Local Street History: Elizabeth Street

August 25th, 2023 - by Brad Gillespie

Elizabeth Street is one of Sydney's oldest and best-known streets.

It stretches for 8.6 kilometers from Hunter Street in the Sydney CBD past Central Station, then through Surry Hills, Redfern and Waterloo before arriving at its conclusion at the intersection of Joynton Avenue in Zetland.

Early beginnings

Originally known as Mulgrave Street, Governor Macquarie renamed Elizabeth Street in 1810 after his second wife, Elizabeth Henrietta Campbell. Clearly a devoted husband, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and Campbelltown were also named in her honour.

Elizabeth Street didn’t always run as far as it does today. A map from 1842 of allotments for sale on the Redfern Estate shows it petering out just past Cleveland Street. Forty years later, on 5 August 1882, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a “request that Elizabeth Street Waterloo might be properly formed, and continued, from Buckland Street to Botany Road”.

Elizabeth Street is present in a 1886-1888 Atlas of the Suburbs of Sydney, where it is shown turning at a slight angle across Bourke Street before finishing at Waterloo Dam and Swamp - a similar location to where it ends today (minus the swamp).

Landmarks on Elizabeth Street

Elizabeth Street traverses it all: commercial and residential areas, churches, parks, train stations (Martin Place, St James, Museum, Central), schools and more. The northern end has landmarks like David Jones and The Great Synagogue, and there’s a great self-guided walking tour you can do of this stretch of the road.

The southern end also has its share of landmarks, including Redfern Oval, Waterloo Park, Mount Carmel Church and School and historic Waterloo Town Hall (home to Waterloo Library).

A first class investment

The Sydney Morning Herald gives us a glimpse into what Elizabeth Street was like in 1883, with an advertisement for a mortgagee sale of a “first-class investment” comprising eight properties “situated in a first-class neighbourhood, close to Belmore Park, Railway Station, and Haymarket, and … within a few minutes' walk of the centre of the city.”

The properties in the portfolio on offer included:

Number 204 and 206, Elizabeth Street “built of brick on stone foundation, iron roof, containing 4 rooms and kitchen, at present let at 17s and 18s a week each.”

Number 848, a “Butcher’s Shop built of brick, iron roof, containing shop, 2 rooms, kitchen, gas and water laid on, and is at present let at 30s per week.”

Also on offer was a shop and dwelling at Number 350 with a shingle roof, a six roomed weatherboard cottage at number 453, and two, two-roomed cottages with wooden kitchens fronting a lane at the rear of No. 350, alongside a tongue and groove oregon timber house with five rooms fronting the lane at rear of number 304 and 306.

Bubonic Plague strikes 1900s Sydney

In early 1900, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on fears of Bubonic Plague taking hold in the area. The inherent racism of the era was on full display when Alderman Sullivan raised concerns that “the Mayor should direct special attention to the quarters occupied by the Syrians and Indians”. These recent arrivals lived along Elizabeth Street, between Phillip and Redfern Streets, in houses that were allegedly overcrowded. However, Alderman Parkes took exception to the remarks, arguing that the “Syrian quarters were inspected some time ago and found to be clean.”

After several heated meetings, Dr Armstrong from the Board of Health commenced a rigorous inspection of the Elizabeth Street and Alderson Street properties in February 1900. While he found many of the properties occupied by “Europeans” lacking in hygiene, drainage and in bad repair, his remarks imply sympathy for the wrongly accused:

“In Elizabeth Street thirteen dwellings were visited. They were occupied without exception by Syrians and other foreigners. Very little fault could be found with any of these premises. All were fairly cleanly kept and in good repair.”

By March that year, Sydney had 10 cases of Bubonic Plague stemming from an infected dog. The entire Children’s Hospital at Glebe spent days in quarantine, and many families were isolated at North Head. The outbreak was completely unrelated to overcrowded houses on Elizabeth Street.

Lost trams and a dancing man on Elizabeth Street

For many decades from the late 1800s, Elizabeth Street was the route of several of Sydney’s tram lines. The Alexandria Line ran along Elizabeth Street all the way to Zetland and on to Rosebery, before all of Sydney's tramlines were removed in the 1960s.

Sydney’s Elizabeth Street is also where the famous black and white film reel of a dancing man was taken in August 1945, celebrating peace at the end of the Second World War. While his identity is still clouded in uncertainty, his fame lives on - you can watch it at Australian Screen.

Development and redevelopment in the news for Elizabeth Street Waterloo

In 1972, the Builder’s Labourer Federation (BLF) placed a “Green Ban” on 32 acres of land earmarked for development by the Housing Commission in Waterloo, made famous in Tom Zubrycki's 1984 film, Waterloo.

Waterloo has long been home to a diverse mix of social housing alongside privately owned properties. This is set to continue with the NSW government announcing its plans to build 300 new homes, including social housing and affordable housing, on the Redfern section of Elizabeth Street.

Apartments now comprise over 90% of dwellings in Zetland and Waterloo. However, Waterloo’s heritage conservation areas (HCAs), which include parts of Elizabeth Street, ensure many 19th-century terraces and cottage houses remain. They also make sure any new developments in the area are sympathetic to the area’s history and aesthetic.

Properties on Elizabeth Street

When Elizabeth Street hits Redfern, Surry Hills, Waterloo, and Zetland, it becomes predominantly residential, with a scattering of shops, industrial spaces and offices. As the inner city changes, its peaceful pockets of residential housing lined with paperbark trees have experienced growing demand.

There’s a variety of housing on Elizabeth Street, from contemporary apartments to original Victorian and Federation workers cottages, as well as terraces and semi-detached houses.

848 Elizabeth Street, Waterloo, is currently for sale, with a price guide of $1.45 million to $1.55 million. This classic 1900s single level terrace offers three bedrooms and enormous potential thanks to enticing zoning and floor space ratios. It’s just 400 metres from Green Square, and 800 metres from the new Waterloo Metro, scheduled to open in 2024.

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