22 Jul 2020

History and Heritage

Discover Darling Harbour’s history from the Traditional Custodians, the Gadigal people to the early settlers and a time of great industry.
History and Heritage


For more than 7,000 years Darling Harbour was a frontier; a boundary between the Wangal and Gadigal clans of the coastal Eora people who used the harbour for food and transport up the Parramatta River. The Eora people called Darling Harbour ‘Tumbalong’, meaning a place where seafood is found. The shores were littered with the remnants of oyster shells and other shellfish remains accumulated over thousands of years; and it is this that led the Europeans to call the area Cockle Bay.

Image: The earliest view of Cockle Bay drawn by John Eyre c1813. SLNSW

In 1788, the arrival of the First Fleet and the ailments such as smallpox, measles, colds and flu that came with it, were devastating to the local Aboriginal population. However the Eora people survived the arrival of Europeans and their diseases. Archaeological evidence has shown that they were still continuing a semi-traditional lifestyle on the peninsula at Millers Point until at least the 1840s. Today, the descendants of the first Indigenous clans to live in close contact with the Europeans still live in Sydney.

Image: Cockle Bay now Darling Harbour. Hand-coloured aquatint published in London in 1823, Major James Tayor c1819-20. SLNSW

Long Cove to Cockle Bay

In the early years of the colony, the only European visitors to the shores of Darling Harbour were the lime-burners and hungry convicts and settlers searching for mussels and other shellfish.

The first deputy surveyor-general of New South Wales, Charles Grimes, completed a Plan of Sydney in 1800 that accurately depicts the eastern shoreline. Poorly fired bricks and a lack of lime for mortar hampered early building in the colony. The massive middens of shellfish shells in Cockle Bay were the perfect source for lime. Darling Harbour was first named Long Cove but Cockle Bay was preferred until 1826 when Governor Ralph Darling enshrined his own name in Sydney’s history.

Maritime and industrial development

The history of the harbour has been embodied in the ships which used it, the shipyards and wharves along its shores and the myriad of factories and warehouses that grew up in the surrounding streets. The Market Street Wharf (where Sydney Aquarium now stands) was built in the 1820s and is the only remaining wharf from this era.

In the 19th century the harbour was a centre for change, and particularly for the introduction of Industrial Revolution technology. It was here that the first steam engine in Australia started work in 1815, the first iron-hulled ship was assembled and the colony’s first foundries belched smoke along its shores, as did the first steamship to be launched. Other important firsts were the Australian Gas Light Company’s gasworks, fired up on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1841, and, in the next decade, Zollner’s galvanising plant, an important innovation in a country that was to find more ways to use galvanised iron than any other.

For much of the nineteenth century, wheat, wool, coal and timber were the principal cargoes to pass across the wharves but from the 1870s wool became the prime commodity. In 1855 the railway line that ran from the old Central Station was built as part of the first line in New South Wales. A major railway goods yard was established on the Ultimo side of the harbour in the 1870s. In 1874, the world's first full iron wharf was built where Tumbalong Park now stands. The Iron Wharf was considered one of the great engineering feats of the time and was the largest steel structure in the world until the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

Image: The Sydney Markets were built in 1829, on the site of the Queen Victoria Building, they replaced Macquarie’s earlier markets. The first wharf was built in the 1820s to service these markets. Sydney Markets, Watercolour, John Rae, 1842. SLNSW

In 1861, the world's first freezing works were built by Thomas Mort after the process was developed by ED Nicolle. Thomas Mort's Fres

In the 1880s the first Hydraulic Pumping Station in New South Wales opened; remnants of it still stand as part of a hotel. Around the turn of the century the Ultimo Power Station supplied electricity for Sydney’s first electric trams and its neighbour in Pyrmont supplied power to Sydney households through the first reticulated grid. Food & Ice Company was established on the site of today's Chinese Garden of Friendship and the company shipped its first successful cargo of frozen meat to London in 1877.

Image: The Iron Wharf 1874. Illustrated Sydney News 30 Jan 1874.

By the 1890s there was a shift from small-scale industry to warehousing and woolstores and by 1900, dozens of wharves had been built at Darling Harbour. The rail yards continued to grow and by 1891 they were handling most of Australia’s export produce. In 1900, the NSW Government resumed Darling Harbour. The area continued to thrive as coastal steamers plied their trade along Australia's coast and across the Pacific.

Pyrmont Bridge opened in 1902, replacing a smaller bridge built in 1857, to maintain the link between the CBD, Pyrmont and Glebe. The swingspan bridge is powered by electricity, originally supplied from the nearby Ultimo Powerhouse (now the Powerhouse Museum), and remains the oldest electrically powered swingspan bridge still operating in the world.

The First World War stimulated growth but also led to the General Strike in 1917. The Great Depression of the 1930s affected Darling Harbour in much the same way as it affected ageing industrial centres around the world. It hit the casual labourers on the wharves particularly hard and the streets where they queued for the chance of a few hours of backbreaking work became known as the Hungry Mile. 

Image: Ulitmo Power Stations c1850s. COSA

The Second World War stimulated trade and industry but by the time it ended the coastal shopping trade had disappeared and many industries around the harbour were decaying. This process continued after the war and, although the rail yards continued their growth for a few years, in 1984 the last goods train steamed out of the yards and the industrial history of Darling Harbour all but ended.

Image: Troops departing in 1941 for North Africa. AWM.

The rebirth of Darling Harbour, 1980s onwards

In 1984 the premier of NSW, Neville Wran, announced the Government's decision to redevelop Darling Harbour and "return it to the people of Sydney" in time for Australia’s 1988 bicentennial celebrations.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II formally opened Darling Harbour on 4 May 1988. Sydney Aquarium was the first attraction to open and was soon followed by a host of museums, shops, restaurants, hotels and bars, as the precinct became a different kind of heartbeat for Sydney.

In 1998, as Darling Harbour celebrated its 10th birthday, Cockle Bay Wharf was constructed. The following year massive works were undertaken in preparation for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

In 2000, Darling Harbour hosted five sports during the Olympic Games and construction of King Street Wharf was completed.

In 2009, Darling Harbour celebrated its 21st anniversary with a year of activities including a multicultural birthday festival and the publication of a commemorative book, A History of Sydney's Darling Harbour. 

Image: Aerial view- 26 June 1983. COSA.