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

Early Ultimo

A rural estate
Painted portrait of Surgeon John Harris.When land-holders John Macarthur and Surgeon John Harris (pictured at right; identified as Surgeon John Harris to distinguish him from other members of his family also called John Harris) settled on the peninsula in 1804–06, it was a beautiful location with sandstone cliffs, Moreton Bay fig trees, fresh water and bush. Although no account survives of Aboriginal occupation, their presence is evident in the middens that exist along the foreshore. In 1836, John Macarthur's son, Edward, began to subdivide the land and by 1891 Pyrmont and Ultimo had become the most densely populated areas in NSW.

Like many of his fellow officers, Surgeon John Harris (1754–1838) was granted land, first at Parramatta and, in 1803, 34 acres at what became Ultimo. On one side of Harris's grant was Glebe, belonging to the Anglican church, and on the other the brick pits.

The naming of Ultimo
In 1803, the New South Wales Corps (better known as the 'Rum Corps' because of their illicit trade in rum) was a powerful force in the colony. Surgeon Harris aided Governor King in trying to stop this trade.

Harris' fellow officers court martialled him twice on trumped up charges in attempts to discredit him. In the second case, the charge against him was badly drafted. The claim stated Harris committed the crime on '19th ultimo' (last month) when it should have been '19th instant' (this month). Harris was acquitted on this technicality.

Governor King rewarded Harris for his stand against the rum trade with an initial grant of 34 acres of land which Harris then named Ultimo as a snub to his accusers.

Ultimo House (1804–1933)
Reproduction of sketch of Ultimo House by J. Eyre, 1814, reproduced courtesy State Library of NSW.Surgeon John Harris' Ultimo House (pictured at right) was once regarded as one of the finest houses in the colony. After seeing an engraving, Governor Macquarie's wife remarked that 'it was in a much higher style than anything we expected to see in the new world'. After marrying in 1814, Harris engaged convict architect Francis Greenway to extend the house. This was Greenway's first colonial commission. Harris also cleared the bush and stocked deer to produce an imitation English park.

Photograph of Technological Museum building.
This Technological Museum building pictured in the foreground above
was an earlier incarnation of what is now known as the Powerhouse Museum
(officially part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences).
At far left behind the trees you can see part of the right front and roof of
Ultimo House, which was demolished in 1933.

Lizzie Henrietta Harris
Photograph of gown worn by Lizzie Harris at the ceremony to mark the laying of the Centennial Hall foundation stone in 1883.Lizzie Henrietta Harris (1847–85) was married to John Harris, who was mayor of Sydney from 1881–83 and 1888–89, and a descendant through a brother of Surgeon John Harris (who had no direct descendants).

Drawing of Mr and Mrs John Harris, the Mayor and Mayoress of Sydney, 'Town and country' journal, 3/9/1881. Reproduced courtesy State Library of NSW.Mrs Harris wore the gown at right at a ceremony to mark the laying of the Centennial Hall (now Sydney Town Hall) foundation stone in 1883. Mrs Harris held popular monthly receptions at the Centennial Hall during her husband's term in office.