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


The golden brilliance of the sun

Photographs of three examples of sandstone found around Ultimo and Pyrmont.
Three examples of sandstone found around Ultimo and Pyrmont.

The Saunders family quarry business began its operation in Pyrmont at an opportune time. The gold rushes of the 1850s sparked a building boom, and Pyrmont was the source of some of the best building stone available. The need to transport sandstone from the quarries led, by 1850, to the building of Pyrmont Bridge and the Darling Harbour railway lines. The peninsula was already home to companies such as City Iron, Fifes Ironworks and the Darling Harbour flour mill.

Photograph of Robert Saunders.Quarrying of Pyrmont's sandstone began in 1853 when Charles Saunders leased land on the north-west side of the peninsula and began digging out what would become some of Sydney's finest sandstone. When Charles's son, Robert (pictured at right in Australian men of mark, 1788-1888, vol. 2), took over in 1880 the quarrying was extended further with the introduction of steam drilling.

Watercolour of a Pyrmont quarry by A. Tischbauer; reproduced courtesy State Library of NSW.
This watercolour of a Pyrmont quarry by A. Tischbauer, depicts steam
cranes in the Saunders quarries on the north-western side of Pyrmont.
Reproduced courtesy State Library of NSW.

Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole were the three main Saunders quarry sites, each of which produced stone with distinctive qualities. They were said to have been nicknamed by Scottish workmen.

Hellhole was located north-east of Wentworth Park on Wattle Street and was so-named because of its depth and the fact that it filled to the brim with every heavy downpour. Purgatory was to the north, producing a very hard stone with a grey streak which could crack. Paradise, less than a kilometre north of Hellhole, produced the best stone, yellow block.

Sydney's buildings
Photograph of 'Sun faun', 1935, by Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), made from Pyrmont sandstone. LEnt by Collection Art Gallery of NSW; gift of J. R. McGregor, 1938.
Many older Sydney buildings are constructed from Pyrmont yellow block sandstone. The NSW Department of Commerce uses stone dug from the foundations of new Pyrmont developments to repair these buildings. Sydney Town Hall, the University of Sydney, St Mary's and St Andrew's cathedrals, the GPO, the Great Synagogue, the Art Gallery of NSW and Customs House are all made from yellow block sandstone.

Robert Saunders Esquire is quoted in Australian men of mark, 1788-1888, vol. 2: 'Strangers visiting Sydney are often struck by the magnificence of our public buildings, the richness of their ornamentation and the mellow tone of their colouring.'

Stonemasons were the first tradesmen to win the right to an eight-hour day in 1858. They dressed formally, wearing white linen aprons, with the head mason wearing a waistcoat. The tools displayed below right are owned by Sydney master stonemason Alf Pires, and although over 100 years old are still used today.

Photograph of a showcase in the exhibition displayling stone work and tools of Sydney stonemasons.
One of the showcases in the exhibition displaying stone work and tools of
Sydney stonemasons. Above right is a model of a steam crane,
similar to those which would have been used in Saunders' quarries.
The stone work from left to right is: gargoyle, from the old Supreme Court, 1880;
date stone, Sydney Technical College, 1893; and finial, St Andrews Cathedral, 1880.