Lewd women, grisly murders, sailors drinking themselves to death and typhoid. Sounds like your typical 19th century port.
Early Hobart’s Wapping district was known as a sewer-ridden slum, but was that really the case? Who else lived there and why did it disappear?
Former Hobartian Jane Orbell-Smith, who now lives in Brisbane, wanted to know more about the slum she’d heard about when growing up in the 1970s.
So she posed the question to the ABC’s Curious Hobart team: “What is the history of the Hobart area known as Wapping?”
“When I was growing up no-one lived there. It had a reputation of being a bad slum area with dreadful crime, poverty and disease,” she said.
Curious Hobart is amonthly ABC project which invites you to have a say in the stories we cover such as the history of Hobart’s trams and whether there are secret tunnels under the city.
Where was Wapping?
The settlement sprang up around Hobart’s early wharf at Hunter Street and endured until it was almost obliterated by industrial and commercial pressures of the mid-20th century.
While it saw many phases, the profile remained one of poverty and prostitutes, housing Hobart’s poorest of the poor.
The name originated from the Wapping area in London which had a similar profile. At one time, both were the site of executions.
It was bordered by Liverpool, Campbell and Macquarie Streets and on the eastern side, Park Street, now the Brooker Highway.
The streetscapes are gone or bear little resemblance to the former layout, except for the back alleys around the Theatre Royal.
Amongst the pubs and workers’ cottages, the Theatre Royal opened in 1837 and remains Australia’s oldest working theatre.
The original building had a tavern beneath the auditorium which hosted cockfights among the mayhem of drunken revelry and prostitutes plying their trade.
Who lived there?
The people of Wapping were working class employed by the nearby factories — jam, tanneries, ice, soap, gasworks and a slaughter house among them — which were established near the Hunter Street wharf.
Robyn Everist, who has been taking tourists around Wapping since 2010, points out that while the district was poor, local services met many of their needs; milliners, a butcher, a school and even a barrister.
Wapping had its own Ragged School, a Hobart version of the free education which charities ran in Victorian England.
“The organisation which set up the school wanted to differentiate between the schools being provided for the fine elite folk of society and those recipients of charity, to put you in your place to make sure you knew you were lower class. You were able to be educated, but your future serving higher classes was controlled,” Mrs Everist said.
She believes former convict Ikey Solomon is also likely to have been a Wapping resident.
It’s said Solomon was one of the characters from London’s Wapping on whom Charles Dicken based his Oliver Twist character, Fagin.
Solomon’s shady reputation as a trainer of pickpockets and receiver of stolen goods preceded his arrival in the 1820s in Hobart where he set up as a tobacconist and made a successful attempt to reunite with his wife.
Was it really a disease-ridden slum?
Mrs Everist and others say not at all.
“For it to be a slum it had to have non-permanent housing. This had permanent housing, this area had houses built of stone and brick and only a small portion of them were made of timber,” she said.
Michael Sprod, co-author of Down Wapping published in 1988, said disease was certainly evident because the rivulet was used upstream to dump household waste, and it regularly flooded.
“There was cholera and typhoid outbreaks in Hobart not just down there as a result of poor sanitation, particularly around the rivulet, right up until the mid-19th century until the council got its act together.”
Mrs Everist said Wapping got a bad rap because it was full of people who “liked a rowdy life, who drank far too much and weren’t part of fine society”.
“It got this bad reputation of being somewhere you don’t want to go, a slightly dangerous place to go.
“But the people who lived here saw it completely differently. They saw themselves as a nice close-knit community, able to help your neighbours and look after your own.”
But there is no escaping the seedy side and its reputation of being on-the-nose was accurate, given the nearby industries and the fact it was at the end of the Hobart rivulet — the city’s early sewer.
The reputation for crime and vice was not surprising given the proliferation of pubs and prostitutes; 15 on one corner alone recorded in one early statistic.
In the early days drinking holes for seafarers, British troops and the navy dotted the area, with 13 pubs in just a few blocks.
“There certainly were lot of pubs downs there but there were also a lot in the city — they were smaller .. neighbourhood bars like we are going back to now almost,” Mr Sprod said.
