contained when it came to providing for the needs of residents.

3. Terrace houses predominate in Newtown There are single, double or triple storey terraces which may stand alone or in groups of between two and twenty. Shop/residences followed a similar pattern. 1 A few of the original estate homes survived such as Stanmore House, Reiby House and Gowrie House. Newtown was one of the most densely populated suburbs of Sydney. Table 2 shows the number of persons per acre for census years with other suburbs for comparison.


Plate 1. ‘Glenrushen’, 1 Union St., Newtown, c. 1903. One of three single storey terraces. Mrs. Francis A. Tarran and her daughter Alice (b. 1900) who shortly moved to Campsie.

  • 1. M. Ryan, op. cit., Chapter 2.


Municipality Area at census, 1921 A. = Population B. = Persons per acre
Acres 1891 1901 1911 1921
Newtown 442 A
Darlington 44 A
Erskineville 166 A
Marrickville 2,016 A
Paddington 403 A
Redfern 435 A

Table 2. Density of Population, 1891-1921 1 Table 2 indicates that Newtown was already heavily populated by 1891 and the suburb continued to put more and more people into the same area. Newtown was by no means the most crowded municipality but it did come a close third.

If we look at the number of persons per occupied dwelling we will see that Newtown compares more favourably with other municipalities.

  • 1. H. A. Smith, New South Wales Statistical Register 1920-21, N. S. W. Government Printer, 1922, Table 5, p. 11.


Municipality Persons per occupied Dwelling
1891 1901 1911 1921
Newtown 5.0 5.14 4.92 4.93
Darlington 5.2 5.11 5.12 5.23
Erskineville 5.04 4.70 4.79
Marrickville 5.2 5.11 4.70 4.61
Paddington 5.3 5.24 5.21 5.18
Redfern 5.40 5.40 5.50 5.44

Table 3. Municipalities – Density of Habitation, 1891-1921 1 Table 3 indicates a slight drop in persons per household by 1921 though the population continued to rise. More detailed research on Newtown’s wards would be required to isolate ‘slum’ areas where the density of habitation would continue to increase.


  • 1. Ibid., Table 7, p 15
  • 2. Max Kelly, ‘Picturesque and Pestilential: The Sydney Slum Observed 1860-1900’ in M. Kelly, ed., Nineteenth-Century Sydney. Essays in Urban History, Sydney University Press, 1978, p 70


6. page6 MUNICIPALITY of NEWTOWN Local Government Act 1906 Town Hall, NEWTOWN, 190 To the Town Clerk, Municipality of Newtown, Sir, I________________________of______________________ (Name in full) (Address in full) hereby wish to make application for a licence to hawk Fish, Rabbits &c., in the above Municipality, and, I further wish to hold the said license for a duration of _________________________Months. (state period in Months) And I also agree to carry out all matters in accordance with the provisions of the Local Government Act 1906, the Ordinances thereunder, and any other Act that may come into force. ________________ Signature

Plate 2. [Copy of] an application to hawk fish and rabbits in the 1900s found in the Minutes.


We will now turn to a consideration of everyday life in Newtown as seen by some residents from the 1890s on. Although Newtown’s two main thoroughfares offered every type of shop a feature of suburban life were the men who came around the streets selling various goods, the hawkers. Hawkers were required to be licensed by the Newtown Council. Council minutes regularly include the granting of licences to sell fish, rabbits, milk, butcher meat and ham and beef in the municipality.1 The rabbitoh would call out “Rabbitoh, Rabbitoh” round the back lanes every day with rabbits hanging around the inside of his cart. A pair of rabbits cost sixpence. The man chopped their heads off and skinned them, keeping the skins.2 The clothes prop man would call out “clothes props” or “props today – props today” and Jessie Mottram’s grandmother used to chop up one of her good props so she could buy another.3 The clothes prop was a sapling eight or ten feet long with a fork in the end and two or three were used to prop the line up.4 The wood and coal man with his blackened face would carry bags of coke, coal and wood to the houses to be used in the fuel stoves and to light the copper.5 When the fruit and vegetable man called it was an occasion as all the neighbours met. On ice days the front doors were left open and children stood around while the block was chipped into the right size for the ice chest and the iceman gave them ice to suck.6 The bottle-oh was also a favourite with children who ran out for halfpenny a bottle. The milkman called morning and afternoon every day and three times on Sunday when he called out, “Milk for the babies and cream for the ladies and lay-ay-ty.” Then the women ran out to get milk for the Sunday pudding.7

