Tag Archives: Newtown

Past/Lives Flashback #6: Regent Street Station – Chippendale, NSW

Original article: Mortuary Station/Regent Street Station – Chippendale, NSW

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When you’re a 144-year-old building custom built for a purpose long redundant, excitement comes in fits and starts. A renovation here, a graffiti attack there. Occasionally you’ll have a tour group come through, but with today’s concerns, even that’s a rare treat.

And so goes the continued existence of Regent Street’s Mortuary train station.

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Continually hogging the city’s rail refurbishment efforts (c’mon, Central needs some attention! It’s a dive), ‘Ol’ Morty’ sits where it’s always sat, a stranger to change and a fully functioning time warp. If you want to go and see it, it’s a safe bet to put it at the bottom of your ‘To Do’ list – this place will likely outlive you.

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So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the curious mural that stands beside the station facing east. I mentioned this last time, and it continues to baffle me.

Florence Mary Taylor arrived in Sydney in 1884. Her father worked for the sewerage division of the Department of Public Works, and she would assist him in his work. When he died in 1899, Florence studied architecture and became a draftsman, going on to co-found the Town Planning Association of NSW in 1913 and joining the Institute of Architects in 1920. As the mural itself says, she was Australia’s first female architect.

When her husband George Taylor died in 1928, Florence continued to edit and publish three of their eleven engineering journals. She died at Potts Point in 1969, leaving behind a legacy of achievements (including becoming the first Australian woman to fly in 1909) that did much to further the public acceptance of women in industry.

Which is all fine – but I’m still not sure what she has to do with the Mortuary Station, which was completed ten years before her birth. As I’ve mentioned, the Regent Street station and its receiving end were designed by colonial architect James Barnet.

Still, using the ever eye-catching station to highlight Taylor and her achievements isn’t a bad thing at all, even if her ideas are more ingrained in Sydney’s layout than seems obvious. Throughout her career, Taylor was an advocate of, among other things, a harbour tunnel crossing, a distributor freeway in the Eastern Suburbs, and somewhat less popularly, the demolition of Hyde Park Barracks. Maybe that’s why there’s no mural of her there.

British General Electric Company/Encore Sewing/Residential – Camperdown, NSW

Picture this: a suburban street full of small terrace houses…and then suddenly, this behemoth.

SMH, 26 Dec 1951

In the 1950s, it was home to British General Electric, manufacturer of consumer electronics that spent the war years making radios and lamps for the war effort. Through a series of mergers, British Electric found itself far removed from the consumer electronic market that it had built its reputation on, and it fell out of favour in the Australian market (along with all things British) in the early 1960s. At that time, Encore Sewing took the stage.

I can’t begin to explain the world of sewing and the fascination it held for so many throughout the 60s and 70s, but through another series of mergers, Encore was eventually engulfed by the Singer empire. As everyone knows, if you leave a heritage former industrial building unattended in Sydney’s Inner West, it’s gonna get occupied FAST. These days it’s residential, or ‘a creative space’ in the carefully chosen words of the building’s real estate agent. The biggest mystery is what the sign below Encore Sewing said. I look at these kinds of things all the time and even I’m stumped. If you know more, feel free to share.

Mortuary Station/Regent Street Station – Chippendale, NSW

Picture this: it’s 1869, and you’re dead. The funeral’s at Rookwood Cemetery at 10am, and you’re in Chippendale. It’s 9:30am. You have no money. What to do? How will you get there in time?

Mortuary Station, 1871. Image courtesy State Library NSW.

At the time of its construction, the Mortuary Station was adjacent to the original Central Station, then known as Sydney Station. Despite a misleading mural beside the station on the train track side attributing its design to Florence Mary Taylor, Australia’s first female engineer and architect born ten years after its completion, it was in fact designed by colonial architect James Barnet. Barnet also designed Mortuary’s sister station at Rookwood, but more on that next time.

The sombre design is perfectly suited to the task performed by the station, and the gothic detail is fantastic. Standing before it, you can only imagine how many mourners boarded trains bound for their loved ones’ final stop. Funeral trains would depart from Mortuary Station each day for either Rookwood, Woronora or Sandgate cemeteries. By 1927 the cost of a ride was around four shillings (roughly 40c); corpses traveled for free.

