Colony by Colony: Nineteenth-century arcades of Sydney

Almost 30 years after the first shopping arcade was built in Melbourne, the first was constructed in Sydney. The 1881 Royal Arcade, which ran between George & Pitt Streets, was considered ‘one of the most tasteful features of [the] city’ by the Illustrated Sydney News (25 Nov 1882, 8)

Interior of the Sydney Arcade, Thomas Rowe, 1890. State Library of NSW.

This was followed quickly by the Sydney Arcade and later in the decade by the Victoria Arcade on Castlereagh Street. Despite the depression of the early 1890s, several more arcades were built in Sydney at this time, including one that has been completely forgotten. In discussions of these social spaces in Sydney most authors/historians discuss only five or six arcades, depending if they include the QVB or not (which I do, but more on that later). In fact there was a seventh.

Located on George Street, the Central Arcade was a rather small arcade with only a handful of shops, that first appears in city directories in 1890. It certainly received little fanfare, with almost nothing written about it in the newspapers of the time, apart from a few advertisements. Perhaps this is not surprising given that it lacked the grandeur and luxury shops of the other arcades located closer to the heart of the CBD. Rather it housed more practical shops such as a herbalist and a variety of tradesmen. The only reason I even identified it is because I caught site of it in the directory listings.

The seventh and final arcade constructed in Sydney was the large Queen Victoria Markets building, which took up an entire city block adjacent to the Town Hall. While some don’t count it in lists of Sydney Arcades, it certainly was one for all intents and purposes, despite its name. The Sydney City Council, shamed by the supposedly run down George Street markets in the vicinity of their new, grand Town Hall, desired a more fitting structure for their aspirations as a city. The brief for City Architect, Scottish-born George McRae, was to design a building in arcade form that would occupy this block, containing shops in it’s main spaces with a market hall in the basement. It is possible that McRae was inspired by the monolithic arcades of Europe that took up single blocks, such as Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the new Upper Trading Rows building in Moscow, which was built in 1893 and which bears a striking resemblance to McRae’s original design for the Sydney Markets.

This is just a brief introduction to the nineteenth-century shopping arcades of Sydney, much more about which will be written at a later date!

Sydney’s nineteenth-century shopping arcades:

1881 Royal Arcade, George & Pitt Streets – demolished

1882 Sydney Arcade, George & King Streets – demolished

1887 Victoria Arcade, Castlereagh & Elizabeth Streets – demolished

c1890 Central Arcade, George Street – demolished

1891 Imperial Arcade, George & Castlereagh Streets – demolished

1892 Strand Arcade, George Street & Pitt Streets – extant & operating continuously

1899 Queen Victoria Markets, George, Market, York & Druitt Streets – extant & operating

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