O'Hears Stairs and Handrail | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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O'Hears Stairs and Handrail

Item details

Name of item: O'Hears Stairs and Handrail
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Parks, Gardens and Trees
Category: Stone wall
Primary address: Riley Street, Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Local govt. area: Sydney
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Riley StreetSurry HillsSydney  Primary Address
Albion StreetSurry HillsSydneyAlexandriaCumberlandAlternate Address
303-307 Riley StreetSurry HillsSydneyAlexandriaCumberlandAlternate Address

Statement of significance:

Of aesthetic significance as a typical example of a Victorian era sandstone pedestrian access stairway found in many of Sydney's nineteenth century inner city housing areas, O'Hears Stairs links Little Riley Street with Albion Street and forms a sympathetic extension of the retaining wall surrounding the adjacent park. Of historical and associational significance as the main stairway which provided access through the notorious Frog Hollow housing until the housing was demolished in the 1920s, and which provides rare evidence of a 1920s slum clearance program.
Date significance updated: 07 Mar 07
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Physical description: Constructed from sandstone with iron handrails the stairs form a sympathetic extension of the retaining walls surrounding the adjacent park.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Good Condition - restored in 2005.
Date condition updated:22 Feb 07
Further information: Heritage Inventory sheets are often not comprehensive, and should be regarded as a general guide only. Inventory sheets are based on information available, and often do not include the social history of sites and buildings. Inventory sheets are constantly updated by the City as further information becomes available. An inventory sheet with little information may simply indicate that there has been no building work done to the item recently: it does not mean that items are not significant. Further research is always recommended as part of preparation of development proposals for heritage items, and is necessary in preparation of Heritage Impact Assessments and Conservation Management Plans, so that the significance of heritage items can be fully assessed prior to submitting development applications.
Current use: Pedestrian stairs
Former use: Pedestrian stairs


Historical notes: The "Eora people" was the name given to the coastal Aborigines around Sydney. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as "Eora Country". Within the City of Sydney local government area, the traditional owners are the Cadigal and Wangal bands of the Eora. There is no written record of the name of the language spoken and currently there are debates as whether the coastal peoples spoke a separate language "Eora" or whether this was actually a dialect of the Dharug language. Remnant bushland in places like Blackwattle Bay retain elements of traditional plant, bird and animal life, including fish and rock oysters.

With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Cadigal and Wangal people were decimated but there are descendants still living in Sydney today.

The stairs stand on land that was part of the original grant to the first Surry Hills landowner, Captain Joseph Foveaux, who was assigned 105 acres in 1793 and later increased his holdings to encompass most of Surry Hills. By 1800 the farmer and grazier, John Palmer, had acquired more than 200 acres of Surry Hills and become Commissary General. Although by 1814 Palmer had fallen into financial trouble and lost his position in the colony, resulting in his estate being divided by surveyor James Meehan and sold at public auction.

Edward Riley attempted to reassemble the Palmer Estate during the 1820s, although after his suicide in 1825 the holdings were once again subdivided according to Meehan’s original plan and sold to the public. The economic boom of the 1830s acted as the necessary catalyst for residential development in Surry Hills with the original allotments being initially subdivided into villa estates.

With much of the Riley Estate still locked up in a legal battle much of the early development focused on the lands around Albion and Bourke Streets. It wasn’t until the gold rush boom of the 1850s did the Riley Estate finally become available, and along with the Fosterville Estate, provided a glut of land for housing the working class populations.

The stairs were constructed to link Albion Street with the lower lying Street. They traversed an area known as Frog Hollow which was a creek that crossed Riley Street and one of several swampy and poorly drained hollows in the area.. Despite being poorly suited to housing the gully was developed by speculative builders and, unfettered by the city council, was crammed full of small tenements built on top of one another. The housing was substandard, dark , damp and overcrowded, accessed by steep stairways including the O' Hears Stairs, and with poorly lit and narrow lanes. Until the 1920s these rental properties were a haven for the very poor and social problems were rife including gabling, gang flights, murders, illegal drinking and prostitution.The Frog Hollow was eventually considered unfit for human habitation after some 89 notices were served on the residents between 1920 and 1925 under the Public Health Act. The land was resumed by Council for the purpose of eradicating a slum area. By 1930, most of the Frog Hollow housing had been demolished and it was slowly converted to parkland.The O' Hears Stairs is a rare survivor of the slum clearance of Frog Hollow.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages Community facilities-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
A typical example of a pedestrian access way found in many of Sydney's nineteenth century inner city housing areas. It is a rare survivor of the slum clearance of Frog Hollow housing area in the 1920s.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
O'Hears Stairs is associated with Frog Hollow.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
Of aesthetic significance as a representative Victorian era pedestrian stairway constructed from sandstone with iron handrails, which forms a sympathetic extension of the retaining wall surrounding the adjacent park.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

The building should be retained and conserved. A Heritage Assessment and Heritage Impact Statement, or a Conservation Management Plan, should be prepared for the building prior to any major works being undertaken. There shall be no vertical additions to the building and no alterations to the façade of the building other than to reinstate original features. The principal room layout and planning configuration as well as significant internal original features including ceilings, cornices, joinery, flooring and fireplaces should be retained and conserved. Any additions and alterations should be confined to the rear in areas of less significance, should not be visibly prominent and shall be in accordance with the relevant planning controls.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental PlanSydney Local Environmental Plan 2012I159614 Dec 12   
Heritage study 2.134/3   

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
South Sydney Heritage Study1993 Tropman & Tropman Architects  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenAnita Heiss Aboriginal People and Place, Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 2420426

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