Extending into the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour, Woolloomooloo’s Finger Wharf is a vibrant drawcard for foodies, tourists and locals.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Before the Finger Wharf: trading, disease, chaos
Sydney was a busy place in the 19th century. A booming colony saw the state’s population swell from 288,000 in 1856 to over 1,300,000 by the end of the century (though it’s worth noting that back then, only people of British descent were counted).
Such growth brought with it a greater demand for goods. At the same time, the country’s wool industry was in full swing, with exports constantly heading to the UK from Circular Quay’s wool stores.
Sydney’s wharves – privately owned and chaotically built – were heaving with activity and life. And disease: in 1900 they seeded an outbreak of bubonic plague.
In response to these pressures, the Sydney Harbour Trust was formed to take responsibility for the wharves.
The world’s largest wooden wharf
As part of its work, the Trust constructed a new wharf at Woolloomooloo. Completed in 1915, the new 400-metre “finger wharf” was reportedly the largest wooden wharf in the world. Its size still impresses today.
The wharf was a vital part of Sydney life into the 1920s and 1930s, relied on by the wool industry and other exporters and importers to service a growing economy. But eventually, its role as a cargo wharf declined. Unlike other Sydney wharves, it had no connecting train line for easy transport of goods. This, along with improvements in freight-handling technology that the wharf lacked, meant its days as a freight hub were numbered.
But as the century progressed the wharf was used in other ways. It was one of the only Sydney wharves big enough to accommodate the large World War II troop ships, so it became the sight of many a tearful wartime farewell.
Postwar migrants also arrived here, getting their first glimpse of their new homeland from the Finger Wharf. And in the 1950 and 1960s it was one of Sydney’s main passenger wharves as cruise holidays took off.
Saving the wharf
By the 1980s Finger Wharf was disused and in disrepair. Although its significance was highlighted in a heritage report, the government suggested it be demolished.
After a protracted debate about the wharf’s future, the government finally announced its demolition in November 1990. It wasn’t just the government who wanted it gone: in a period of just seven months up to October 1991, the wharf survived four arson attacks.
But many others wanted it saved, citing its importance as a reminder of the area’s cultural, social and working-class history. A concerted effort by the Building Workers Industrial Union, Friends of the Finger Wharf, the Royal Institute of Architects and the National Trust saw a “green ban” placed on the building and demolition halted.
In 1996, a redevelopment plan for the wharf was eventually given the green light.
Today’s Finger Wharf
Once bustling with wharfies, wool traders and soldiers, the Finger Wharf is alive once again. But it would be unrecognisable to those who worked here, arrived here or departed for war from the wharf.
After a $300 million development that was completed in 1999, the wharf now houses over 300 waterside, loft-style apartments that hark back to its industrial past, and a private marina.
And with world-renowned views, outdoor seating and delectable menus, the wharf’s many bars and restaurants cater to all tastes. Some of the places to choose from include OTTO, Kinglseys, Manta, China Doll, Water Bar and Il Pontile.
Finger Wharf is also home to the highly regarded Ovolo Woolloomooloo, a 100-room luxury boutique hotel (before Ovolo took over it was W Hotel then Blue Hotel). Quite a change from the wharf’s humble beginnings.
But you don’t need to spend big to enjoy the Finger Wharf – grab a pie from Harry’s Cafe De Wheels across the road, take a slow walk down the wharf for a spot of people watching or simply enjoy the view. It’s free for all to enjoy and a reminder of our rich maritime history.
Want to know more about Woolloomooloo? Call my team today.