The Rocks Conservation Area | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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The Rocks Conservation Area

Item details

Name of item: The Rocks Conservation Area
Other name/s: The Rocks Heritage Precinct. Inc. Circular Quay West, Dawes Pt etc.
Type of item: Complex / Group
Group/Collection: Urban Area
Category: Other - Urban Area
Location: Lat: 33' 51S Long: 151' 12E
Primary address: The Rocks, The Rocks, NSW 2000
Parish: St Philip
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Sydney
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
The RocksThe RocksSydneySt PhilipCumberlandPrimary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Place Management NSW Housing and Property Group DPIEState Government 

Statement of significance:

The Rocks, with its complex layering of significant fabric, uses and associations, is a precinct of national cultural significance. The Rocks is valued as a place of major social history, reflecting more than two centuries of significant activity; including European invasion, early contact between Aboriginal people and European settlers, and colonial settlement. The drama of cross-cultural encounters reflects The Rocks' focal location as a place linking continental, colonial, city and maritime histories. The Rocks was saved through fierce battles for its conservation, and by government ownership. Despite ongoining incremental change in The Rocks, continuity and authenticity remain major themes, manifest in increasingly rare and fragile relics of original topography and built fabric, remnants of history and a living community.

The Rocks is a major visual element of Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay, with a dramatic setting at the narrowest point in the Harbour. Visible layers of change are founded on the sandstone topography which gives the precinct its name. Less tangible aspects such as harbour sounds and breezes and water views are crucial to The Rocks’ sense of place on the foreshoure.
The Rocks is important in a world context as a foreshore port settlement and historic focus of social and economic activity, commencing in Australia’s colonial period. The Rocks remains as one of the few places in Australia where authentic early convict evidence is accessible to the public.
The Rocks is the place of first sustained contact in the continent between Aboriginal people and European settlers. Physical evidence of pre-European Aboriginal culture at The Rocks has been largely destroyed. The lack of such evidence is a poignant reminder of loss to current and future generations. Aboriginal cultural sites which may have survived such impacts are of great significance to the Aboriginal community of Sydney who consider their continued experience and association with The Rocks as symbols of endurance.
The Rocks contains a rich accumulation of features that demonstrate layers of Australian history from 1788 until the present. The precinct displays an unparalleled diversity in townscape and building style, form and texture. Distinctive low-rise scale and fine grain textures in The Rocks constrast with, yet complement, the imposing built forms and modern architecture of the city centre beyond.
The Rocks landscape, urban form, built structures and subsurface archaeological features, in conjunction with extensive documentary records, provide a physical chronicle of outstanding research potential.
The Rocks and adjacent areas of Millers Point and Dawes Point are symbols of community survival, with the associated present-day communities representing and connected to the processes of struggle, perseverance and change that have shaped these places.
Owned and managed in the public interest for over a century, The Rocks has been the stage for Government innovation in public works, town planning and social engineering. It is known for major historic events such as the 1901 plague, slum clearances and green bans. It has become a showcase for conservation practice and is an example of public land ownership and sustainable urban management under one Government agency.
The Rocks is an important Australian tourist icon presented as the birthplace of Australia and representing asignificant story lines. The Rocks symbolises a powerful statement about who we are as Australians.
Date significance updated: 27 Nov 06
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.


Designer/Maker: A vernacular townscape with some particular designers for individual sites.
Construction years: 1788-
Physical description: The Rocks is sited on a rocky promontory projecting into the Harbour on the western side of Sydney Cove, with the southern approach of the Sydney Harbour Bridge along the ridge marking the western boundary of the area, and is some 21 hectares in area. The ground falls steeply to the east, in a series of sandstone escarpments, giving the important harbour views characteristic of the area. The topography gave rise to an erratic street pattern with many cuts into the rock to provide building materials and enable streets and stepped pedestrian ways to traverse the area. The conservation of The Rocks from the 1970s has reinforced these diverse streetscapes, laneways and pedestrian links.

There is a mixture of individually important buildings by significant architects and more humble shops, cottages and terraces from different eras. Within this diversity the area has a coherent and consistent character of streetscapes and urban spaces in a very strong topographical setting. It has a strong maritime character, with warehouses and bond stores, and philanthropic buildings for seamen who also were abundantly catered for in the provision of public houses. A large amount of public open space is included in the area, including Dawes Point Park, with its early fortifications and archaeological remains, Foundation Park, West Circular Quay, First Fleet Park, the public domain around the Museum of Contemporary Art, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Campbells Cove, Park Hyatt and the Hickson Road Reserve.

