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A sandstone city

25 January 24

You don’t have to be a Freemason to be inspired by the magnificence of the sandstone buildings constructed by stonemasons in the 19th and 20th centuries of early Sydney.

By Yvonne McIntyre PhD

Freemasons are well acquainted with the various categories of the stonemason’s trade. Categories such as the stonecutters who quarried the stone, the rubble masons who prepared the quarried blocks for building, the fixers, who placed the stone in position, the banker masons who shaped the stone for use in ashlar masonry and mouldings and the carver/sculptors. However, Sydneysiders and tourists alike are captivated by buildings such as the General Post Office, the Sydney Town Hall, Queen Victoria Building, Customs House and The Department of Lands building, to name a few.

But whilst we pay tribute to the architects and the stonemasons who left an enduring memorial to their skill, little acknowledgement is given to the men who hewed the stone from the numer­ous quarries operating in Sydney at the time. Stonecutters, as they were called, worked long hours in oppressive and hazardous conditions to provide the stonemasons with the material neces­sary to apply their skills. They were also subject to a range of lung diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and a disease known as ‘stonemasons’ phthisis’, now known as a form of Silicosis or indus­trial dust disease.

One of the first quarries in Sydney was established on Bennelong Point by Samuel Peyton, a 19-year-old stonema­son who had been convicted of stealing 200 shillings in 1784 and sentenced to deportation for seven years. He arrived with the first fleet on the Alexander in 1788 as the only stonemason in the Colony. Stone from the quarry was used in the construction of Fort Macquarie, (the site now occupied by the Sydney Opera House), in the seawall of Farm Cove and in the construction of Man O’War Steps. The sheer rock face lining the Tarpeian Way between the Opera House and the Botanical Gardens pro­vides a visual record of the scale of the works and challenges faced by the stonecutters of the day.

The difficulties encountered by the stonecutters in early Sydney can also be seen in the sandstone walls lining Argyle Road in the Rocks and known as the Argyle Cut. Rock was hewn from the sandstone ridge separating Sydney Cove from Darling Harbour by convicts using hammers and chisels. The following extract from a document prepared by the Heritage Council of NSW describes the harsh conditions under which the men worked:

‘The Argyle Cut was begun by 1843, with convict labour in chain gangs. Their overseer was a cruel man, Tim Lane, who used to declare to the labourers that “by the help of God and the strong arm of the flogger, you’ll get fifty before breakfast tomorrow!” Despite his efforts the job proved beyond the crude tools of the con­victs. Transportation to NSW had ceased in 1840 after much agitation, and many of the residents were unsettled by the sight and sounds of convicts labouring in chains in full view. The Government abandoned the project when it was half-completed.

‘The cut was eventually completed by Sydney Municipal Council, using explo­sives and council labour in 1859. The spoil was used to fill the mouth of the Tank Stream and to buttress the sea wall at Circular Quay.’

The rapid development of Sydney following the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810 resulted in many of the Sydney quarries being built over and attention turned to the quarries on the Pyrmont Peninsula. At the time, there were 15 quarries operating on the Peninsula, most of which supplied ballast for ships and the new railway being built between Sydney and Parramatta.

The most well-known of the Pyrmont quarries were owned and operated by Charles Saunders and were nicknamed by the stonecutters who worked them as ‘Paradise’, ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Hellhole’. The names were coined, not so much for the conditions endured by the workers, but because of the hardness of the stone and the difficulties experienced in its extraction. Paradise quarry stone was considered the best stone due to its fine texture, colouring and carvability.

The success of Charles Saunders’ Pyrmont quarries was largely due to the extensive use of Pyrmont stone in the building works undertaken by the Colonial Architects Edmund Blacket; James Barnet and Walter Vernon. James Barnet was the longest-serving of the three and during his 28-year tenure was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of 1,351 buildings across NSW.

Buildings constructed using sand­stone from the Pyrmont quarries included Customs House; Redfern Mortuary Station; St Andrew’s College Main Building, University of Sydney; Court House, Police and Justice Museum; Lands Department Building; Sydney Town Hall; General Post Office, Sydney and St Mary’s Cathedral.

Although there are still sandstone quarries operating within the greater Sydney area, none can match the yellowblock sandstone excavated from the Pyrmont quarries. To ensure the availability of suitable sandstone for use in the preservation of Sydney’s historic major buildings, the NSW Government implemented The Centenary Stonework Program of the NSW Department of Commerce. Stone from excavations in Pyrmont and The Rocks areas has enabled the Government to create a stockpile of some 10,000 tonnes of suitable sandstone; however, the amount is insufficient to meet current restoration needs.

The problem was highlighted in an article titled ‘This is one honey of a stone, and it’s almost gone’, written by Wendy Frew, Urban Affairs Editor and published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 January 2008. The article states ‘The shortage is so dire city planners are looking for ways to encourage developers to protect any yellowblock discovered on building sites. As planning laws stand, City of Sydney Council can allow the yellowblock to be “harvested” but it cannot mandate that developers exca­vate the stone in a way that preserves it.’ The article goes on to say: ‘If we could get even 10 per cent of the sandstone out [of any one site] we could build up our stockpile. But you need the develop­ers to have some social conscience to recognize the sandstone is a very valua­ble material for the city.’

One can only hope that developers and building contractors can be relied upon to exercise the social conscience referred to in the article.


  • The Quarries of Sydney – Australia for Everyone
  • Sydney’s Sandstone Heritage at Risk – Laila Ellmoos
  • This is one honey of a stone and its almost gone – Wendy Frew , SMH 5 January 2008
  • Argyle Cut – Heritage Council of NSW
  • Saunders Quarrying Operation – Australian Historic Engineering


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