|Slums are cleared the world over: it is but one weapon the powerful ruling classes wield against the poor and the ill-educated. It happened in Paris with the Haussman redesign in the 1880s; it happened in Sydney as a consequence of the Royal Commission of 1909-1911. Oxford Street was cleared and widened. William Street was cleared and widened. Broadway was cleared and widened. And each time, the working-class grafters were dispossessed. Frog Hollow was inhabited by colourful identities like Samuel 'Jewey' Freeman and Kate Leigh, by rampaging groups like 'The Riley Street Gang', 'Forty Thieves', and 'Big Seven'. But the "stinking labyrinth of narrow, dark and airless alleys and higgeldy-piggeldy, jammed together hovels" that constituted Frog Hollow, was razed by the City Council in the second half of the 1920s.|
However, the area was also home to citizens like James O'Hears. James ran a baker's shop on the corner of Riley Street and Albion Street, diagonally across from the escarpment that was Frog Hollow. He lived above the shop with his mother, Margaret, who died from a long and painful illness in 1871. He himself departed this world in 1891. Yet his name lives on. It is very Australian to give directions thusly: 'Find the stairs near O'Hears baker shop, and that is where I'll be. The stroke of midnight, mind, not a second later ... '
Try as I may, I have not found a construction date for O'Hear's Stairs - not even from its Heritage Listing. However, within that listing this was pertinent:
"The economic boom of the 1830s acted as the necessary catalyst for residential development in Surry Hills with the original allotments being initially subdivided into villa estates. It wasn’t until the gold rush boom of the 1850s (that) the Riley Estate finally become available, and along with the Fosterville Estate, provided a glut of land for housing the working class populations."So, unilaterally, I settle upon the year 1853, which I had read during my research but can no longer find. The Sands Directory has O'Hear with a bakery in Riley Street as early as 1861.
|A note on the two historic photographs. They were both sourced from the City of Sydney Image Library. The first one is dated 1928, the second is dated 1950. They both show O'Hears Stairs, although in the first one you require keen eyes: top left-hand quadrant. Even in the second photo, many of the slum houses are still standing.|