“Hobart was a very busy whaling port and seamen of that type came off the boats with lots of money and wanting a bit of entertainment and recreation.”
Was it as bad as people thought?
Much of the area’s early social history is garnered from newspaper reports recording crimes ranging from publicans taking out orders to stop wives from drinking to some truly grisly murders.
In one particularly nasty crime in the 1820s, John Leech brutally stabbed his wife to death with a stick. He left her with horrific injures but despite crying out for help for 30 minutes, no-one came to her aid.
Leech went to the gallows for his actions which he believed were fully justified because of her “unfeminine behaviour.”
There are also accounts of seamen drinking themselves to death.
“There was a high influx of sailors and whalers who would be living away for many months and then they get off their ships and some drank themselves to death,” she said.
Mr Sprod said the demographic was mixed and while prostitutes were heavily linked with the area, some of them came from outside Wapping.
“Although it was quite poor down there, they were poor but honest and, in fact, the district was probably really dominated by people who worked in the local industries,” he said.
“It was a mixture of both, clearly the waterfront area had a lot of colourful life but the Wapping district was quite closely packed with housing and plenty of people who were decent upstanding citizens.”
Mrs Everist said the residents protected their own.
“People who grew up here felt they were quite safe, you don’t pick on your own. You might mug an interloper, mug a whaler who has got lots of money because he wasn’t a local.”
Does anything of old Wapping remain?
Above ground, the Theatre Royal and a church used by the Mission to Seafarers in Campbell Street are the major structures remaining, as well as the gasworks’ chimney and remnants of brick walls.
Below ground, excavations for buildings such as the $90 million cultural perform arts centre, have revealed glimpses of former Wapping life.
Under the Menzies Centre on Liverpool Street, just on the outskirts, are examples of drains and cobble stones of yesteryear now encased in glass showcases.
None of the watering holes survive but the remnants of one — the Red Lion — still exist in the venue which was a favourite live music haunt of locals in the 1970s and 80s.
A fire place and part of an exterior wall remain from the pub which had four name changes and is now absorbed into a hotel apartment complex on Macquarie Street.
“It [Wapping] has been built over and been forgotten,” Ms Everist said.
“It’s really hard to remember an entire community once all of the buildings have been bulldozed.”
But despite this, she encourages visitors and residents alike to “get digging” and learn more about early Wapping.
“I’ve met people with older relatives who have memories of this area and that’s where we get these stories from people who say ‘no, it was a nice, tight-knit community’,” she said.
Gone but not forgotten
Mrs Everist said Wapping disappeared through neglect and lack of forethought.
The sanitation was not fixed until the people were moved out to make way for industry and transport needs.
“The council was required to take care of the unsanitary conditions and back in the late 1890s they had grand plans for reinvigorating, but it all came to nothing,” she said.
“It was much easier to condemn all of those little homes and move the people out to the suburbs and put in light industry.
“That’s when the council put in better sewerage and plumbing and redirected the rivulet underground and further back at Macquarie Point.
In the 1990s the Hobart City Council tried to reinvigorate the area with affordable apartment living.
The Sullivan’s Cove planning document stated:
The Wapping area should provide a high quality and stimulating residential environment and enjoyable, secure, safe and convenient routes for cars, pedestrians and cyclists.
The area should develop as a lively “people place” centred on Collins Street and sheltered or buffered on the high traffic edges.
But the new locals tend to disappear into the apartments which are worth upwards of $500,000, and a far cry from the original dwellings.
An attempt to reinstate the name was also part of the plan, but many Hobartians would struggle to tell you the location of the modern-day Wapping.
About our Curious Hobart questioner:
Jane Orbell-Smith grew up in Hobart and now lives in Redcliffe, Queensland.
“As a kid growing up in Hobart, whenever we passed through the Wapping area, my parents and grandparents would talk about old stories from Wapping and how tough life was for the people that lived there,” she said.
“With the development in the area, I thought it would be interesting to know more about it’s history.”
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Topics: history, community-and-society, arts-and-entertainment, human-interest, hobart-7000, north-hobart-7000, south-hobart-7004, west-hobart-7000, tas