Playwright, actor, and adapter of our new production of Playing Beatie Bow, Kate Mulvany has spent a lot of time wandering around The Rocks, looking for inspiration and a spaewife or two. To celebrate the opening of this magic-filled production Kate has created a treasure hunt for those of you who are looking to discover the world of Abigail and Beatie for yourselves. She begins:
This treasure hunt takes place on Gadigal Land in Tallowolodah (The Rocks), which is part of Warrane (Sydney Cove). We walk this pathway with thanks and respect to the Traditional Owners of this land, past, present and emerging. Always was, always will be Aboriginal Land.
THE PADDOCK ON POTTINGER LANE
At the beginning of Ruth Park’s book and our play, the children of The Rocks play a game called “Oh Mudda”. The Paddock is the playground that this happens in, and where Abigail Kirk and Beatie Bow first see one another.
POTTINGER LANE LEADING TO LOWER FORT STREET
This Laneway, behind the Park, holds the foundations of some of the first houses in the area. They were demolished after the first victim of the Bubonic Plague was found living in this lane in 1900. This is often why children’s nursery rhymes from the era were about death and disease – they were surrounded by it, even in their own playgrounds, so the subject matter made its way into their rhymes and stories.
THE GARRISON CHURCH ON CORNER OF LOWER FORT AND ARGYLE STREET
The Garrison is the church that the Anglicans of The Rocks attended. This is where the Bow family would have gone – it was about 30 years old in 1873. It is suspected that Ruth Park got inspiration from the stained glass windows in this church – inside there is a tribute to a young boy called “Gilbert” who died young, as is expected of the young Gibbie in the book. Next to that is a tribute to his uncle who was lost at sea – much like the character of Judah in the book. And in the corner is a window devoted to Dorcas – which is Dovey’s real name in the book.
Across Argyle St and up the steps to Windmill Hill! There used to be a windmill up here that had fabric sails, but it didn’t work because the locals of The Rocks kept stealing the fabric. The Observatory that is up here now was brand new in 1873. Walk up to the gazebo and take in the amazing view of Sydney’s magnificent waterways. The Gadigal people believed these waterways were created by a thrashing eel – it created the coves and bays and channels you can see from this viewpoint.
Walk through the Underpass and you will come to Cumberland Street. There’s a few things to look for on this street. The Sirius Building is at 48 Cumberland St. It is the set of apartments designed by Weyland that Abigail, Kathy, Justin, Trevor and Vinnie live in in the play. It began as government housing in 1980, but recently all of the residents – many of them long-term – were moved out so that it could be renovated into luxury apartments.
The Australian Hotel is an old local haunt that has remained almost unchanged. It does delicious pizzas and is where Justin tells Abigail and Jonah to grab some dinner at the end of the play.
The Big Dig is inside the Youth Hostel on Cumberland St. It is an archaeological excavation site that is filled with things dug up in The Rocks – from vases to opium pipes. And rats. Lots and lots of rats. See if you can find the object depicting the “Battle of Balaclava”. That is the battle that Mr Bow was at during the Crimean War. Although many people remember Florence Nightingale as the nurse from this war, playwright Kate Mulvany likes to think Mr Bow was taken care of on the field by Mary Seacole. The soldiers often preferred her to Florence because she used to give them some rum to soothe the pain…
The house/store on the corner of Susannah Place is the kind of building Ruth based the Bow house on. It’s now a museum site, currently operated by Sydney Living Museums, though its closed at the moment due to COVID restrictions. Inside everything is as it was in the 1800s – including the shop. It is on this doorstep that Mr Bow first knocks Abigail to the ground in the book and the play. Head around the back of the store to get a better look in the backyards of the houses, and to see how tall and narrow the houses were. For the play, Kate Mulvany has created a new character called Johnny Whites – the local launderer of The Rocks. If you can imagine Johnny’s laundry as being across the alleyway behind the Bow house and shop, you can see how he and Abigail would have their conversations – he hanging out the laundry from his window and she sitting on the awning outside her room.
