Review: Historical tours of The Rocks in Sydney bring colourful convict tales to life

Wherever you are in the city of Sydney, you don’t have to look very hard to catch a glimpse of the city's colonial past. It’s present in the foundations of buildings, street and place names, parks and gardens, and of course, preserved historic precincts like The Rocks. This private walking tour shares the story of the early colony with guests. Review: Barry Johnson

Historical tours of The Rocks in Sydney

Historical tours of The Rocks in Sydney

4 stars

Historical tours of The Rocks with Go Local Tours

These private historical tours of The Rocks precinct will bring colonial Sydney to life. This two-hour guided walk takes in many of the historic points of interest in and around The Rocks and inner city harbour-side area. Enjoy an included local beer at one of The Rocks’ atmospheric pubs. Duration: 2.5 hours (approx.)

When Arthur Phillip led a band of convicts to colonise Australia, a new genre of urban tales – taller than the masts of the tall ships of the First Fleet, was born.

Many of those stories are shared by Go Local Tours on their two-hour private historical tours of The Rocks precinct and surrounding areas of inner-city Sydney.

I meet my guide on the steps of Customs House at Circular Quay. Queen Victoria’s frosty stare, immortalised in a stone bust above the entrance archway, lightens as John begins his engaging commentary. Since he was ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ (colourful colloquialisms feature heavily on this tour), John has explored Sydney from top to bottom, and today he loves to share its secrets with visitors.

Australian and Aboriginal flags flutter overhead as John takes me back in time, with lively tales of 40,000-year-old Mungo Man; his recently rediscovered remains offering fascinating insights into ancient Indigenous spirituality.

Historical tours of The Rocks

Historical tours of The Rocks: Customs House. Image: Bigstock

As they stepped ashore in 1788, British convicts were mistaken by local Aboriginal groups as returning spirits. The new arrivals encroached further inland, until clashes drove the first inhabitants from The Rocks and they were replaced by the new colony.

Rum wars, farming disasters, rogues, heroes and Lady Chatterley’s Lover star in a rapid-fire history lesson, while we sip coffee and imagine horse-drawn carts trotting through streets lit by gas lamps.

Standing over the scale model of Sydney within the floor of Customs House, we straddle George Street, the grand boulevard that originally split the city, separating rich colonials and poor convicts. Two centuries later the East/West divide remains, with property prices continuing to skyrocket in the exclusive eastern suburbs.

Historical tours of The Rocks

Historical tours of The Rocks. Image: Barry Johnson

In their new home, many convicts built new lives, including Francis Greenway who was transported for forgery before becoming the colony’s official architect. After designing St James’ Church, he continued to tempt fate and died bankrupt, but nevertheless became the only forger in our history to be honoured on official currency.

We turn into cobblestoned Bulletin Place – named after Australia’s Bulletin magazine, which was first published in 1880. The lane almost seems to echo with the touts of the editor, selling copies from his soapbox.

Historical tours of The Rocks

Sydney’s colonial past exists side by side with modern city life. Image: Bigstock

The next stop on these historical tours of The Rocks is Harrington Street, where we see the spire of one of Sydney’s oldest Catholic places of worship – St Patrick’s Church. The church has stood here since the 1840s. Religious heritage and city revelry often mix in modern Sydney, and a former convent school adjoining St Patrick’s is now home to the Heritage Belgium Beer Cafe.

At the colonial archaeological site known as The Big Dig, a crude well held a clever convict’s secret (and illegal) alcohol stash.

Historical tours of The Rocks

Historical tours of The Rocks. Image: Barry Johnson

We emerge from a tunnel at Observatory Hill, where southern constellations enthralled our first astronomers. Today it’s the endless patterns of the Harbour Bridge’s crisscrossing girders that hold our gaze.

While the Red Coats no longer march through Millers Point, the Garrison Church still harks back to its military heritage, adorned with the emblems of the Commonwealth’s finest regiments.

No historical tour of The Rocks would be complete without a visit to the precinct’s oldest pubs, but beware of free drinks! Naive colonial travellers were given free rum at the Hero of Waterloo until they collapsed. Carried out via a secret tunnel, they often woke to find themselves on board a departed ship, with months of hard labour at sea to look forward to.

Historical tours of The Rocks

Historical tours of The Rocks. Image courtesy of Hero of Waterloo

Foundation Park teases visitors with a glimpse of the docks. Here, desperate wives once prayed for their husbands’ safe return from dangerous whaling expeditions. In the park, the claustrophobic convict homes still stand, and the low roofs give me a temporary hunch.

From here, we descend into the entertainment precinct of The Rocks, which has bustled since the first days of the colony. Stories of our colonial ancestors fuel animated chatter over an included local beer.

For a colourful introduction to the city’s early years, these historical tours of The Rocks are ‘grouse’!

Barry travelled as a guest of Go Local Tours.

Additional images: Bigstock


Barry Johnson

About the writer

Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechua, the language of the Incas.

Please leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>