South of the Cahill Expressway the area has pockets of heritage items and streetscapes intermingled with high rise buildings dating from the 1970s.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
The built form of the Rocks is well maintained being mostly in the care of Government Authorities. The archaeological potential of the area is outstanding (see Assessment fields).
Date condition updated:05 Dec 99
Modifications and dates: The Rocks Conservation Area has been modified continuously since 1788. Little is known of the Aboriginal occupation of this area.
Current use: Mixed Commercial High tourism use.
Former use: The level of residential use was much higher prior to the 1960s and 70s.


Historical notes: The First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove interrupting what had been a very long association between the local indigenous people, ( called erroneously by Europeans 'The Eora' people) Sydney Harbour and its adjoining landscape. Being a prominent headland in the harbour it is likely that it was used for fishing and other cultural activities as well as surveillance by the indigenous people, the Cadigal. The cove was know as 'Warrane' by the Cadigal people and the harbour as 'Cadi'.

The colonisation of Australia which began at Sydney Cove and The Rocks is significant in the history of European exploration and colonisation of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the primary focus for the British colony was a place for the housing of convict overspill, the trade and industrial opportunities offered were soon exploited, and it became important as a source of wealth from whaling, from wool, and later, from gold. Australia was in an important position in regard to trade with South East Asia, for the exploitation of the Southern Fisheries (whale oil was like crude oil to the pre 1850s world) and for ongoing British exploration (George Vancouver was supplied from Sydney for his 1790s exploration of the west coast of Canada).

The Rocks was given its name the members of the First Fleet, who, on 26 January, 1788, were landed on the rocky peninsula on the western side of Sydney Cove. This was the site of the first convict encampment, military camp, bakehouse and hospital. As the colony grew, the land close to the water’s edge was used for government purposes: hospital, gaol, Government Dockyard (1797) and Commissariat Stores (1809). Later, merchants established private wharfage facilities, starting with Robert Campbell at Campbells Cove, and the High Street (later named George Street by Governor Macquarie) became the hub of Sydney’s wharf side trading life. The ridge was developed for purposes of fortification and windmills and was also the preferred location for the residences of the more well-to-do.

The rugged slope overlooking the Cove defied orderly settlement. The sandstone bedrock was quarried for building material and houses clustered along the cuttings catering for convicts and emancipists, as well as seamen from all parts of the world, in "a straggly, vernacular, unplanned place". (Somerville,1999: 4). Construction of proper roads and drainage was particularly difficult. Vehicular routes tended to run parallel with the ridge while narrow lanes and steep stairs provided pedestrian ways between the ridge and the water. Gradually hundreds of cottages and terraces were built, representing " a virtually complete compendium of Sydney housing styles in the 19th century." (Kelly 1981: 2/68). Land tenure was in the form of grants, leases and (most often) unofficial occupancy. From the 1830s, on the basis of a series of surveys, the occupation of land was formalised through grants.

Most of The Rocks came into public ownership in 1900 following an epidemic of bubonic plague, when lands within the "Darling Harbour Resumption Area", considered to be in the worst condition, were resumed by the Crown and large areas of housing were demolished. An advisory board consisting of Messrs Hickson, Davis and Vernon submitted a scheme for the replanning of the area in 1903, which was the basis for the realignment of streets and redevelopment with terrace housing and residential flat buildings. (Lydon 1992: 4.0) However, it was only prior to the First World War that a limited redevelopment program for housing in the area commenced and continued into the 1920s. Some land was sold back into private hands but much continued to be managed by the Sydney Harbour Trust until the end of the 1960s.

The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1925 - 1932) swept away many streets and houses and split the peninsula along its spine. The area west of the Bridge became known as Millers Point. In the late 1950s, the construction of the Cahill Expressway across Circular Quay caused further evictions and extensive demolition to the point where over one third of the area was vacant, mainly that south of the Cahill. With talk of redevelopment, little effort was exerted in maintaining the buildings in public ownership.

During the early 1960s, several redevelopment proposals for the area were canvassed by the Government, with proposals for building mainly high rise residential and office accommodation. Following the election of the Askin Liberal Government, these proposals did not proceed. In 1967, at the request of the new Government, Sir John Overall, Chairman of the National Capital Development Commission, made proposals for the area and advised that an Authority should be set up to implement them. He recommended the setting up of a separate authority to have complete control of the planning, design and redevelopment of The Rocks area. (SCRA 1978: 9).

