A city emerges

Look hard enough in Sydney and you can still find evidence of Sydney’s original inhabitants, who predated European settlers by at least 50,000 years.

Traditional art can still be found on rock faces and traces of shell middens have been left behind by local Aboriginal people, who hunted, gathered and fished in the area’s well-wooded surroundings and sheltered harbour.

The Europeans arrive

Early contact with the outside world may have included sightings of ships from Portugal and China, but James Cook’s arrival in 1770 changed Sydney forever.

The mariner claimed the east coast of the continent for Britain and 18 years later, Captain Arthur Phillip led the 11 ships of the First Fleet into Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.

The aim was not to build a great city but to establish a prison settlement for British convicts. Soldiers and prisoners worked to carve out a rough and ready settlement using European knowledge. They ignored the local people's skills, who had lived there for so long and who were now being decimated by new European diseases. On several occasions the new settlement came close to starvation.

Today, signs of these early years remain in the city, with some of the original tracks hewn through the bush now forming main roadways.

A city divided

The eastern 'official' side of the original settlement still contains the buildings that denote power and control – government offices, the governor's residence, the houses of parliament.

The western side of the town was altogether more unruly. Today, the crooked streets of The Rocks, which mark the early settlement’s western extremity, evoke a different kind of society. Here, convicts made a life as best they could building rough cottages. Sailors who'd spent months at sea, then caroused in the numerous small public houses, some of which still serve drinkers today.

Some of the finest buildings of this early convict period were built during Lachlan Macquarie’s tenure as governor (1810–1821). Macquarie wanted to build a city and got himself recalled to London for his troubles, accused of spending too much money.

But despite London’s meddling, Sydney was becoming a city. Free settlers began to arrive, convicts earned emancipation and the economy evolved with schools, churches, markets, stores, theatres and a library appearing among the prison infrastructure. The post-penal economy was driven by industries such as whaling, sealing and the lucrative wool trade. The transportation of convicts from Britain ended in 1840.

Government, gold and growth

In 1842, the City of Sydney was established with elections, offices and all the trappings of a free society. When gold was discovered in 1851 people began pouring into the city from Europe, North America and China. There was a flurry of building in the city, much of it shonky, as people improvised with scarce building materials and rudimentary skills. It was a more certain way of making money than digging for gold. Many did make fortunes and the history of the city at this time is rich in stories of wild parties and extravagant celebrations that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.

Exuberance in architecture is a legacy of the prosperous decades that followed, with Victorian edifices being built to house a burgeoning society. The public symbol of this period of enthusiastic growth is the mellow golden local Sydney sandstone used to build places such as Town Hall, the General Post Office and the rapidly multiplying offices of the civil service in the eastern side of the city.

By the end of the 19th century Sydney was one of the largest cities in the western world, with a population of half a million people. While it did not maintain that position in the 20th century, the City's harbour, enhanced by the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, has made Sydney an instantly recognisable city worldwide.

Last updated: Monday, 9 October 2017