Grandeur and Grit: A History of Glebe

Max Solling

Halstead Press 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
A history of the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe, Grandeur and Grit integrates local detail into the broader sweep of urban social history. It will obviously appeal most to those familiar with the suburb, but it offers a good variety of material and anyone curious about the history of inner-city life in Australia should find plenty in it.

Solling begins with images of inner Sydney from the 1890s through the first half of the 20th century, drawn from the work of novelists: Louis Stone, Kylie Tennant and her imaginary "Foveaux", Ruth Park, Dorothy Hewett and, for a more recent perspective, Peter Corris and his private investigator Cliff Hardy. This is both a vivid introduction to working class life and a nice "reading guide".

Next comes an Aboriginal history of the Glebe area, from the Eora through to Tranby Aboriginal College, a brief survey of its geology and flora, and an account of its early history as land assigned to support the Church of England — hence the name "glebe".

Up to about 1840 the area was dominated by the mansions and estates of the well-to-do, seeking "a retreat out of town". But commercial and industrial development came early, starting along Blackwattle Creek, and working class settlement followed.

"J.H. Grose, unable to meet the demands of creditors, was declared insolvent. His 13 acre Glebe estate, called Bishopgate after a suburb of London, was subdivided into 154 narrow fronted building lots and offered for sale in 1841."

As Sydney's population grew and its centre moved to business use, what was then suburbia boomed. "In Glebe's development the most hectic period of all was from 1871 to 1891... [its] population reached 21,943 in 1911." This brought with it improvements in transport, with coaches and trams, and services such as gas and sanitation. Building Glebe involved "builders and developers, the financiers of their enterprises, house and land agents, surveyors, valuers, solicitors as well as landowners and landlords" — and booms and busts. Not much seems to have changed in real estate.

The longest chapter in Grandeur and Grit covers some of its key institutions: shops, schools, churches, pubs, and medical services. Small corner stores were also micro-credit operations, with most customers operating on credit or "tick"; the first large-scale business was Grace Brothers, which had humble beginnings as a drapery shop in 1885. The churches were heterogeneous, with divisions between and within denominations. Pubs had 6 o'clock closing imposed on them between 1916 and 1955. And for most, medical care was provided by friendly societies and charitable public hospitals.

Ever since the franchise was expanded, Glebe's local government has been run by Labor, but mostly by its conservative wing.

"The dominant Catholicism of Glebe pervaded its Labor Party branches for decades, and the politics of the ALP Right prevailed until the 1980s when left wing intellectual politics gained control of Blackwattle and Forest Lodge branches, though Glebe branch remained resolutely in the traditional mould"

Working class life was dominated by family, relatives and neighbourhoods. Using evidence presented to a 1913 Inquiry on the Cost of Living and the Living Wage, Solling looks at three familes and their budgets in detail.

"Every available space in a two bedroom brick terrace at 11 Mitchell Street, Glebe, was occupied by eight members of the Stanley family in 1913. Ted Stanley, a carter at the Riverstone Meat Works, handed his weekly pay packet of £2 to wife Margaret and hoped she could make do with it after paying the weekly rent of 11 shillings."

Pubs and churches offered competing approaches to popular recreation and entertainment, but were increasingly displaced by radio, cinema and other options. Sport also involved issues of class and politics, and sporting clubs and teams suffered with Glebe's demographic decline.

The First World War brought tensions with the conscription referendum in 1916, the unprecedented casualties, and the influx of returned servicemen. And the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression saw industrial unrest and the rise of the communist-led Unemployed Workers Movement.

A final chapter touches on the changes in Glebe in the last sixty years, driven by the post-war economic boom and then Sydney's integration into the global economy: the new mix of migrants; the creation of the Glebe Society, originally in opposition to freeways; the purchase and renovation as housing estate of the Bishopthorpe Estate by the Whitlam government; and steady gentrification and accompanying retail development.

In places Solling provides more detail about individuals or locations than some will want, though this is almost always used to illustrate broader trends or ideas.

"In Forest Lodge a cluster of shops meeting local needs appeared on the southern side of St Johns Road between Lodge and Ross Streets in 1880 — fruiterer, produce and fuel store, grocer and two butchers. In Ross Street between Arundel Street and St Johns Road there was a grocer's shop, draper and butcher. Just around the corner in Ross Street, near the tram terminus, there were shops on either side of the road by 1891 — a provision shop, tobacconist, painter, bootmaker, grocer, ham shop and confectioner."
And he uses statistics moderately, where most effective and never in indigestible tables.
"In the post-war years decline in recruitment to religious orders would soon be reflected in the Catholic schools, as the proportion of lay teachers in their schools rose from 25% in 1965 to 70% in 1975."

There's some attempt to link Glebe's history to underlying economic forces, but not in any simplistic fashion. Quotes from contemporary observers give a feel for everyday life, while biographic sketches bring to life some of the more idiosyncratic and influential individuals, from chaplain Richard Johnson through to Labor power-makers Bill Walsh and H.J. Foley.

The editing could have been tighter in a few places, but otherwise Grandeur and Grit is a fine production. It is a handsomely presented volume, well illustrated with black and white photographs and some old street plans.

March 2008

External links:
- buy from Gleebooks
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- books about Australia + Australian history
- more social history
%T Grandeur and Grit
%S A History of Glebe
%A Solling, Max
%I Halstead Press
%D 2007
%O hardcover, b&w photos, index
%G ISBN 192083138X
%P 293pp