  • 1. Newtown Municipal Council Minutes 27th April 1909, p. 17, 11th May 1909 p. 23 and 22nd June 1909, p. 44 (Hereafter NMC).
  • 2. Pearl Cole, interview by telephone, 10th July 1982 (B. 1891) and Jessie Bateson, personal interview, 3rd August 1982 (B. 1905)
  • 3. J. Bateson, interview cited.
  • 4. William D. McGilchrist, letter 17th July 1983. (B. 1912)
  • 5. F. N. Smith, Memoirs, unpublished ms. in author’s possession 1982, p. 4 and J. Bateson, interview cited.
  • 6. F. N. Smith, op. cit., pp. 4-5
  • 7. P. Cole, interview cited.


The milk was measured into the billy can with a pint dipper. A necessary caller was the nightsoil contractor whose job was to regularly empty all the pans. This accounts for the many back lanes throughout Newtown. The postman was much liked. He gave to children the string which tied up his letters and at Christmas time he had wine and cake with everyone in Charles Street and became quite merry.1 Housework involved all the family and there were no labour-saving devices like vacuum cleaners and electric irons which were not developed until the 1920s. Cooking was done on a fuel stove and when gas rings came it was “out of this world.”2 Streets were lit with gas before the advent of electricity in 1911. Kerosene, then gas before electricity, was used for household lighting. The gas meter was penny-in-the-slot and everyone was always running out of pennies. Meat was stored in a meat safe, a square frame covered in green net, and two-sided clay dishes were used to keep the butter cool. Before there were ice chests milk had to be boiled so it would keep. Everything had to be cleaned and scrubbed regularly, the children usually being given the job. Lamp glasses were cleaned with newspaper and the fuel stove shone after it had been cleaned with black lead. The laundry was known as the wash house where all the clothes were boiled in the copper which was lit with the use of bellows.3 One family used old woodblocks dipped in tar which had been replaced to light and boil the copper and the blocks sent off thick black smoke and a strong tar odour.4 To get the water in and out of the copper a dipper was used and half a broom handle known as the pot stick was needed to push the clothes down into the copper. Floors and steps were scrubbed on hands and knees with whiting, sandsoap and Shinoleum.5

    • 1. F. N. Smith, op. cit., pp 9-10

2. P. Cole, interview cited.

  • 3. F. N. Smith, op. cit., pp 4, 5
  • 4. Majorie Hall, letter 19th June 1983 recording the reminiscences of her mother Mary Bannerman of Koolewong (B. 1898) and her uncle William D. McGilchrist of Wallabadah.
  • 5. F. N. Smith, op. cit., pp 1-2, 4, 11



One soap, Monkey Brand, advertised as ‘The Turk for Work’, was used for cleaning pots, pans, cutlery, tables, chairs, brasswork, floors, stairs, woodwork, windows, paint, in fact anything but clothes.1 Before radio and television became household items people made their own amusement. Families gathered around the piano or harmonium and sang all the latest songs. Zithers, mouth organs and tin whistles were also played.2 Wind up gramophones were something special. When the Tarran family got theirs the postman was given the honour of hearing their first record, ‘In Your Green Hat’. Children played games in the streets and at school like ‘Pin A Prick’. For halfpenny a prize could be won according to the page number of a book pricked with a pin.3 Drop the handkerchief, rounders and tu’penny catch were played for hours by all the children in a street.4 Boys played marbles along the gutters and collected cigarette cards which had pictures of wartime scenes, heroes and coats of arms. One game, ‘Pitch and Toss’, involved flicking these cards against a wall and the one nearest the wall gathered up the cards, floated them in the air and the winner got all the face-up cards. One group who amused themselves at other’s expense was the Newtown push which would fight the Erskineville or Redfern pushes with palings or pickets pulled from someone’s front fence.

  • 1. Sydney Morning Herald, Sat. November 30, 1912 p 6 (advertisement)
  • 2. P. Cole, interview cited.
  • 3. F. N. Smith, op. cit., pp 9-10
  • 4. P. Cole, interview cited.

10. Plate 5 ‘Avoca’ 13 Charles St., Enmore. The balcony sign reads: J. Tarran, UPHOLSTERER MATTRESS MAKER The photo was taken c. 1909. Florence Tarran (B. 1906) and her sister Nellie (B. 1905) are wearing identical dress. The frontage is 14’2″

Plate 4. Back lanes such as this one behind terraces in Albert Street were necessary for the removal of nightsoil.

