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Below is a talk I presented at the exclusive Sydney media launch of Sony PlayStation’s historical immersive game, The Order: 1886. See the project page for a summary of the event.

Cumberland Street, The Rocks

Cumberland Street, The Rocks. State Records NSW

The Rocks is a ‘relic of a vanished underworld of convict days’.1 Brian Penton, Landtakers: The Story of an Epoch (1934) via Project Gutenberg When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 the area was named The Rocks by convicts who made homes here after their gruelling eight-month voyage to Australia. As the governor and his respectable entourage settled on the eastern shores of Circular Quay, those of ill repute set up thatched houses and businesses in The Rocks, and it very quickly became known as the convicts’ side of town.

Now, over 200 years later, we ventured over the same well trodden pathways made many moons ago and find ourselves in one of the city’s oldest pubs. Though you may take it for granted, it is worth noting – The Rocks of today is squeaky clean. Its brightly lit alleys and streets are peppered with tourist traps and boutique restaurants. But back in 1886, this area was entirely different. [Images below courtesy of State Records NSW and State Library of Victoria]
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If you were to walk the streets of The Rocks back then, the stench of cured fish and other meats might have met your nostrils, along with stale tobacco, garbage and sewerage. The sounds of horses hooves, sweeping brooms and street hawkers would have filled the air as you meandered dusty unsealed roads, and the buildings and houses would have been a grimy prospect. There were no tourist traps, there were specialty shops like butcher shops, furniture stores and tailors. The dilapidated houses were lined with washing and many of the photographs of the day depict the children of The Rocks, some barefoot, curious faces peering through the glass plate negatives.

Hero of Waterloo pub

Hero of Waterloo pub c 1901. State Records NSW

There were no fancy restaurants, there were Chinese cook-shops and rowdy pubs, one of them being the place in which we all stand, the Hero of Waterloo. Legend has it that secret tunnels led from some of these disorderly public houses, including this one, all the way to the harbour. It is believed that they were used to smuggle rum and drag unsuspecting, drunken sailors to Circular Quay, so they could be put to work on the giant sail ships anchored below. The tales tell of how these poor victims would find themselves drunk at the bar before falling asleep and being dropped through a trapdoor into the cellar, where they were then dragged through the tunnel to the Quay.

London in The Order: 1886

London in The Order: 1886. Image courtesy of PlayStation and Sony Computer Entertainment.

In The Order: 1886, the dingy streets of Victorian London feature throughout the game and in particular, there is a focus on London’s most notorious slum area. East London, often called “darkest London”, is depicted as it would have appeared during the late 1800s, covered by a blanket of fog and dimly lit by gas lamps. Contemporary descriptions paint a morbid picture, one describes Brick Lane as:

Black and noisome, the road sticky with slime…Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing – human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around.2’Whitechapel’, The Palace Journal, 24 April 1889, Issue 76 (PDF 14.1MB) Digitised by Queen Mary University of London Library

In The Rocks, the nooks and crannies were not unlike those in East London and another infamous West End slum of that time. In fact, one Sydney journalist noted in 1886, the Rocks ‘had a touch of the Seven Dials’.3The Novelist: Sydney Illustrated‘, 16 October 1886, Australian Town and Country Journal, p. 32 Dilapidated workshops, overcrowded boarding houses, poor drainage and inadequate ventilation led to concerns that the area might encourage the spread of infectious diseases. In 1881, smallpox hit Sydney and it is believed to have originated in a home here in The Rocks, in Lower George Street.4Raelene Allen, ‘Smallpox epidemic 1881’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008 [Images below courtesy of State Library of Victoria and State Library of NSW]
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And just as the slum streets in London and The Rocks were crooked, so too were those that dwelled in its darkness. The wealthy saw it as a degenerate backwater plagued by crime, ruffians, pickpockets, brothels and opium and gambling dens. Indeed, one Sydney Morning Herald article later took note of the various nationalities, and crimes, represented in the busy portside area, There were ‘scores of Chinese seamen’, ‘Poachers from England’, ‘Fenians from Erin’ and ‘cutpurses from the Strand and Cheapside’.5‘The ‘Rocks’ Of Romance’, 3 December 1949, The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 7 One lane, now known as Suez Canal (allegedly a pun on ‘sewers’), was one of the most unsavoury parts of the precinct.

During the late 19th century in London, there was civil unrest due to rising unemployment and poor working conditions. An estimated 30% of London’s population were living below the poverty line, many of them crowded in the slums of East London. By this time, Whitechapel had become overcrowded and was considered a hotbed of crime and prostitution. Featured as a key location in The Order, many of the poorest families of Whitechapel lived in single-room accommodation, without sanitation and proper ventilation. It became the scene of a series of horrific murders in 1888, when the now infamous Jack the Ripper terrified Londoners with his brutality.

Left wing organisations began organising public meetings and demonstrations. In February 1886, there was a major riot in Central London. The day became known as Black Monday as 10,000 protestors made their way to Hyde Park and violence and destruction ensued throughout the West End. In The Order, we see a new threat emerging through the shadows. Nicknamed the East End Army, these rebels assist the Half-Breeds in their war against the knights of The Order.

Various depictions of 'larrikin' characters

Various depictions of ‘larrikin’ characters. Sources: National Gallery of Australia,  The Vapour Trail, The Dirt on The Rocks

Back to The Rocks, we had rebellious gangs of our own. Like the rising discord among the lower classes depicted in The Order, these Sydney gangs are thought to have arisen out of defiance against the social conventions imposed them. These characters were nicknamed ‘larrikins’ and though the word has positive connotations today, back in the 19th century, it was an insulting and derogatory label.

