“It was the belief of university men and women at the time that the conditions of the poor would not improve until educated people were prepared to live and work among them.” Roma Williams, A History of the Sydney University Settlement,1891 - 1986.
The Settlement has a unique and rich history with a legacy as relevant and as important to the community today as when The Settlement’s first property was bought in Edward Street in Darlington in 1925 for £1,600.
That property remains The Settlement’s main hall and is the centre of our activities to this day.
The Settlement also owns six houses and six flats adjacent to the hall in Edward Street Darlington. These properties are let through our partner Bridge Housing Limited to local Indigenous families, and were bought over many years through the fundraising efforts of the wives of Sydney University Vice Chancellors.
The land where The Settlement stands was originally occupied by the Gadigal, a clan of the Eora people, the name given to the coastal Aboriginal peoples around Sydney. The Settlement draws on the traditions and culture of The Gadgil to promote understanding, respect and pride among all those who walk through the doors or come in contact with The Settlement’s programs.
Let us explain how all this came to be.
The Settlement originated as the embodiment of the work done by the Sydney University Women's Society, a group that formed and started working with Sydney’s poor in 1891.
The Sydney University Women Society’s work was based on the Settlement Movement that originated in the UK when ‘Toynbee Hall’ opened in the East End of London in 1884.
This was a time when struggles created by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation were at their peak. Exploitation of labour, opportunistic landlords, and inadequate infrastructure led to the loss of old networks and social support. Meanwhile the need to reskill created deep class divisions. Urban concentration of workers made problems even more visible, but the people who were benefiting from the wave of industrialization were living elsewhere.
It was the belief of university men and women at the time that the conditions of the poor would not improve until educated people were prepared to live and work among them; to befriend them, assist them and learn from them; abandoning the security and comfort of their leafy neighbourhoods.
It was this belief that gave rise to the ‘movement’ whereby those connected to universities ‘settled’ students to live and work alongside local people.
The founders in London, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, hoped to change society for the better through educating future leaders and opinion makers. The concept was then used to set up settlements in New York, Chicago, Manchester and elsewhere, based on the idea of reciprocal learning; those with more opportunities learning from the less advantaged, and vice versa.
So in 1891 when the Sydney University Women's Society formed to start Australia’s Settlement Movement.
Darlington was the most densely populated municipality in Sydney; Aboriginal people were employed by the railway at the time, as were migrants from the UK, Europe and the Middle East. The areas around Eveleigh became a strong working class community; a hub for union activity and Labor politics, but also an overdeveloped, overcrowded, polluted metropolis. By 1891 all the surrounding suburbs had become industrialised.
When the University Women's Society began its work they used halls and rooms in Millers Point, then in Woolloomoolloo, the Rocks and Elizabeth Street near Belmore Park. By 1896 the men's club had set up the Toynbee Guild in Surry Hills, also working in Millers Point and Ultimo. It was very active in its time, but not lasting.
Sydney’s first actual Settlement house began in May 1909 when Sarah Evans went into residence in a house across the road from the Women's College [in Little Queen Street]. In 1910 they moved to a larger house in what is now Carillon Ave facing the college. They had to give it up towards the end of 1914; it was not big enough for club work, and the war brought financial difficulties. They used the top floor of the Trocadero in King Street Newtown from 1918 until 1922, then St Stephens' Parish Hall in Newtown.
In November 1925 the women purchased the hall at 17 Edward Street, Darlington for £1600. They had started with little over £100, but there was an extraordinary outpouring of generosity by individuals and local businesses. It opened in February 1926.
The 1940s and 50s was a time of great achievement, including the purchase of the houses between the hall and Vine Street, numbers 1-15 Edward St. A block of land on Scotland Island was gifted for camping, and a holiday house in Thirroul donated [later replaced with a house in Katoomba]. Then, in 1959, The Settlement was incorporated by an Act of Parliament.
The Settlement has a proud history of building bridges between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. The number of Aboriginal families using the Settlement increased in the 1960s. In 1967 a homework centre was set up 'for black and white' in cooperation with the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. The upstairs library was converted to a meeting and reading room, and a craft room was to follow.
There had been increasing numbers of Aboriginal families moving to the city at this time. Little support was in place for them, other than what they organised themselves, and overcrowding and homelessness increased.
The Block was created in nearby Redfern in 1973 after a successful lobby when the Federal Government funded the purchase of the first 26 houses for Aboriginal housing. The Edward Street residences gradually switched from being cheap digs for student volunteers to low income housing and in the 1970s the Settlement also focused on newly arrived immigrants.
Throughout the 70s and 80s The Settlement played a role in providing refuge, helping people to regain identity, drug and alcohol referral, community development, and continuing to provide a meeting place for a wide variety of groups. At the same time the hall was a popular venue for musical, dance, theatrical and political events.
In 1985 there was a mural painting project on the Vine Street exterior of No 1 Edward Street with Fiona Foley and Avril Quaill. Also in the late 1980s artists from the newly established Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Cooperative, then located in Chippendale - Jeff Samuels, Fiona Foley and Sheryl Parnell gave expression to the new Aboriginal pride of identity of the Settlement by painting a mural on the facade of No 17 Edward Street.
The mural tradition continued. Murals were painted inside the hall by artists including some in the kitchen designed by Jody Davis in 1994. Young people from The Settlement were also involved in a number of other projects including the mural on the station side of the Lawson St Bridge in 1998. Facilities for young adults were strengthened with the introduction of Muralappi camps and in 2003 a youth room was refurbished.
Increasing gentrification led to problems for the Settlement in the last decade and a half. In 2004 the management committee came under the control of a group of people, many of whom owned property in Edward Street, who attempted to sell the properties. The exterior mural painted by now internationally renowned artists was unlawfully 'whited out'.
Supporters strengthened the Friends of the Settlement and worked to remedy the situation. A private member's bill was rushed through the NSW Parliament to prevent property being sold without the consent of members and the contracts for sale were rejected as invalid and terminated. A special general meeting elected a new management committee, and work began in 2005 to restore confidence. Plans were drawn up for refurbishment of the hall, and renovation was completed in 2012.
The Settlement has a long history of working in the community and drawing support from its members, giving back through programs and adding depth and richness to the culture. This has never changed and continues to motivate The Settlement’s activities today.
Download the full book here: ‘The Settlement: A History of The Sydney University Settlement’, by Roma Williams. University of Sydney, 1988.
Today, The Settlement’s presence in the Darlington area is more important as it has ever been, as the community undergoes another modern day industrialization as significant and as transformative when the movement first started in the 1890s.
Sydney’s great property boom of the last 15-20 years has brought young families and hard working professionals into the area seeking to stake their claims for a better life. These newcomers bring similar hopes, dreams and struggles as the generations before them.
In 2014 The Settlement undertook an audit of the community to better understand the backgrounds and challenges affecting the locals in the area. During the audit process The Settlement reached out to people of all backgrounds and nationalities who are stretched both in terms of their financial situations and their time, as they work in demanding jobs and keep ahead of onerous mortgage payments.
As part of the audit process The Settlement hosted a series of dinner table conversations in the 'Elders Room' around the old dining tabe where people in the community have met for almost a decade to hear what the residents living the immediate and surrounding area had to say.
It’s no surprise that what came out of those conversations was a resounding desire to live in a community where families and individuals can learn and grow from each other as well as feel safe and protected. These are the very tenets The Settlement grew from and continues to preserve to this day.