11. Plate 5. North Newtown Practice School, P. Kennedy, M.A., Principal, erected 1897. Bligh St. became St. Pauls Road and then Carillon Avenue.

A regular outing was to the local picture show to see silent movies backed by an orchestra. If you couldn’t read fast enough you lost the thread of the story. It cost 3d. to go downstairs in the Hub Theatre and 6d. for the dress circle if you felt affluent but only the rich or showoffs

  • 1. W. McGilchrist, letter cited.


went upstairs. Cowboy pictures with men ‘riding horses down impossible slopes, rescuing damsels out of burning buildings or from blood thirsty Indians’ were favourites with the boys.1 At Szarka Bros’ Enmore Theatre serials and comics were shown called ‘The Clutching Hand’, ‘Pearl White’ and ‘The Iron Claw’. Audiences would scream out to the actors, “Don’t”, “No”, “Look Out” and the piano played louder and louder when it was exciting.2 The serials always ended on a very exciting note so you had to come along the next Saturday to see how things went.3 At Clay’s Bridge Theatre there were trial nights when anyone could do their act and if the audience liked them they would clap but if they didn’t like the show they would throw things at them.4 Churches played an important part in the lives of many residents. Sunday was spent very quietly with often two or three trips in the day to Sunday School, fellowship and church services.5 Church picnics were special occasions. St. Enoch’s Presbyterian Church had their picnic once a year at Clontarf, Clifton Gardens or Athol Gardens. Swimming was strictly forbidden although paddling was acceptable. Everyone in the ferry would sing along with the Sunday School group. There was no “pairing off”.6 The Salvation Army Band played on street corners around Newtown nearly every week. They carried flaming torches as well as their band instruments. They sang hymns, asked for converts and then donations. People would throw money into the centre of the ring.7

  • 1. Ibid.
  • 2. F. N. Smith, op. cit., p. 6
  • 3. W. McGilchrist, letter cited.
  • 4. P. Cole, interview cited.
  • 5. M. Hall, letter cited.
  • 6. P. Cole, interview cited and J. Bateson, interview cited.
  • 7. W. McGilchrist, letter cited.

13. Plate 6. The Hub Theatre, 218-222 King St. Newtown, 1922, now the Burland Hall.
The present Hub Theatre at Newtown Bridge was the Hub No. 2.

The management of the above Theatre are determined to give the people of Newtown the best, and only the best, entertainment possible. CONTINUOUS

2 TILL 10:30

From Tent to Side Show, from Side Show to Palace, such has been the progress of Motion Pictures in Australia, in fact all over the world. In 10 years the great strides made in this wonderful entertainment are nothing short of astounding. It seems only yesterday when the theatres were running, what was termed in those days a “big show.” in the precincts of a huge tarpaulin tent. Folks then sat on hard benches watching “the miracles of the screen” pass before their eyes and glorified in the one and two-reel comedies and dramas which flickered and faded in a very bad light. Today that crude enter tainment has been almost perfected. We sit back in luxurious arm chairs watching the productions on which millions of pounds have been invested, and the energies and brains of the world’s greatest creators have been spent. When one views such productions as “The Storm,” “Over the Hills,” “Way down East,” etc., etc., the conclusion they must come to is that it is wonderful.

14. Plate 7. Salvation Army Hall, Brown St. Newtown, erected 1922. The earlier Newtown Barracks were erected in 1883

Plate 8. Newtown Court House was completed in 1885 in Australia St. The police of No. 5 Division helped to make Newtown a safe place to live. (1912)


At Christmas time they came around singing carols and it was exciting for children to wake up to their music.1 Everyone felt Newtown was a good place to live. Everyone trusted each other and knew everyone. It was safe and everyone helped each other.2 You could stop and talk to all the people you knew.3 Newtown was close to Sydney and then it was not far to go on outings to Manly, Bondi or Coogee.4 Mary and William McGilchrist summed it up as a great place of ‘excitement and activity’.5 We have seen that Newtown was a populous suburb with a mixture of social groups though predominantly made up of tradesmen and shopkeepers. Hawkers sold their wares in the streets, housework was done the hard way by present standards and people provided their own amusement and attended the theatres and churches. People were happy to live in Newtown because it was a close-knit community where something interesting was always happening.

1. F. N. Smith, op. cit., p 14

  • 2. Edna Henderson, interview by telephone 3rd/4th September 1982. (B. 1911)
  • 3. Mrs. Brown, interview by telephone 14th March 1983. (B. 1914)
  • 4. W. McGilchrist, letter cited.
  • 5. M. Hall, letter cited.

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