Woolloomooloo, also called, simply, The 'loo, is right next door to Kings Cross yet they could hardly be more different. Kings Cross is on a ridge and The 'loo is a valley. Residents look up the hill to the high rise of The Cross, but Woolloomooloo is mostly 2 story terraces and old warehouses. Rather than a bohemian past, as in The Cross, The 'loo has a heritage of farmers, fishermen and seafarers. When Kings Cross was already a suburb with houses and beautiful streets, The 'loo was still mostly farm and mudflat with the odd farm building and scattered fishing cottages.
That changed when wealth from gold strikes flowed through the economy and trade started to boom in the mid nineteenth century. Shipping increased sharply and the arrival of the first Clippers meant Sydney needed more dock space. Woolloomooloo had many advantages: it was beside the city and had some of the deepest anchorage in Sydney Harbor. The problem was the mudflats. For thousands of years the Eora people had lived by harvesting the shellfish and crustaceans that thrived in the disgusting smelling, but productive Woolloomooloo mudflats. The white settlers also discovered this rich food source and for eighty years a community of fishermen lived and worked in Woolloomooloo Bay. The Clippers changed all that.
Starting in the 1850's the first street in Woolloomooloo was laid out. it was Forbes Street and it lead straight to the mud flats. For more than a decade teams of horses dumped stone and dirt fill first along the line of the street until it reached the deep water, then sideways until the mudflats were gone. At the edge of the deep water a stone wall was built that is still there. At the finger wharf the water is so deep that the worlds largest liners and aircraft carriers were able to dock right alongside the shore. Now the military ships still use the bay, but the age of the liner ended with the rise of the jet airliner. A recollection of past glory returned early in 2007 when the Queen Mary 2 docked in Sydney and the only place available to dock that was deep enough for the giant was Woolloomooloo Bay. As in days of old, Sydney siders turned out in droves to greet the great ship. The last timne the Queen Mary had visited here was the original back in World War Two, carrying troops off to war. Naturally that time too, the Queen Mary docked in Woolloomooloo Bay.
The finger wharf is now apartments, restaurants and a hotel. A Marina for rich man's yachts relpaces the old shipping. Fashionable restaurants line the wharf, said to be the largest wooden building in the world. Looking along it's vast expanse it is easy to believe the claim. It has changed alot in the life that is here now. When I first came to The 'loo, the wharf was largely boarded up, although small holes made by fishermen allowed late night access to the dusty halls and ancient conveyors for luggage that was still being carried up til about 1970 or thereabouts.
Along the western edge of the bay it is possible to find little tracts of sandy beach at the bottom of rocky cliffs. It is too rough for most to explore these tiny surprises so it is left for those of us with a need to explore to find these little treasures of Woolloomooloo. Those who just drive through would never guess that such things are there at all.
It is still possible to trace the old shoreline in Woolloomooloo because the land that slopes was dry, and all the land that is flat was once mud. That is more than half the suburb. History from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's is also evident. There are the little corner taverns dotted here and there. They are now residences, but in the 1890's they were tiny inn's and did a roaring trade fleecing sailors with cheap grog downstairs, then when they were drunk, fleecing them again upstairs with dirty beds and cheap women.
Much bigger, and in the main streets there are the (now converted) hotels where the officers and wealthy travellers stayed. The myriad tiny lanes and walkways where dirty children played. The 'loo had a reputation for being rough and tough. Even the language in The 'loo reflected other worlds, a mixture of cockney and every language known to sailors. We have records of it because when the Australian film industry started, it was in Wolloomooloo that the first studios were located and they filmed a community whose language almost needs subtitles for modern Australian ears.
When I first moved to Kings Cross I lived in a room in Orwell Street, Kings Cross, but a few weeks later met Philip Aspden, an artist who is still my friend, who invited me to move into an old boarding house down in The 'loo. It was called Jake's Monastery. It was a warren of small rooms inhabited by writers, musicians, actors, and artists. It was a madhouse in many ways, and I remember it as some of the best times in my life.
The prostitutes were still around, as were the homeless and the down and out. It was a place of old boarded up derelict houses. Parts of it were being demolished for highways and railways. Despite rebuilding by the public housing department, and an influx of new residents it has remained a bit of a world apart. The prostitutes and homeless are still around, although the illegal casino's have moved on. There is now a very obvious divide between the super rich who have moved into the apartments at the waterfront, and the desperately poor who live in the rest of Woolloomooloo.
Despite its problems, I have a tender spot for my Woolloomooloo. My children live there and so every Saturday I go down to The 'loo to pick them up and bring them up the hill to noisy William Street and the studio. Sometimes I walk past Jake's Monastery, now divided into two fashionable terraces. One day the resident was at his door, so I introduced myself, and offered to give him some of the fascinating story's that are tied to his house back to World War Two. He wasn't interested in the slightest. Thus it is so easy for the story's of places to be lost by those who care little for anything other than their own ownership.
Woolloomooloo is full of lost storys, most of which died with the sailors who made this their home. Little old houses in strange little lanes, however cannot completely hide all of their history. When I walk around The 'loo I look up at tiny shuttered windows and imagine I can hear the ghosts of those who came before. Down the bottom of Dowling Street I hear the animals against the hill, and imagine I can hear a cockney voice calling for me to hurry as the tide is turning and its time to get out on the flats to do some crabbing.