These hooligans were tough and defiant with a distinct Cockney influence, connecting with East End culture. They formed ‘pushes’ or gangs, like the Straw Hat Push, the Forty Thieves, the Argyle Cut Push and many more.6See Melissa Bellanta, ‘Captain of the Push, and other embroideries’, 23 April 2010 They would wear bell-bottomed pants, neckerchiefs, wide-brimmed hats, short coats and high-heeled boots. Other than engaging in territorial warfare, they would assault police and pedestrians who walked through the area and would use their female companions to lure drunks and sailors into dark areas before robbing them.

The poet Henry Lawson dramatically wrote his own description of one of the areas most famous gangs, the Rocks Push, echoing the supernatural, dark themes of The Order. He noted:

As the night was falling slowly down on the city, town and bush,
From a slum in Jones’ Alley sloped the Captain of the Push…
Then his whistle, loud and shrill, woke the echoes of the ‘Rocks’,
And a dozen ghouls came sloping round the corners of the blocks.7Henry Lawson, ‘The Captain of the Push’, via Australian Poetry Library

Like in London, civil disturbances also occurred in Sydney during this period. In 1878, Chinese traders petitioned the government to protect them from the larrikin gangs.8Shirley Fitzgerald, ‘Chinese’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008 This anti-Chinese behaviour was associated with trade union meetings which opposed immigration and openly advocated the use of violence. Later that year, public rallies were held and just like in London, they started in Hyde Park. Protestors marched on Parliament House and a different group numbering around 2,000 headed up Pitt Street to Dalley Street, just on the border of The Rocks where the mob attempted to torch a Chinese furniture shop.

The Order: 1886. Image courtesy of PlayStation and Sony Computer Entertainment.

The Order: 1886. Image courtesy of PlayStation and Sony Computer Entertainment.

Though the late 19th century was a time for civil unrest, it was also a time of technological advancement and rapid industrialisation. A key figure during this time and a major character in The Order, is the Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla. A true visionary and man of science, Tesla’s prolific career is evident even today. He registered more than 700 patents, including the laser beam, wireless communications and remote controlled vehicles. In the game, he assists the Order in their battle by inventing a range of sophisticated weaponry.

And it turns out, Australia had its own developments on this front. Louis Brennan was an Irish-born Australian mechanical engineer and inventor. At just 22 years old, Brennan invented the underwater torpedo for coastal defence.9Mary Sandow, ‘Brennan, Louis (1852–1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1969 The torpedo was the first practical guided missile, and was propelled by counter-rotating screws driven by the unwinding of two steel wires from internal drums. It was steered by the differential action of the two wires which were wound on to drums on shore or on a ship with a steam engine. He patented his torpedo in England in 1877.

Louis Brennan

Louis Brennan c 1885. State Library of Victoria

Within three years, the British government invited Brennan to England to work on furthering his invention, perhaps not surprisingly, with the War Office. In 1887, Brennan was awarded £110,000 as the government argued that his torpedo was significant to the future of weapons technology, and that parts of the torpedo must be kept secret from other countries.

You might also be surprised to know, the airships featured in The Order have Australian origins. In 1813 in Bombay, India a naval surgeon from London fought in a duel against his shipmate. After fatally wounding his comrade, the naval surgeon was tried for murder and found guilty. He was granted clemency and transported to Australia as punishment.

The convict’s name was William Bland, and he reached the asylum at Castle Hill in Sydney in 1814.10John Cobley, ‘Bland, William (1789–1868)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1966 Although he was freed the following year, he was sent back to prison again, this time to Parramatta Gaol, found guilty of libel against the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie. Yet despite his two convictions, Bland went on to establish a private practice, pursue a career in politics and become a prominent philanthropist.

William Bland's Atomic Ship

William Bland’s Atomic Ship 10 March 1851. State Library of NSW

And, in 1851, he designed what he called the “Atomic Ship”. 
Widely considered a precursor to the Zeppelin airship, which appears in The Order, Bland’s drawings included a balloon filled with hydrogen, set in motion by four screw propellors powered by steam. He believed it would reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and cut the trip between England and Australia from 2-3 months to 4 or 5 days! He presented a model of his design at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London.11‘Bland’s Atomic Ship’ at State Library of NSW Although his designs never came to fruition, they added to the excitement of the era of rapid change.

The very idea that people could be lifted from the ground to fly and return safely was one of the many concepts that epitomised the industrial age and captured the public imagination.

References   [ + ]

1. Brian Penton, Landtakers: The Story of an Epoch (1934) via Project Gutenberg
2. ’Whitechapel’, The Palace Journal, 24 April 1889, Issue 76 (PDF 14.1MB) Digitised by Queen Mary University of London Library
3. The Novelist: Sydney Illustrated‘, 16 October 1886, Australian Town and Country Journal, p. 32
4. Raelene Allen, ‘Smallpox epidemic 1881’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008
5. ‘The ‘Rocks’ Of Romance’, 3 December 1949, The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 7
6. See Melissa Bellanta, ‘Captain of the Push, and other embroideries’, 23 April 2010
7. Henry Lawson, ‘The Captain of the Push’, via Australian Poetry Library
8. Shirley Fitzgerald, ‘Chinese’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008
9. Mary Sandow, ‘Brennan, Louis (1852–1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1969
10. John Cobley, ‘Bland, William (1789–1868)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1966
11. ‘Bland’s Atomic Ship’ at State Library of NSW