Jutting from the shores of Circular Quay and steeped in history is The Rocks. Originally named Tallawoladah, this area was first inhabited by the Cadigal people who burnt away the bloodwood, the peppermint and the blackbutt to clear the rocky headlands. The sandstone cliffs above were believed to have been used for their ceremonial rituals.

After the arrival of the First Fleet, the governor and other upper class citizens tended to live further east while the convicts congregated around The Rocks and began to build their homes out of rubble stone and shingled them with timber. The convicts created their own livelihoods and settlements by opening pubs, taking in lodgers and even hiring their own servants. A jail and Sydney’s first hospital were located here. Aboriginals moved into the newly established neighbourhood, which was eventually named The Rocks for its rugged terrain.

a plaque in The Rocks, Sydney
The Settlers plaque, The Rocks, Sydney

Roads were virtually impossible to build, and footpaths were used instead to crisscross the land and provided residents and visiting sailors with easier access. By the early 1800s, the population of The Rocks had grown to 1,200 and included merchants, convicts, sailors and dockworkers. The character of the area was quite rough and included crowded houses and poor sewage disposal.

As immigrants flocked to the suburb and demand for housing increased, residents were encouraged to subdivide their plots and build smaller terrace homes in front of their own homes. The tangled footpaths became even more confused, and The Rocks became severely overcrowded.

The piecemeal design of The Rocks was clearly becoming more problematic as time went on and the population continued to increase. Convict gangs and later paid labour was used to cut through the rock and build new streets through the area and connect the neighourhoods to the bridges and the rest of Sydney. As accessibility improved, the character of The Rocks deteriorated. The wealthier residents fled for more fashionable suburbs and left behind sailors, labourers, tradesmen and former convicts. In 1900, a new arrival changed everything.

a sculpture and sign post for the Rocks location in Sydney, Australia
The start of The Rocks on George Street, Sydney.

The bubonic plague was believed to have been borne on by the flea-infested rats that tended to live on board ships. Dockworkers, sailors and those who lived with and near them were often the most vulnerable. The plague swept through Sydney, and while there were more than 300 deaths, only five of those people hailed from The Rocks. Still, this was enough to inspire cleanup efforts. Whether or not The Rocks was the source of the plague was unclear, but much of it was demolished and rebuilt anyway. This allowed the government to redesign streets, ensure safer homes and provide more affordable housing. Almost overnight, The Rocks went from a gritty neighbourhood with a reputation as a slum to a well-established working-class neighbourhood.

Still, it was not until the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority in 1970 was given authority over The Rocks that it was given new life. A green ban was placed on the area, which ensured that its cultural and historic significance was preserved but still allowed the suburb to be redeveloped as a tourist attraction complete with galleries, shops and cafés.

Today, visitors to The Rocks can stroll along the cobblestone streets that were once traversed by sailors and convicts of old. Stop off first at Sydney Visitor Centre before heading off to The Rocks Discovery Museum where you can explore extraordinary artefacts and check out interactive exhibits. Work up an appetite on The Rocks Walking Tours or The Rocks Ghost Tour before enjoying a quiet meal in one of the many historic pubs that still remain or heading off on a dinner cruise on Sydney Harbour.