Street History: King Street, Newtown

November 12th, 2021 - by Brad Gillespie

Newtown’s fabled King Street is nothing short of iconic.

From its beginnings as a bush track established long before colonial settlement, today King Street is famous for its melting pot of subcultures, eateries and boutiques. Its welcoming and inclusive bohemian vibe attracts students and artists, revellers and foodies, design aficionados and fashion lovers, and everyone in between.

How did King Street get its name?

Newtown is part of the land traditionally belonging to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and King Street is thought to have begun its life as a track formed by Aboriginal people as a trading route.

Before they became their own distinct suburbs, the areas surrounding the lower reaches of the Cooks River were known collectively as Bulanaming by Indigenous people, and the road we now know as King Street was Bulanaming Road. In the 1820s, the section of Bulanaming Road from Carillon Avenue in Newtown to May Street in St Peters was renamed King Street in honour of Governor Philip King, New South Wales’s third governor.

Confusingly, the road was commonly referred to as King Street, Cooks River Road and Newtown Road until the late 19th century, with the name Newtown Road still in use up to the 1920s. In 1907 the northern part was renamed City Road, and the southern reaches eventually became the start of the Princes Highway.

King Street’s beginnings

The colonists found the land around present-day Newtown less suitable for farming than that further west, and so local landowners built country villas, gardens and orchards instead. By the 1830s, when the quality of King Street was good enough that a one-horse carriage could travel as far as Cooks River, the country blocks began to be subdivided. The combination of the land subdivisions and the easily navigable road meant that development along the high street soon followed.

Two communities began to form on present-day King Street – a northern one at the junction of King Street and Missenden Road, known as O’Connell Town, and a southern one at King Street and Enmore Road. The area was gradually transforming from a country district to a suburb. The southern hamlet grew into a village – a ‘new town’ – and over the years, a string of buildings erected along the main road joined the two communities.

Newtown’s high street

King Street served as both the main road south out of Sydney and the local high street. By 1858 it was described by English economist WS Jevons as having “an important appearance similar to that of many villages in the neighbourhood of London. There are good shops, chapels, roadside residences. There is a post office, railway station and the terminus of a line of omnibuses.”

Newtown underwent rapid development in the late 19th century, with hundreds of Victorian terrace houses built. By 1892 Newtown was Sydney’s fourth most populous suburb. Tradesmen and shopkeepers made up around three-quarters of the working population, and King Street became one of the first suburban shopping destinations outside the city.

From riches to rags

Although Newtown had been described in 1912 as “one of the most wealthy suburbs around Sydney”, its prosperity waned, and for much of the 20th century, Newtown was a low-income, working-class suburb frequently decried as a slum. King Street was rundown and unloved, and at the time when Victorian-era buildings were being demolished across Sydney, Newtown was considered too unfashionable to warrant redevelopment.

King Street today

It’s precisely because it was overlooked by developers in the 20th century that King Street is now one of the best-preserved Victorian-era high streets in Sydney. The buildings that line the street are mostly late Victorian to early Federation, as well as some Art Deco examples, and thanks to development controls, these buildings are protected into the future.

Today the northern part of King Street, from City Road to Newtown train station, is a bustling thoroughfare packed with restaurants, pubs, and cafes, interspersed with chic fashion and homewares stores. The local landmark, the heritage-listed ‘I Have a Dream’ mural, painted in 1991, can be found adjacent to 307 King Street. The southern section, from Newtown station to St Peter's station, sometimes called ‘the Paris end’ of King Street, has been home to the New Theatre since 1973, as well as the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts and a selection of pubs and cafes.

King Street is known as one of Sydney’s most famous bohemian shopping destinations, well known for its proliferation of vintage clothing stores. It’s also a haven for book lovers and antique hunters. Shops like Better Read Than Dead, Elizabeth’s Bookshop, and the iconic Newtown institution Gould’s Book Arcade serve up great reads, while the likes of Towers Antiques and Collectibles, Vintage 585 and Envision54 house a trove of antique treasures.

Are you interested in buying or selling in King Street, or another of Newtown’s vibrant streets? Contact my team today.

Photo credit: Wikipedia