Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole: a history of Pyrmont and Ultimo

Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole graphic of area - detail

Exhibition: 19 March 2005 to 16 October 2006
This exhibition looks at the transformation of a place abundant in fresh water, game, oysters and fish valued by its Aboriginal inhabitants to the crowded, highly industrialised and distinctive suburbs of Pyrmont and Ultimo.

Close to the city and surrounded by deep harbours, the peninsula became a centre for major industry, manufacturing and shipping.

The sandstone quarries Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole (named by the Scottish quarrymen who worked there in the 1850s and relating to the degree of difficulty in working the stone and its quality) shaped the early landscape of the peninsula and played a major role in its changing history.

By 1900, the area was providing Sydney with power for its lights and trams and was a major centre for the distribution of Australian wool, flour, milk, sugar and other foodstuffs.

Pyrmont and Ultimo were also home to a bustling working-class community; some of their stories of hard work, personal tragedy and triumph are told here.

Aquatint, 'Panorama of Port Jackson....' by Major James Taylor, 1824.
Aquatint, Panorama of Port Jackson and of the town of Sydney taken from a hill near the Parramatta River, painted by Major James Taylor, engraved by Rittner et Goulpil, Sydney/Paris, 1824.

Detail of aquatint, 'Panorama of Port Jackson....' by Major James Taylor, 1824.
This detail from the aquatint shows the white military windmill (upper left),
to the right of which is Cockle Bay, later called Darling Harbour.
The land beyond is the Ultimo Estate owned by the surgeon John Harris.

The Powerhouse Museum has been - by different names, such as the Technological Museum - part of the neighbourhood for more than 100 years; first, as pictured below in Harris Street (named after Surgeon John Harris - see Early Ultimo), next to the Technical College. Since 1988 the Powerhouse Museum's home has been in the former Ultimo power station, a couple of hundred metres from the site below and on the other side of the road.

Photograph of the Technical Museum in Harris Street, Ultimo.
The Technological Museum in Harris Street, Ultimo.

Over the last hundred years much has changed. Apartment blocks have replaced industry, and terraces have been demolished to make way for shops and offices. A walk along Harris Street is a walk through history: tiny 19th-century terrace houses, corner stores, pubs and the massive wool stores of the prosperous 1880s co-exist with more recent arrivals such as the University of Technology and the ABC.

Photograph of two rows or terrace houses in Ultimo in 2004.
Terrace houses in Ultimo in 2004.