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For Sydneysiders, ever wondered about the old Australian Workers' Union building in Castlereagh Street?

Seen at 238 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

By Lara Horstead on 26 November, 2010
The Australian Workers Union building, 238 Castlereagh St, Sydney

The Australian Workers Union building, 238 Castlereagh St, Sydney

I know I’m not the first to do so, but I had a moment to take my eyes off the pavement when walking up Castlereagh Street in Sydney recently. A dilapidated façade caught my attention, with the words “The Australian Workers Union” still clearly blazoned across the top. The windows are blocked by dark reflective surfaces. It seemed that this place must surely have a story, that it should be possible to pierce its opacity, and so I resolved to find out its secrets.

Where else to turn but to the internet to do so…

It turns out that 238-240 Castlereagh Street was built in 1878 for the NSW Protestant Hall Company Ltd. According to the Australian Heritage Database, it is listed on the Register of the National Estate as “(a)n excellent example of a late Victorian commercial building of four storeys, having an elaborately detailed stuccoed facade with pilasters Italianate hood mouldings and string coursing” (although the fourth storey was only added in 1928) and is “(p)art of a coherent and compact group of late Victorian and early twentieth century buildings which form an important Victorian streetscape in Castlereagh Street”.

It requires some imagination to picture it in its full glory today. From across the street where I stood to look at it – not wanting to block the recently-used fire station driveway behind me – the detail is far from clear and its glassy neighbour that was in my line of sight would have been anathema to the nineteenth century.

Failing to find much evidence of its life from the architectural detail, I tried again, only to find that someone had indeed not only walked the street before me and been struck by it but that marcellous, author of the blog, Stumbling on Melons, had also been tempted to find out more about the building, including the various development applications which may or may not be current in relation to it. In November 2008, The Kytherian, the Newsletter of the Kytherian Association of Australia, mentioned the building in the context of its purchase by the Hellenic Club in 1979, since which time it has been disused, a shameful eyesore that had to be hidden by a painted hoarding at street level during the 2000 Olympics. At the time of the newsletter, there has been some structural stabilisation work and a development application lodged for alterations allowing for ground floor retail premises (which may or may not still be on foot). Given that investigation and speculation as to its future was well in hand, I decided to look for more traces of its past.

Could the life of this building pre-1979 really be so impenetrable as the coverings of its windows seemed to be? Where were the stories of the workers? Digging a little further, thanks to the marvel of Google Books’ rendition of Literary Sydney: a walking guide by Jill Dimond and Peter Kirkpatrick, I discovered that the building became the headquarters of the Australian Workers Union (now “Australia’s oldest and largest blue collar trade union”) as late as June 1938, when the building was already sixty years old. The Australian Worker - the oldest continuously produced Labor newspaper in the world – was published here. Can you hear the talk of the workers, the organisers, the journos and the editor’s red pencil, the urgent tones of industrious voices through politics and wars, hot and cold? *

According to Dimond and Kirkpatrick, the site was political even before the AWU acquired it in the late 1930s. William McNamara ran a radical bookshop at number 238 in 1893 until he was forced to move the following year to number 221 (across the street beside the first station) due to police harassment. (He was stepfather to Henry Lawson’s future wife Bertha, and her sister, the future wife of Jack Lang, subsequently the NSW Premier.) At the time, 238-240 Castlereagh St was known as the Protestant Hall and was run by the Loyal Orange Institute.

I did stumble across a vignette in Dimond and Kirkpatrick’s book that required little imagination to bring it to life, which you may want to call to mind the next time you are walking up Castlereagh Street. In September 1895, Mark Twain gave four lectures here, referred to as “At Homes”. Contemporary newspaper reports indicate the 2000-capacity auditorium was overflowing with people enthusiastic to hear his unique delivery, including the recount of Huck Finn helping Jim out of slavery. Picture the moustache, imagine the accent!

You might even reflect that there is a common impulse of mutual care in Twain’s anti-slavery fiction and the solidarity of the union movement. That it isn’t just a piece of architecture that you see when you look at 238 Castlereagh St, but a place of human energy and purpose.

Next time I walk that way down the street, it won’t be by accident that I look in its direction. I’ll be watching for signs of new life. Of old spirit. Of humanity.


* If you are interested in a more concrete history of the AWU, which may or may not have more to tell about the AWU building, I’ve come across reference to One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union, by Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Also, Places, Protests and Memorabilia: The Labour Heritage Register of New South Wales by Terry Irving and Lucy Taska may be of interest.

Photo by Lara Horstead.

Thanks to reader Rapskallion for the tip, the piece was first published here.