Hidden Tempe

November 3rd, 2023 - by Brad Gillespie

Tempe is one of those neighbourhoods most Sydneysiders have been to, but few have actually seen.

Those who live in Tempe are aware that the suburb has more benefits than access to IKEA flat-pack furniture, including a close community, green open spaces and proximity to the city. Here are ten things you may not know about Tempe.

1. Aboriginal people have congregated in the Tempe area for more than 10,000 years

The oldest evidence of Aboriginal people gathering in the area is a 10,500-year-old fireplace that archaeologists discovered next to Tempe House. Roughly 6,000 years ago, a number of environmental factors caused the river to swell and the freshwater body of the river near Wolli Creek to fill up with saltwater. Aboriginal people cooked shellfish from the surrounding mudflats. The remains of 4,500-year-old meal were found in Kendrick Park. When European settlers arrived, they noticed Gadigal people using the Wetlands in Sydenham, St Peters, Marrickville and Tempe, which were rich with plants, wildlife and shellfish.

2. Captain Cook had big plans for the Cooks River and the Tempe area

Captain James Cook and his Endeavour crew came across the river’s mouth in 1770 and charted the trajectory of the ‘fine stream’ all the way to Tempe. He believed the supply of fresh water and the ‘finest meadows of the world’ near north western part of Botany Bay made the area ‘suitable for a British settlement’, but his views were not universal. Upon seeing the river in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip headed straight to Port Jackson. Early settlers were also unimpressed. In 1790 Marine officer Watkin Tench described the wetlands as ‘high coarse rushes, growing in a rotten spongy bog, into which we were plunged knee-deep at every step.

3. How Tempe got its name

Before coming to Australia in 1823, Scottish-born merchant Alexander Brodie Spark visited Greece. There he saw the Vale of Tempe, a gorge at the base of Mount Olympus. After purchasing land near the Cook’s River in Sydney in the 1820s, in 1836 he built his home, Tempe House, between a small rocky hill (which he called Mount Olympus) and the river. Architect John Verge continued the Greek theme, by imbuing Tempe House with Neo-classical Georgian features. The suburb of Tempe was named after the house and while the house still stands today, Tempe’s borders have shifted so Tempe House is now found in Wolli Creek.

4. Tempe was up for grabs in Australia’s first lottery

In 1843, the Bank of Australia collapsed, leaving the establishment’s 180 shareholders, who had lost their investment, with a £225,000 debt. The bank’s downfall was due to the New South Wales dismal economy, and many landowners were unable to pay off their loans. While the bank had no money, it had acquired thousands of properties that borrowers had previously offered as collateral security for their loans. Most were unsaleable, as land value had also slumped in this climate but some were worth a lot of money. The bank’s directors devised a lottery system to distribute these properties among their shareholders. according to the proportion of their holding. In October 1848, the bank’s 11,348 pieces of real estate were allocated a number, which was printed on a ticket and assigned to every shareholder in proportion to their holding. This included large subdivisions in Tempe that had been relinquished by bankrupt developers.

5. Tempe used to be a skinny dipping destination

Not many people would swim in the Cooks River today, but in the 1890s the Cooks River grew infamous for drawing in skinny dippers. In 1891, a horrified Petersham man expressed his disdain for the phenomenon via a letter to the editor of Sydney Morning Herald:

“From "Starkey's Comer" to Tempe there could be counted 30 to 40 men and boys openly bathing in a perfectly nude state, some standing on projecting rocks without the slightest show of concealment. This is a state of things calling for summary treatment, and should not be allowed to continue. A few convictions would have a magical effect.”

The naked swimmers dwindled as industry grew and waste impacted the water quality. However, there are a number of community initiatives aiming to restore the Cooks River, with rumours that the water by Kendrick Park, Tempe may be transformed into a safe swimming site in the future.

6. Tales from the Tempe Tip

At first ‘Tempe Tip’ was a colloquial reference to the Tempe landfill, which the Council opened to the public in 1910. During wartime, some locals searched through the tip for much needed supplies. In 1943, James Waters, who was searching for wood, was dismayed to find half a ton of carrots and other edible vegetables among the trash – at a time when many couldn’t afford fresh food. The tip was used for domestic, industrial, toxic and liquid waste until its closure in 1975 and the site caught fire in 1988. From the 1960s, the ‘Tempe Tip’ moniker was also assigned to the Salvation Army Op Shop. Lifestyle articles advised newlyweds to furnish their home from the tip, which became a destination for bargain hunters, and it remains open today. In 2001, the film Tempe Tip, was released in Australia, starring Jason Donovan. Sadly it’s unavailable on streaming platforms but there must be an Op Shop somewhere with the VHS copy.

7. It’s teaming with wildlife

The Tempe Wetlands are artificial basins built to detain stormwater, which has become a haven for native wildlife. The Tempe Wetlands have had many past lives: a shale quarry in the 1920s, a greyhound racing track in the 1940s and a tip until the mid 1970s. The area was transformed into parklands by the former Marrickville Council in 2005, and now features a golf driving range, exercise areas (for dogs and humans) and wetlands. Vulnerable species like the grey-headed flying fox and the eastern bentwing-bat have been spotted in the area. So far, 123 different species of birds have been registered in the wetlands according to The Tempe Birdos, a community group of birdwatchers that have surveyed the Tempe Wetlands on a monthly basis, since 2012.

8. It's full of unique heritage features

Tempe boasts an eclectic list of heritage items. The Stanley Street Heritage area is regarded for the intact bungalows and semi-detached cottages, typical of the Inter-War period, like 31 Stanley Street. Tempe High School campus contains a section of the original 1874 school house. The Tempe Hotel, was built in 1853 and given a grandiose makeover, with an added portico and tower, in 1890 when it was described as the 'most imposing structure in the municipality of St Peters'. It was renovated again in 1929 and provided with an Inter-war period ‘free classical’ style of façade. Features from all three periods can be found in the hotel today. The State Heritage Inventory also contains an understated listing: the brick paving on Hillcrest Street. In this case the process of construction, part of an ‘important local scheme for usefully occupying the unemployed during the depression years of the 1930s’ is as significant as the finished product – which is described as ‘slightly uneven, with weeds growing through the joints’.

9. A suburb of parks

Despite its reputation for industry, Tempe contains an assortment of green spaces, which are treasured by young families in the community. This includes Kendrick Park, which has a playground, BBQ area and picturesque coastal foreshore, as well as Tempe Lands, with its thriving ecology, dog park and walking paths and Tempe Recreation Reserve, which has a number of indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a shaded playground, and a cycleway. Plus, the Bay to Bay Shared Pathway, one of Sydney’s favourite cycle tracks, passes through Tempe along the Cooks River.

10. It’s a hub of German culture

The Concordia German club was established in 1883 by August and Carl Sommer, whose home was too small to host regular card games with their expanding circle of German friends. The Concordia, meaning harmony, became a regular meeting spot for the German community. It has had six different locations, with the venue’s longest stint in nearby Stanmore. In 2003, the Concordia moved to Tempe and can be found opposite Tempe Station. Visitors can enjoy the generous portions of German food and pilsners, and fabulous live music on a Sunday.

If you’re interested in making Tempe your home, contact us today.

Photo credits: Wikipedia