June 17, 2013

Sydney: Rail and roads of gloom

David Ellis

NEXT time you get a beep when you drive through a toll gate, take a moment to ponder just how long we hapless road users have been paying tolls in Australia.

Because rather than only since sometime in the 20th century as you would probably think, it is in fact over 200 years – Governor Lachlan Macquarie stuck our first toll booth on the side of what is now Sydney's Railway Square, next to the present-day Central Railway Station, way back in 1811.

And he did so to pay for the maintenance of the "road" from Sydney Town to Parramatta, in reality a rambling 25km dirt track through the bush that was so ill-constructed, in heavy rain it became an impassable quagmire for horse-drawn coaches and goods wagons, and when dry an axle-breaker of potholes and tree-stumps.

And when this track was extended further out to Windsor, so bad was the extension too, that it took coaches 24hrs to get there from Sydney, including an overnight at what is now Kellyville.

Macquarie awarded a contract to James Harper to repair and widen the track into a proper road, surface it with crushed rock and to maintain it for ten years – in return being allowed to collect tolls at Sydney and Parramatta from 1811.

As the little colony grew and branched out from Sydney Town other toll roads, and bridges, flourished until the 1870s when the government took back control – and soon after, speedier steam engines and then automobiles killed off coaches and wagons.

And from 1906 as Sydney's Central Station blossomed, so too did businesses around it: as trains from the country terminated there, hotels and boarding houses soon abounded, as well as shops and stores and even an indoor ice-skating rink (the Glaciarium from 1907 to 1955.).

Amongst the earliest major store-owners was Henry Marcus Clark who had a drapery shop in Newtown, and in 1896 opened a department store on the corner of George and Harris Streets at Railway Square. He named it Bon Marche after the famed Paris store, and so successful was it that he built an even larger one in 1909 at the corner of George and Pitt Streets and named this – one of Sydney's earliest skyscrapers at 9-storeys high – Marcus Clark & Company Ltd (demolishing the now-defunct toll booth and toll collector's house to do so.)

He later built yet another a few doors away for the hordes now streaming daily off the steam trains – or awaiting trams, which at their peak carried 405-million passengers annually through Railway Square into the city or suburbs.

Other stores equally flourished as did the near-dozen hotels around Railway Square – but with the coming of the suburban electric train to Sydney in 1926 many visitors from the country simply changed trains at Central and went to hotels and department stores deeper into the city a few blocks north.

Worse, in the 1950s and '60s vast urban shopping complexes now offered all their glitter right there in the sprawling and distant suburbs – mortally wounding those around Railway Square, including Marcus Clark's which ceased trading in 1966 with massive debts.

Today one of its Marcus Clark & Company "skyscrapers" is home to the Sydney Institute of TAFE.

Gone too are most of the old hotels around Railway Square, but one that's flourished is the huge 517-room Mercure Sydney, that conversely to what we've written about above, was not built until 1998 and thrives because of its location on Railway Square:  its ideally located within walking distance of the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Darling Harbour restaurant precinct, Chinatown, the Sydney Entertainment Centre, the entertainment district around the Capitol Theatre, Powerhouse Museum, and Sydney University.

And being just 50m from Central Station has ready rail access to the rest of the city and Sydney Airport.

All rooms have high-speed Wifi and broadband, a wonderful Pillow Menu, there is an indoor rooftop pool, a sauna and gym, 24hr business centre, car rental desk, the Four Elements Restaurant and Bar features modern Australian cuisine, and Eve's Place Bar and Bistro offers a pub atmosphere, snacks and light meals.

Details: (02) 9217 6666 or www.mercuresydney.com.au

(This feature was written with the assistance of Sydney City Council Archives Dept and the NSW Rail Transport Museum.)


[] OUR first toll gate and toll collectors house where Sydney's George Street became Parramatta Road – sketch circa 1819. (NSW Govt Archives)
[] SYDNEY's Railway Square in 1922 showing two of Marcus Clark's "skyscraper" department stores. The Mercure Sydney occupies what was Cary's Chambers site and an old tram depot.  (Sydney City Council Archives.)
[] A 1956 site map of Railway Square Sydney – note the number of hotels on the Square. (Sydney City Council Archives)
[] THE famous Destination Board at Sydney Central Station, in use from 1906 to 1982. (NSW Rail Transport Museum)
[] MERCURE Sydney thrives on Railway Square today with 517 rooms just 50m from Central Station. (Accor Hotels)
[] INDOOR rooftop pool at the Mercure Sydney. (Accor Hotels)

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