Darlinghurst Courthouse has been an icon of our neighbourhood since the very early days of the colony.
We explore its past and some of the notorious defendants who have appeared in its courtrooms.
Sydney Town needs a new courthouse
When a new incoming Governor, Richard Bourke, arrived in Sydney in 1831, constructing a new courthouse became his top priority. Trials and hearings in the town’s existing courts were crowded with heckling spectators. Bourke was uneasy about prisoners being marched between the current gaol on George Street and the courthouse on King Street. And so Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis drew up plans for the Darlinghurst Court House and Residence to be built next door to the new Darlinghurst Gaol, which was then under construction.
Work commenced on the classical Greek revival-style courthouse, the first purpose-built courthouse in New South Wales, in 1835. While the foundations were dug by convicts, in a first for public works at the time, most of the building work was carried out by private labour. While it was still under construction, the courthouse was used by the residents of South Head Road (today’s Oxford Street) as a church. It also hosted 300 to 400 people for Sydney Town’s St Patrick’s Ball in 1840. Court proceedings were held in the building from 1842, despite construction not being completed until 1844.
When it was finished, the monumental sandstone edifice of Darlinghurst Courthouse was an impressive symbol of the authority and power of the law. For the next 60 years, courthouses throughout the colony were modelled after it. Its location held significance, too. Its position directly facing Oxford Street and sitting atop a ridge overlooking the city added to its imposing presence. It became the defining landmark of Darlinghurst Hill.
Trials and tribulations
Darlinghurst Courthouse may not be the oldest courthouse in Australia (that title goes to Windsor Courthouse, which celebrated 200 years in 2022), but it certainly is one of the better known thanks to its iconic Oxford Street location at Taylor Square, opposite the Courthouse Hotel (established much later in 1890). And, it’s also well known for the trials that have taken place inside its sandstone walls.
From bushrangers to spies to cold-blooded killers, Darlinghurst Courthouse has been the setting for some of Australia’s most notorious criminal and civil trials. Bushranger Frank Gardiner was tried at Darlinghurst in 1864 for the hold-up of a stagecoach in country New South Wales that is thought to be one of the richest gold robberies in Australian history. He was sentenced to 32 years hard labour.
Underground tunnels were built between the courthouse and the gaol next door (now the National School of Art) for the ease of moving prisoners. It was through these tunnels that Louisa Collins was walked to court each day during her four murder trials in the 1880s. The mother-of-ten was found guilty, and in 1889, she became the first and last woman to be hanged in New South Wales.
In 1954, the courthouse hosted the Royal Commission into Espionage which delved into the controversial Petrov Affair, the fallout of which influenced the balance of political power in Australia for decades.
Darlinghurst Courthouse doesn’t only hear murder trials but they do tend to draw the headlines. On 16 March 1987, the so-called ‘trial of the century’ commenced in No 5 court at Darlinghurst when nurse Anita Cobby’s killers were brought to trial. The North Shore ‘granny killer’ John Wayne Glover was found guilty at Darlinghurst in 1991 of murdering six elderly women. In 2006, Darlinghurst Courthouse was the setting for the conviction of Bruce Burrell for the kidnap and murder of Sydney woman Kerry Whelan. Gordon Wood was found guilty of killing his girlfriend, model Caroline Byrne, following his trial in Darlinghurst’s Court 3 in 2008.
An ever-evolving building
Darlinghurst Courthouse has been altered, extended, and renovated countless times over the years, beginning with a roof reconstruction in 1850. A new wing was added in 1907 after Darlinghurst was chosen as one of the sites for the newly formed High Court of Australia. More alterations and additions followed throughout the 20th century, most recently in 1963, with an extension facing Victoria Street that houses offices and two courtrooms. Darlinghurst Courthouse is the only surviving Old Colonial Grecian public building complex in Australia, and in 1999 it was added to the State Heritage Register.
It remains an imposing building, complete with its grand sweeping driveway. Even the vast Moreton Bay Fig (thought to date back to the 1880s) and three Canary Island Date Palms in the courthouse’s grounds are heritage-listed.
The Supreme Court of New South Wales continues to sit at Darlinghurst Courthouse, hearing serious civil and criminal cases, including murder, treason and piracy, today.
If you’re thinking of buying or selling in Darlinghurst or Sydney’s east, get in touch today.
Photo credit: Wikipedia