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Last Updated: 13 March, 2014
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The Finger Wharf History
From The Finger Wharf the Australian Imperial Force set sail for Egypt and Gallipoli.
To the Finger Wharf the survivors of Changi returned.

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On Sydney's Waterfront the hope and toil of woolshed and paddock, the enterprise and ambition of rich and poor, the architect's vision and the engineer's skill, the tracks and roads and rails of a fledgling nation all converged. And here they met the ships.

Here, hardship rubbed shoulders with prosperity and together they created this giant among the world's wooden buildings, this 'cathedral of commerce' - The Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf.

The Finger Wharf combined local building traditions and materials with the most advanced technologies of it's day, in an ingenious response to the three great challenges of commercial shipping; friction, gravity and time.

The Sydney Harbour Trust built the Finger Wharf between 1911 and 1915. H.D Walsh the Trust's Engineer-In-Chief designed this masterpiece of industrial architecture.

Arrivals and Departures

This place knows of longing looks between the ship and shore. It feels the joy of sweethearts reunited, the pangs of separation, the thrill of new beginnings, the finality of ends.

It was from here that the ANZACs sailed for Gallipoli and a generation later, the survivors of Changi returned.

Here, on luxury liners, giddy socialites and globetrotting millionaires sparkled and caroused.

Settlers from a war-torn world brought their skills, their cultures, and their children and stepped ashore into new lives, here.
'…there were a few tearful scenes, but they got us away well…..we could still see the people waving as we disappeared around the Heads…..there was many a chap on the boat who they would never see again….' Corporal A. Barwick, 1914.

Gateway to Trade

Ships began loading and discharging their cargoes at the Finger Wharf in 1912, while it was still being built. From this great building, the raw materials and products of a nation newly born flowed out into the markets of the world.

The World's wealth in return poured through the Finger Wharf, breathing the life of trade and commerce into the young country.

For the next 70 years, Woolloomooloo was a hive of commercial shipping activity.

The Wharf Community

It was a pretty tough neighbourhood, the Woolloomooloo waterfront. To families here, the Finger Wharf brought a life of mixed blessings; employment and strife, celebration and hard won respect.

Building the Finger Wharf meant steady work for tradesmen and labourers, from 1911 to 1915. Today this magnificent example of Federation architecture is their legacy to Sydney.

The men who shifted the cargoes, on and off the ships, on and off the carts and trucks, up and down the Finger Wharf, were the men of Woolloomooloo.
Often it was the women's work that saw families through hard times.

Visiting officers hobnobbed at Government House, while visiting crews did their dancing in Woolloomooloo.

When the Wharf itself was threatened with demolition, community protest kept it standing. The parties interested in pulling it down found that this was still a pretty tough neighbourhood.

The Working Wharf

The Woolloomooloo Wharf was a bustling workplace for most of the 20th century.

For the Wharfies who loaded and unloaded cargoes here, working conditions were often harsh, dirty and dangerous. Most labour was casual- a job today did not necessarily mean a job tomorrow. Daily work was handed out at the Wharf gates by the 'bull system' which favoured the biggest men and those least likely to complain. Physical deformities, broken bones, torn muscles and diseased lungs were common among workers on the wharves.

The waterside workers federation fought to improve wharf labourers' conditions. Opposition from employers and government was often violent. Scarce work during the great depression of the 1930's also weakened the unions' stand.

…"It was heartbreak time for a foreman with the least touch of humanity in him. He would stand at the wharf gate to pick perhaps forty men at the most, from a crowd of between three or four hundred hungry, desperate men. From his elevation he looked down into a sea of imploring eyes and the keen disappointment of those turned away was painful to witness" … Captain J. Gaby

Plentiful employment during and after the second World War strengthened the Waterside Workers Federation. The 'bull system' ended and conditions slowly improved. By the mid 1950's, Wharfies had won attendance pay, sick leave, annual leave, and first aid equipment, medical care, washrooms and sanitary eating places on the job.

During the 1970's, new container ports, cruise liner facilities and airports in other places around the city gradually replaced the Wharf's functions. The work and the workers moved with them. For nearly a decade, this enormous building lay derelict and decaying.

In 1987, the state government decided to demolish the Woolloomooloo Wharf.

Saving the Wharf

After more than 70 years at the heart of Sydney's cargo and passenger handling industry, the Woolloomooloo Wharf had become a local landmark - symbol of the community's struggle for both economic development and social justice.

The state government's 1987 decision to replace the Wharf with a new marina caused a storm of community protest. The national trust and The Royal Australian Institute of Architects opposed the demolition of this significant building. The local member of parliament was outspoken in her criticism of the proposal.

Powerful property developers and politicians still pushed for the Wharf to be torn down. One of their supporters called it "the great grey dunny" and favoured "blowing it to bits". The minister assisting the premier condemned it as an "eyesore".

For the next three years, the government, the heritage council, the conservationists and the developers wrangled over the future of the Wharf.

In November 1990, the Building Workers Industrial Union placed an interim ban on demolition of the Wharf. Supporters of the Wharf formed the 'Friends of the Finger Wharf Inc'. This group supported the Union's Green Ban on demolition, promoted environmentally sensitive retention of the Wharf and encouraged public debate.

Some one hundred and twenty placard waving protestors converged on the Wharf in January 1991 to demonstrate against its demolition. The Green Ban remained in place. The government prevented from demolishing the Wharf, was not prepared to conserve it. The minister said..."it will just sit there and nothing will happen. We will let it lie. The Wharf won't be fixed"

After another year of public meetings, protests, debate and yet another development proposal, the government relented and called for redevelopment proposals that would conserve the Woolloomooloo Wharf. Conservation planning began in 1992.

In may 1993, the BWIU lifted its green ban and work on the wharf could begin.

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