The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority (SCRA) Act of 1968 established the Authority to plan, redevelop and manage the area. Most of the land in the area was handed over to the Authority under its Act and a few areas in private ownership were purchased. There remain areas of land which are owned by the Maritime Services Board, the Commonwealth Government and the Catholic Church.

The Authority’s original scheme, made public in February, 1971, was for broad scale high-rise redevelopment, with accompanying plazas. Only nine historic buildings were to be retained, including St Patrick's Church, Science House, Argyle Bond Store, the Ordnance Store, the Mining Museum and Campbells Storehouse. Other historic buildings were marked for "sympathetic redevelopment", mainly facadism. Everything else was to be demolished and replaced with multi-storey office and residential buildings and hotels.

In the early 1970’s, public opinion about large scale redevelopment of areas such as The Rocks began to change. People began to become aware of the importance of communities and there was a growing awareness of the need to preserve some historic places from our brief past. The Government of the day did not reflect these changes in attitude and people resorted to other means to achieve their aims. After a year of lobbying government, residents appealed to the unions who imposed "green bans" (union bans on construction work for environmental reasons). The Rocks became one of the most publicised areas where the confrontation between the resident/union coalition and the Government took place.

All redevelopment plans were effectively halted for a period of years in The Rocks and the Authority tentatively began to carry out some minor developments itself and began the refurbishment of some of the buildings. The Argyle Centre was established as a craft and shopping centre in the early 1970s and work began on "restoring" the frontages of the buildings in George Street to provide an attractive shopping centre. Tourists began to be attracted to the area, and the Authority’s perception of the area began to change. Meanwhile the SCRA scheme was reviewed in 1974.

The election of the Labor State Government in 1976 with its emphasis on environmental conservation effectively spelt the end of the large scale redevelopment proposals for the area north of the Cahill expressway. State heritage legislation in 1977and a further review of the Authority’s operations in 1978 led to general agreement that although most existing buildings in this northern area were to be retained and refurbished, the area to the south of the Expressway could, as part of the CBD, be redeveloped. In the late 1970s, sites were leased for the first private developments in the area. In 1982-83 the original scheme was changed to reflect the new attitudes of the community and an exhibition of the new, more modest proposals which made up the scheme was held.

The survival and reuse of buildings and the efforts at streetscape control in The Rocks demonstrate changing attitudes to heritage conservation. The Argyle Centre complex, in 1971-1972 was among the first historic buildings in NSW to be recycled for new uses in a way designed to respect the earlier historical significance of the buildings. The complex therefore represents an important landmark in the history of conservation and provides clear evidence of early conservation practice and philosophy. Subsequent conservation and streetscape projects reflect changing, and more rigorous, practice. This followed the development of the Burra Charter in 1979 setting out principles of conservation practice and the of the methodology for the preparation of conservation plans prior to proposing change to heritage places in the mid 1980s.

The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority replaced SCRA as the place manager of The Rocks in February 1999. At the same time planning powers moved from SCRA to the NSW Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning.

In November, 1999 the Award of the Decade for Tourism Excellence in the category "Heritage & Cultural Tourism" was presented to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority for The Rocks.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Convict-Activities relating to incarceration, transport, reform, accommodation and working during the convict period in NSW (1788-1850) - does not include activities associated with the conviction of persons in NSW that are unrelated to the imperial 'convict system': use the theme of Law & Order for such activities (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Commerce-Activities relating to buying, selling and exchanging goods and services (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Industry-Activities associated with the manufacture, production and distribution of goods (none)-
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 (none)-
7. Governing-Governing Government and Administration-Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities. (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Rocks is an area of national historical significance. It was a site of Aboriginal occupation prior to the advent of the Europeans. It is the site of the first permanent settlement by Europeans in Australia, and retains elements that illustrate aspects of our history from all periods of settlement to the present day. It has significant convict associations. For a period from 1788 it was the hub of the colony's developing administration, economy and self reliance with the Government Dockyard, the Commissariat Stores, the dry docks, the Boat Master's Cottage, the observatory, hospital, fortifications and bake house located there, as well as the first commercial wharf in Australia. It was the maritime centre of the Colony. Significant elements from this and subsequent periods remain in The Rocks today.
The Rocks provides physical evidence of changing fabric and functions from the end of the 18th century and through the 19th and 20th centuries.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The Rocks has high association value with a numerous convicts, settlers, military, medical and administrative people. These associations are too numerous to list and many went on to help shape New South Wales and Australia.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Rocks has outstanding landmark qualities being sited on a prominent rocky headland on the western side of Sydney Cove crowned by the approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge on its eastern boundary. It is highly visible from Circular Quay, from East Circular Quay and from the Harbour. Its historical development with an abundance of warehouses and wharves near the water and small scale commercial and/or residential buildings, combined with its topography of sandstone escarpments, cuttings and retaining walls and its street pattern and stepped walkways gives it a coherent and consistent townscape character of great aesthetic appeal. Within the area or travelling around it, a series of views and glimpses is afforded of diverse but harmonious streetscapes comprising buildings of diverse character and style (many of which have high individual architectural merit) of narrow picturesque stepped laneways, urban spaces and water, which adds to its aesthetic appeal.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The Rocks has high social significance for a large number of national and international visitors to NSW and Australia. It has special meaning to the residents of the area, including Millers Point, who have fought hard for the retention of the built fabric of The Rocks, and for their right to continue to live in the area. In addition, it has a special significance for those who campaigned vigorously with the residents against plans for its full scale redevelopment by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority in the 1960s and 1970s. It has special value to historians, heritage professionals and others who hold The Rocks in high regard for its historical, archaeological and architectural significance and research potential.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The history of The Rocks and the uses of its buildings illustrate and inform of the aspirations and way of life of the Colony and, later, the State. The construction of the buildings illustrate changing building technology from early times of the Colony to the present day. Stylistically the buildings illustrate the architectural and building practices of Sydney and The Rocks and the translocation of contemporary British building to the Colony.

