Reclaiming Forgotten Spaces: How Urban Explorers Are Uncovering Sydney’s Inner City and Inner West’s Hidden History

June 9th, 2023 - by Brad Gillespie

Many of us who live in Sydney’s inner city and inner west are fascinated by our area’s often colourful history.

What was here before today’s homes and businesses? How did people live and work in our neighbourhoods in the past? While our area’s carefully preserved heritage buildings give us a glimpse into the past, a secretive subculture is taking things one step further and exploring abandoned buildings and structures not open to the general public. We find out more about these urban explorers and the sites they visit in Sydney’s inner city and inner west.

What is urban exploration?

Urban explorers, or urbexers, are a small and private group who explore abandoned man-made structures, like buildings and tunnels, that aren’t open to the general public.

Abandoned buildings can be like time capsules, preserving a slice of the past that might otherwise be lost or forgotten. Think of an empty school with chairs, desks and books still in place, curtains fluttering in the breeze; an abandoned hospital, complete with wards full of empty beds; or a deserted factory, now full of graffiti. These are fascinating places, and it’s no wonder people are driven to explore and document them in often moody, melancholy photographs.

But urban exploration is a fraught pastime. Not only is it often pushing the bounds of legality, but there are the physical risks to consider. Abandoned buildings can be structurally unsound and/or contaminated with asbestos or hazardous chemicals. Encounters with other people or stray animals in abandoned sites can be dangerous, too.

Famous abandoned buildings of the inner city and inner west

In years gone by, the inner city and inner west (especially suburbs like Alexandria, Mascot and Waterloo) were full of abandoned factories, hospitals and offices ripe for exploration. Now, though, as these neighbourhoods become increasingly sought after for housing and commercial purposes, many of these ghost buildings have been demolished and redeveloped.

The Dunlop Slazenger factory on Bowden Street, Alexandria, abandoned since 1994, was a well-loved favourite of urban explorers and graffiti artists until it was redeveloped around 2015. Meanwhile, the Castle Connell Hotel at 63 Kensington Street, Chippendale, was a ghost pub for 30 years. It was built in the late 1800s to service the workers of the nearby Carlton and United Brewery (now Central Park). A 1936 rebuild gave it its distinctive art deco silhouette. But in the late 1980s, it ran into licencing issues, and it sat neglected and vacant for three decades. Following refurbishment, the building was leased in late 2022. And a more-than-100-year-old abandoned hat factory
on Randle Street, Surry Hills, made national headlines in May 2023 when it burnt to the

The old Eveleigh railway yards and workshops were built in the 1880s and closed a century later in 1988. Since the mid-90s, the site has been undergoing redevelopment, first with Australian Technology Park (now known as South Eveleigh) and then the arts and cultural precinct Carriageworks. There are now plans afoot to redevelop the North Eveleigh precinct into housing, offices and open spaces. But between these fits and spurts of development, the railway buildings at Eveleigh have been left empty and neglected, giving urban explorers and photographers a chance to explore and document the Victorian buildings.

The kilns and chimneys from the old brickworks at Sydney Park, Alexandria, also offer a glimpse into the Victorian era. Brickmaking was a major industry on the site for a hundred years, beginning in the 1870s. There are plans afoot to restore the kilns and chimneys, which date back to the 19th century, as part of plans to construct new raised lawns and plaza spaces.

Are there still buildings in the inner city and inner west ripe for urban exploration?

Discovering abandoned buildings and structures in the inner city and inner west is not always easy. Urban explorers guard the addresses of their favourite sites closely to keep them under the radar of authorities, developers and other explorers. And, naturally, abandoned buildings come and go. Here are a handful of currently abandoned buildings in our neighbourhood.

  • Newtown Tram Depot. The Federation-style depot was built in 1899 to service the new electric trams on the Glebe Point, Canterbury, Earlwood and Summer Hill lines. Opened in 1900 and closed 57 years later, the Newtown Tram Depot has sat empty and neglected for a long time. Heritage listed since 1999, there has been much talk about what to do with the Newtown tram sheds. Over the years, suggestions have included turning them into a Carriageworks-style art and performance venue or developing a food and drink destination, just like the Glebe Tram Depot was converted into Tramsheds. For now, though, the depot remains deserted.
  • The Rising Sun Service Station. This unique heritage-listed building at 426 King Street, Newtown, was built around 1930 to a Spanish Mission-style design by architect H.S. Standen. It was a service station with a flat upstairs. The servo and mechanics workshop changed hands several times over the years, while the flat was rented out, but the building has been empty for the past five or so years.

A little further afield, the Balmain Leagues Club in Rozelle has sat neglected for many years, but construction on a new retail and residential precinct is slated to begin in mid-2023. Meanwhile, the abandoned heritage-listed sandstone buildings of the former mental asylum at Callan Park, Rozelle, built in 1878, have been used as locations for television shows and movies.

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Photo credits: Everleigh Railway Workshops