Mortuary Station, 1871. Image courtesy State Library NSW.

And didn’t the station live up to its name! Beneath the gloomy facade was an insatiable bloodlust:

Singleton Argus, 10 Mar 1925.

Barrier Miner, 13 May 1930.

Sometimes, trains didn’t even have to be involved in the carnage:

SMH, 24 Feb 1903.

Spooky. Gotta wonder if these guys ended up on one of the trains at the station. Speaking of spooky, it is alleged that the station is haunted. Further rumours suggest that a building across the road once operated as a mortuary itself, and that there exists a tunnel beneath the road connecting this building to the station. Evidence is pretty much non-existent, but if you know more, let Past/Lives know.

Mortuary Station, Newtown, 1965. Image courtesy sydneyarchives.info.

In 1875, at the height of Mortuary-mania, a junior version of the Mortuary Station was set up at Newtown to provide a starting point for mourners unable to reach the city. It was in keeping with the design of the original, but didn’t have the staying power. It was demolished in 1965.

Eventually, Sydney’s roads got to a standard that corpses could be taken to the cemeteries by car. If the roads then were anything like they are now, I’m presuming most of the deaths were caused by starvation or perhaps boredom from being stuck in traffic for so long. There became less and less of a need for funeral trains, despite complaints like these in 1925:

SMH, 3 Dec 1925.

Overcrowded trains aren’t just a modern problem. Anyway, in 1938 the Mortuary Station closed and the cemetery services departed from Central instead until they themselves ceased operation ten years later. Not long after its closure, the Mortuary Station was renamed Regent Street Station and used for dog trains, which took dogs to races in Wollongong and Gosford. I’d like to think corpses could still travel for free.

Since 1981 the station has been restored a number of times. In 1986, it became the site of a pancake restaurant: Magic Mortuary. Four train cars were stationed beside the platform, and hosted meals, live shows and a gift shop. Thankfully, this grotesque display only lasted three years. It’s currently undergoing further refurbishment since those graffiti scallywags are always tagging it, but an optimistic sign out the front expects refurbishment to be completed by the end of 2011! Hope so!

The Mortuary Station’s a strange, jarring sight along the changing face of Regent Street – across the road lie the remains of the Kent Brewery and the empty shells of the pubs that used to surround it. It’s heritage listed, but so was the Sharpie’s Golf House sign. Nothing lasts forever, and it’s only a matter of time until the station itself goes for that last ride.

Next stop, Rookwood

Update: One year later, let’s take a closer look at that mural…

Hobson’s Ltd/7-Eleven – Newtown, NSW

The Marcus Clark department store empire got its start in Newtown, with its first store setting up in Brown Street. This building, on the corner of King and Brown Streets, is not that store. Just as the Marcus Clark Railway Square store was pretentiously known as Bon Marche Ltd, this one was branded Hobson’s Ltd; a subsidiary of Marcus Clark which had a sister store in North Sydney. A world away from Slurpees, Hobson’s sold Pabco Rugs. Not familiar with Pabco Rugs? You must not be a housewife:

When company director Reginald Marcus Clark (Sir Reg) died in 1953, the brand entered a state of free fall. In 1966 the ailing store’s locations were bought out – and subsequently rebranded or shut down – by their bitter rival, retail heavyweight Waltons. It wouldn’t be long until Waltons got a taste of their own medicine…but don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

Prior to its time as Hobson’s, this address was home to F. W. Hartley Undertaker and Embalmer. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure embalming fluid and Slurpees have a lot in common.

James Castle & Sons Art Metal Workers/Gould’s Book Arcade – Newtown, NSW

Gould's Book Arcade, 2012

There’s not much that can be said about Gould’s Book Arcade that isn’t already well known. The labyrinth of old, dusty books has become a Sydney institution, and a perfect fit for the suburb of Newtown. In the building’s first life, however, it was James Castle & Sons Art Metal Workers, who apparently specialised in creating furniture and pulpits for churches and synagogues at the turn of the 20th century.

32 King Street, 1988. Image by Robert Parkinson.

Looking back nearly 25 years, the building seems to have hardly changed at all. Gould’s appears to have moved to its current location from Leichhardt in either 1988 or 1989, but prior to that it was located on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets in Sydney.

Gould's Book Arcade, George Street, circa 1983.