The Rocks has been subject to several archaeological investigations resulting in a large body of archaeological and artefactual evidence for the past. This resource has very significant research potential.

The Rocks has yielded, and has the ongoing potential to yield, new and further substantial scientific, historical, cultural, technical and archaeological information relevant to earlier uses and the development of the area. It provides physical evidence of ways of life, customs and technologies and processes from 1788 through successive generations to the present day.
SHR Criteria f)
The Rocks is rare in its ability to provide evidence of the early development of the Colony and how the early settlers responded to the new and strange environment.
SHR Criteria g)
Development in The Rocks is representative of the historical phases from 1788 to the present day, and has associations with significant figures in the history of Sydney throughout this time.
Integrity/Intactness: Little evidence of the pre 1788 occupation by the Aboriginal inhabitants of Sydney Cove remains. A high level of integrity and intactness remains of the building fabric, street pattern and archaeology from all periods since 1788, despite the constant development and change which has occurred since that date.
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 Rocks is an area of national cultural heritage significance. From a conservation point of view, it is desirable that it continues with the majority of the area in public ownership, to enable coordinated and consistent conservation management by experienced heritage professionals. A Heritage Management Plan for The Rocks has been prepared to identify the heritage significance of The Rocks and the principles and practice that will enable a coordinated approach to this important heritage resource. This Heritage Management Plan should inform relevant planning instruments and development controls for the area. To promote public appreciation and a comprehensive understanding of the history of the place, an Interpretation Plan has been prepared. A co-ordinated and best practice approach is required to all forms of interpretation, education and heritage tourism in The Rocks. Any work undertaken should have regard to the heritage significance of The Rocks. The historic pattern of streets, lanes, pathways and subdivision should be maintained. The historical places within The Rocks should be retained and conserved, not just for their aesthetic value but for their ability to reveal information to current and future generations about Australia's cultural background. Any new work should give consideration to removing or minimising the impact of unsympathetic elements, where appropriate. The impact of views to and from The Rocks should be carefully considered in any proposal.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage registerSydney Harbour Foreshore Authority    

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
SCA Register 1979-19981998P022Sydney Cove Authority (SCA)  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenDr Edward Duyker1999The Rocks
WrittenGodden Mackay Logan for Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority2002The Rocks Heritage Management Plan (revised 2006)
WrittenHigginbotham, Kass & Walker1991The Rocks and Millers Point Archaeological Management Plan
WrittenJyoti Somerville1999Mercantile Hotel 25-27 George Street, the Rocks - Conservation Management Plan
WrittenKelly, M1997Anchored in a Small Cove - A History and Archaeology of the Rocks, Sydney
WrittenKelly, M.1981The Heritage of Australia - The Illustrated Register of the National Estate
WrittenSCA - J Lydon 19921992Archaeological Monitoring - The Australian Hotel and Adjoining Shops, The Rocks, Sydney
WrittenSCA - Johnson, W.1998Archaeological Work in The Rocks, 1978-1998
WrittenSCRA1978Building Data Sheets 1978-1984

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: State Government
Database number: 4500458

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