Simon Phillips owes this Skirting Sydney tour to his mother. She challenged him to find out more about the women of Sydney and create a tour that “celebrates women”.
I’d never really thought about it, but when Phillips asks how many statues of women there are around Sydney besides Queen Victoria, I can’t name one. Because there are hardly any.
Unknown Women of Sydney
During the two-hour tour, Philips introduces me to women whose names most of our small group of women have never heard before. All were pioneers in one way or another.
We have heard of Mary Reibey. She was transported to Australia for stealing a horse and went on to become a successful businesswoman. Reibey founded the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) in her home in Macquarie Place and her face graces our $20 note.
Jessie Street Gardens
There are many more. May Hollinworth was the first female theatre director and the founder of the Metropolitan Theatre. Jessie Street, a women’s rights activist, worked to remove discrimination against Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution.
A statue of a woman with two young children in the Jessie Street Gardens recognises “Women Pioneers”. The gardens are dedicated to the “achievements of all Australian women”. Hidden on a wall behind a bush, a simple plaque remembers Hollinworth.
Pointing to the Second World War Servicewomen Memorial at the back of the gardens, Phillips tells us that sadly there were no flowers or tributes laid at the memorial on ANZAC Day.
Macquarie Place Park
The metal dome covering an early men’s public toilet (now filled with sand) prompts a discussion about women’s toilets. The first women’s public toilet was built years after men were catered for. And it had fewer water closets compared to men’s conveniences.
Another familiar name is Elizabeth Macquarie, second wife of Lachlan Macquarie. What I don’t know is that she had a hand in designing the oldest park in Australia, Macquarie Place Park.
Early Discrimination Against Women
Not surprisingly there was plenty of discrimination against women in the early days of the colony. It took more than ten years for the first female architect, Florence Taylor, to be admitted into the NSW Institute of Architects.
Statues of 23 male explorers and prominent Sydney identities occupy niches in the Department of Lands Building wall. Phillips shakes his head admitting that “there are no women”. Perhaps it’s time statues of women were placed in some of the 24 unfilled niches.
Pointing out the site of the first Female Orphan School which opened in 1801, Phillips tells us it was “to save the girls from vices”. The orphanage later moved to Parramatta.
Another question has the group stumped. How many streets in Sydney are named after women? Very few it turns out. We all know Elizabeth Street, but can’t think of another. Phillips helps us with “Margaret Street” adding that “Grovenor Street used to be called Charlotte Place”. That’s about it.
More Women of Sydney
We’ve heard of Henry Lawson, but know nothing about his mother, Louisa Lawson. She, together with an all-female team of editors and printers, produced the feminist magazine “The Dawn”.
Phillips adds more names to the list. Suffragist Maybanke Anderson, actress Roxy Barton “who inspired women to be adventurous and to explore the world” and the “fierce six-foot manageress” of Chequers, a basement nightclub in The Strand Arcade.
He points out a Francis Greenway building, the site of the first Sydney Girls High School. The girls occupied the first floor, while the boys’ studied on the ground floor.
The private Queen’s club, one of 2 women only clubs in Sydney, promotes social interaction between country and city women. Phillips’ mother told him “what happens in The Queen’s Club stays in the Queen’s Club”.
The First Female Lawyer
Along the five-kilometre walk, Phillips illustrates his stories and fascinating anecdotes with photographs of Sydney’s unsung women. In Sydney’s “legal area” he points to Ada Evans’ Chambers and tells and amusing story of how she finally managed to get accepted as a law student, becoming the first female lawyer and later a barrister.
Walking past buildings that we all know well, we learn about Lucy Osborne, Lady Superintendent of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary and Millicent Stanley the first female Member of the NSW Legislative Assembly. Her sharp wit rivals that of Paul Keating.
Paying tribute to Phyllis Mander Jones, librarian and archivist, Phillips explains that “because of her I’ve been able to find so much information and locate the photographs for the tour”.
Finishing off in the Botanic Gardens
Our group gather round a memorial in the Botanic Gardens dedicated to Nellie Stewart or Sweet Nell. She was an actress and according to Phillips “a phenomenal singer”. We all know the name Dame Nellie Melba, but how many of us have heard of Sweet Nell?
From Convict to First Lady
Looking through the fence at Government House we hear the unlikely story of Esther Abrahams. Starting off as a convict who was transported for stealing lace, I’ll leave you to discover how she ended up “First Lady” of the colony.
Phillips concludes his tour beneath the metal dome of “Folly for Mrs Macquarie” created by Fiona Hall. An impressive work featuring wrought iron Norfolk Pine leaves in the dome and a bones ceiling representing the animals who lived in the area.
Saying “a lot of hard work went into discovering” the women of Sydney, Phillips adds that he’s “really proud my mother pushed me into doing this”. We are too.
Note: I was a guest on this tour.
Read about another fascinating tour that spends time with Female crime bosses here
- “24 Hours in Sydney” offers a number of tours including Skirting Sydney With each adult ticket a child (6-18) goes free.
- Guests receive a link to the App “Relive” which includes photographs and highlights from the walk.