Flashback on Sydney – Viewing the city in 1943

No, this is not an Australian adaptation of ‘Back to the Future’ where Marty discovers that as his younger mother falls in love with him, the possibility of him existing has vanished from the cone of possible futures, but rather a simple and somewhat nerdy indulgence that I gave into on Anzac Day: the NSW Department of Lands and Property 1943 aerial photographs viewable on SixViewer.

Australia doesn’t have an amazing history and culture of sharing spatial data, so when I found out that I could view a set of 1943 aerial photographs of the city, I was properly excited. I know what you’re thinking, but being a geek has never killed anyone.

The discovery came as I was trying to look into the history of the very average 1960s building that I live in in Paddington. By all accounts, this 8 storey wonder is an exception to Paddington’s fine grain 19th century terraced fabric. I knew it had not been there since the dawn of time (clearly) so I became eagerly interested in how anybody thought that it would be a good idea to knock terraces down and put this thing up. I realise that Paddington was not always the upper middle class abode it is today but I gathered that there must be a story behind how the land was cleared and made available for a block of flats that consists solely of studios and one bedroom apartments.

My working hypothesis is that this housing would have been built for single women working as nurses at the nearby St Vincent’s hospital. Of all places, I remember reading on those weird bronze pavers in Kings Cross, that single occupancy tenancies were quite common for single women in post-war Sydney as the idea of being able to live independently without having to be married started to settle in.

But what was here before this yellow brick tower? This is where the 1943 photographs come in. It shows that in 1943 (let’s remember, this was wartime) there was a large, double frontage house on the plot the tower is now standing.

What happened to this house, how it changed hands and what stroke of genius made the punters of the day think that building a strata title tower would be the way to go, I have no clear idea yet but this is only the start of my investigation. But what is more interesting to me (at least on the short term) is how much the city has changed since 1943. I would encourage you to browse around and have a look at your favourite city hang outs to see how much they’ve changed, but it’s truly incredible.

One example is Woolloomooloo. We all ‘know’ that the area has its roots in an industrial past but these photographs brings that past right back to life. Admittedly, we were in the midst of the largest war ever known to mankind, hence all the warships, but it is staggering to realise that this used to be very much an industry-focused harbour and really, very far from being Russell Crowe’s pied-à-terre.

It’s also fascinating to see that the city had much fewer trees in many of its residential neighbourhoods. I am not sure sure why that is but it is definitely something for further investigation. The cars also crack me up. I might take this to the next level and have a look at some of the State Library’s collections to shed some light on the past of this little bit of city.

Have a look yourself, it’s free and available for anyone to have a look at. The dataset extends all the way from Bondi Beach to Katoomba. Really worth a little browse. Enjoy!

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