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Two women in Kings Cross

Two women outside Minerva French Perfumery, Kings Cross July 1941, Roberts, Russell. State Library NSW

What was life like for women living in Sydney during the early 20th century? Dictionary of Sydney contributor Delia Falconer paints a colourful picture of bohemian enclaves and the freedom of the city. I spoke to Mitch Byatt about it this morning on 2SER Breakfast.

From the 1920s, there was a boom in apartment living around Sydney Harbour. Many of the Art Deco apartment buildings you see today in areas such as Potts Point, used to be Italianate mansions which were then subdivided to accommodate the demand for inner city apartment living.

But this lifestyle not only changed the face of Sydney’s streets, it also transformed it into an irresistible social and cultural hub for single women. It offered greater freedoms to women who opted to live closer to their place of work and at the same time, it did not have the rigid structure and rules that constrained women living in suburban Sydney. These apartment buildings offered a picturesque haven away from the watchful eyes of family and suburban neighbours. In Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson, the heroine describes the ‘flowers, cats, water, sky, seagulls, ships’ as she looks out the window of her Elizabeth Bay apartment.

This inner city living also brought the availability of specialty stores such as Delicatessens and restaurants, where you could leave a plate before work and pick it up at the day’s end for a ready made meal. Before the introduction of the six o’clock closing for public bars hit Sydney in 1927, working class women would congregate in the women only lounges of these bars. A refuge away from the rougher side of Sydney’s nightlife were institutions such as the Country Women’s Association hostel in Kings Cross and the Women’s Club in Elizabeth Street, which offered accommodation for women and still exist today.

Woman leaping for the ferry

Woman leaping for the ferry caught by deckhand, Sydney Harbour 1940, Pix magazine. State Library NSW

For many women, the city represented a form of escapism from the humdrum and restrictive life in the suburbs. The city had crowds, street theatre and diversity at every corner. World War II offered women the chance to participate in the life of the city, with increased employment opportunities and social interaction, with servicemen from around the world arriving in droves. Many alarmist novels of the day responded to this new social dynamic, with one bestseller titled Come in Spinner which tells the tale of a young woman who is abducted and raped in a brothel.

Yet despite these tragic depictions, most women writers have spoken of the harbour and living on its fringes as an idyllic and promising experience. Women have also been particularly active in the preservation of the city, with one example being the publisher and activist Juanita Nielsen who campaigned against the redevelopment of Victoria Street in Potts Point, and then mysteriously disappeared in Kings Cross in 1975. Ruth Park summed up the distressing trend of Sydney’s redevelopment during the 1960s. As old buildings were torn down around her, she wrote: ‘Oh, my poor old girl!’ I used to cry…stepping aside to avoid trucks laden with enormous ironbark beams, black with age and pocked with axe marks.’

Listen to my Dictionary of Sydney segment at 2SER radio and have a read of the article at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.