The time before motor cars dominated our streets has only recently slipped beyond living memory. A look into archives at Stanton Library shows the first building applications for domestic garages starting to trickle into North Sydney Council as early as 1915. So novel were they that the terminology hadn’t yet been fixed.
In 1917, Dr Robertson of Angelo Street applied to build a ‘motor house’ for his vehicle. The number of garages increased considerably in the 1920s. New houses and apartment buildings started being designed with accommodation for cars.
Before motor vehicles ‘took over’, people walked or rode trams and trains. Quite a few peddled around too - bicycles were popular from the 1890s when inflatable tyres became widely available.
Of course, we still use these means of transport, what we no longer see on our streets are horses. The advent of the automobile really did signal the end of the era of horse-drawn transport in Sydney. Evidence of the big, gentle, quiet animals which once hauled goods to shops, delivered bread and milk to front doors and pulled the hansom cabs from the Milsons Point ferry terminal for those who could afford the fare can be found in Stanton’s photograph collection. The images also show the kit they required. Straw or hair filled harnesses centred the load on the horses’ shoulders and cushioned the strain. Bridles with blinkers or winkers were worn to minimise fright through sudden movement. Horses needed shoes, so blacksmith shops were commonplace along major roads. Farrier HG Kent was a presence of Lane Cove Road – now the Pacific Highway – from the 1880s.
In Stanton’s research files there are vivid accounts of North Sydney’s horses. ‘I lived in Ernest Street’ recalled one correspondent, ‘and can well remember a man on horseback riding along the kerbside and with a long pole… [to] light the gas lamp every night’. That was around 1911. In the 1920s, Ross Colley’s father still kept four horses to deliver groceries from Neutral Bay as far as Bradleys Head and Roseville: ‘Horse-drawn traffic was pretty constant on Military Road. I can remember brick carts going along it to build the big houses at Mosman’. As late as the 1950s, a young Jim Low was collecting the horse manure left by the baker’s horse for use on local garden beds – at his mother’s behest.
The replacement of animal by machine clearly didn’t occur overnight. The last vestiges of infrastructure from the age of the horse - water troughs installed as late as the 1940s - can still be seen in North Sydney. The one in Montpelier Street, was funded by the estate of Mosman animal-lovers George and Annis Bills. It is just one of hundreds in Australia paid for by a trust established after George’s death in 1927. Montpelier Street is steep. The trough there stands on the left-hand side, so as to quench the thirst going uphill.
North Sydney Council, Historical Services