Head back down to Argyle St and take a look at The Cut. In 1873, it was narrower than it is now. It was built as a “shortcut” through The Rocks to get to Millers Point – it used to be a very long walk. Work on The Cut started in around 1843 by long-term convict chain gangs (or “canaries” as they were known), then abandoned, then finally finished by council workers in 1859. If you look closely at the sandstone rocks – and, in fact, any of the sandstone brickwork throughout The Rocks - you can see the chisel marks of the workers’ tools. Each worker had their own distinct style and were often hired for their particular chisel patterns.
THE ARGYLE STEPS
This is one of the main sets of steps that Abigail chases Beatie down in the book and the play. If you climb to the top of these stairs, you’ll find the foundations of several houses from the 1800s. You can get an idea of just how cramped the living conditions were in these buildings, which were constructed “on the rocks”.
Outside The Rocks Information Centre is a photo and information about the Ragged School that Beatie attended. The Ragged Schools of Sydney were created for children from working class families. Only the boys got a proper education – algebra, history and Latin. Girls learned to curtsy with a Bible on their heads and feather-stitch.
Can you spot the gas lamp that Abigail tries so desperately to get back to? There are a few scattered through The Rocks, but the one on the book and the play is on Harrington Street.
Walk along Harrington St, past the Endeavour Tap Rooms on the corner of Harrington and Argyle. Look closely at the mortar used in the brickwork along the wall of the Bonza Bike Shop. Do you see it shimmering? Those are the remnants of the oyster middens that used to make up Bennelong Point (Tobowgule) – they were turned into concrete. So this concrete is one of the oldest artefacts that remain in The Rocks – straight from the Gadigal people. Those oyster middens were over three storeys high by the time the First Fleet arrived – that’s tens of thousands of years of oyster feasts.
A little further along is the entrance to the infamous Suez Canal. This is where Ernest’s House of Temperance is in the book and the play. In fact, if you look to the left of the Canal as you walk toward George St, you will see a mysterious attic that was discovered during a renovation awhile ago. It is said that when the room was discovered, there was no way in and no way out – it was a place, it seems, where people were “put”. This is the room that Abigail finds herself in at the start of Act 2.
Walk a little further down the Suez Canal, and you’ll feel it get darker and narrower. On the walls are members of The Push, the terrifying gang who used to prowl this lane, and a couple of “highsteppers” – where Ruth got the inspiration for Dolly and Maude, perhaps, who you will meet on the Wharf stage…
George Street isn’t just the main street of Sydney. It was the main pathway of the Aboriginal people who walked this area. Governor Philip picked up on this and so decided to follow their lead and make it the main thoroughfare of the colony.
- Aesop Store
This store was once owned by Thomas Playfair, who was a butcher who went on to become one of The Rocks’ most successful businessmen. If you look on either side of the store you can see the original meat hooks used by Thomas. Fun fact – Playfair is Kip and Clemmie Williams’ great-great-great grandfather!
See if you can spot the unusual numbering system. This is apparently because so many of the settlers were illiterate, so they used numbers instead of letters for housing divisions.
- The Orient
In a far corner of the courtyard outside the Orient are the footprints of dogs and cats that roamed free in The
Rocks. Can you find them?
The Doss House
Follow the sign on George Street through the doorway, down the hallway, into the courtyard and down the stairs to The Doss House. This used to be an opium den that was also used as a fan tan gambling house, and so has retained a lot of its Chinese heritage such as urns and pipes. It has remained virtually unchanged and is well worth having a drink.
And as a treat for those who want to try some confectionary like Mr Bow’s…
Head to Sticky, which is in The Rocks Centre on Playfair Street. There they make rock candy worthy of Samuel Bow himself!
If you would like to know more about The Rocks, Kate Mulvany highly recommends checking out The Rocks Discovery Museum in Kendall Place; The Rocks Walking Tours; The Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour – Illi Langi and the Burrawa Harbour Bridge Climb.
Thanks Anne Crawley from The Rocks Walking Tours and Matt Mills from the Burrawa Bridgeclimb for their assistance.
Playing Beatie Bow, 22 Feb – 1 May, Wharf 1 Theatre