June 10, 2013

Sydney Railway Square History

David Ellis

A RECENT overnight at a hotel on Sydney's Railway Square turned out to be something more than just the chance to put the feet up for a night of the good life, it became an extraordinary walk down memory lane…

Not that the Mercure Sydney was some kind of time-warp – far from it, and a current multi-million dollar renovation program will soon see it as yet another jewel in the Sydney crown of accommodation-provider Accor, that has hotels from budget to 5-star-plus under a dozen different brand-names world-wide.

Rather, our stay there allowed us to venture out onto Railway Square for the first time in decades, and to breathe-in both our memories and the Square's fascinating past – a past that sadly too few Sydney-siders today would know anything about, and more sadly have even less interest in.                     

Yet in days of yore, when scores of puffing steam trains wheezed into Central Station hourly from across NSW, Railway Square – that sprawling space to the west of the station – was the major transport, hotel and retail hub of Sydney.

Back in the 1940s as kids we would be taken there every few months on excursions by tram, bus and suburban electric train to meet our Uncle Eb (Ebenezer,) when his train came in from where he lived "up in the country."

And after hugs and bone-crushing handshakes as we met him at the station, he would shower we kids with handfuls of boiled lollies – and even occasional chocolates that in those WWII years were seldom seen outside of birthdays, Christmases and Easters.

We would then go across to one of the many dull-looking hotels that fringed Railway Square, Uncle Eb booking himself and his knocked-up cardboard suitcase into a room there, and while he and the men would go to the noisy, smoky and foul-smelling Bar, we kids would be hauled off with the ladies to "the shops."

And back then Railway Square was circled with them, places like Sir Marcus Clark's two department stores that to us were akin to Aladdin's Caves, Bon Marche also owned by the knighted retailer, and Cary's Chambers that was a labyrinth of everything from furniture showrooms to Ashton's Motor School and Garage, a marvellous place where people were taught to drive, and lessons included learning the basics of a car's engine parts and how to tinker with them in the unfortunate event of a break-down on the road.

And when the shops closed at 5 o'clock we'd go back to the hotel where the men would be taking part in a bizarre ritual they called "the six o'clock swill," downing as many beers as they could before the hotel closed for the night at 6pm.

Then we would go down George Street to Silver's hamburger shop where we would be treated by now-half-wacked dads and uncles to gargantuan hamburgers and even soft drinks – absolute heaven in those lean war years.

We were never told what Uncle Eb actually did, and even when wives or aunties would ask "what is Eb in town for this time?" they'd be offered such responses as "he has to see a man about a dog," and "loose lips sink ships."

And it's remained a mystery to us to this day, but we can still recall him stumbling back up George Street to his pokey hotel room which he would often share with some complete stranger, and with the toilet in the bathroom down the corridor being flushed all night, before taking the steam train a few days later back "up to the country."

How Uncle Eb would have marvelled at today's Mercure Sydney in comparison to what he endured during his visits. To throw himself on a bed big enough for the whole family to sleep on, to have his very own bathroom actually in his room, and a vast window that would give him a Cinemascopic view of Sydney city.

And in the morning to go downstairs to breakfast from a buffet requiring that you walk around it several times to take it all in, before somehow moving on to actually making some decisions...

(Compiled with the assistance of Sydney City Council Archives Dept and the NSW Rail Transport Museum; next week how our early roads soon took their toll.)


[] AN 1890 view of what was to become Sydney's Railways Square. (Sydney City Council Archives)
[] IT takes 20 horses to haul this early steam engine to be put on the tracks at Sydney's Central Station in the early 1900s. Note how many hotels are around the square. (NSW Govt Archives)
[] MARCUS CLARK's department store dominates Sydney's Railway Square in 1908. (Sydney City Council Archives)
[] WHEN steam was king at Sydney's Central Railway Station. (NSW Rail Transport Museum)
[] HOW Uncle Eb would marvel at the Mercure Sydney, now the dominant building on the city's Railway Square. (Accor Hotels)

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