The ever-evolving Quay to the city

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Circular Quay is one of Australia’s most recognisable locations. As it continues to evolve, we take a look at its history and the vital developments that made it the powerhouse it is today. Read on to find out how you can have your say on the future of this iconic precinct.

Nestled between the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House and CBD, Circular Quay is the gateway to our city and hub of our harbour. A look back through time shows it has always been an important place for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in terms of trade, food and a place to meet.

Gadigal country

The site of Circular Quay was, and is still known, as Warrane in the local Aboriginal language.

The local Aboriginal people, the Gadigal, lived, worked and travelled the land around Warrane / Sydney Cove for many thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1788. Warrane was a deep tree-fringed cove surrounded by muddy banks with a fresh water spring, now known as the Tank Stream, located at the head of the cove. Warrane’s sheltered north-facing location and plentiful seafood and edible plants leads historians to believe that canoeing and fishing were the main activities in the area, making Warrane one of many integral places for the Gadigal.

Today, there is still some historical evidence of Aboriginal life prior to arrival from buried Aboriginal sites and the area remains culturally important to Aboriginal people.

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An artist impression of Circular Quay (Warrane), pre-1788 (TCL Taylor Cullity Lethlean).

Arrival of the First Fleet

Captain Arthur Phillip chose Sydney Cove as a settlement site for the new colony instead of Botany Bay as it provided sheltered anchorage and fresh water. It is thought that the first landing here was made on the western side of the cove, probably north of Cadman’s Cottage.

Sydney Cove would prove to be one of the best places in the world for mooring vessels, offering deep water, natural shelter and access to a growing Sydney. By 1790, two wharves – Government Wharf and Hospital Wharf – had been built and were operational.

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An early view of Sydney Cove, showing Hospital and Government wharves (Alamy).

The trading place

Between 1837 and 1844, the muddy banks below where Circular Quay Railway Station stands today were reclaimed and a sea wall was constructed, initially bearing the name Semi Circular Quay. It proved to be a boon for the shipping trade, so much so that it was a victim of its own success. By the 1870s, Circular Quay became cramped, so shipping largely moved to Darling Harbour, where there was the added advantage of a freight railway connection.

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Semi Circular Quay became an important destination for trading vessels in 1871 (Charles Pickering, State Library of NSW).

To revive Circular Quay, ideas were floated, including one in 1878 by Captain Wagstaff that proposed a sandstone wharf through the middle of the waterway. He said it could take 30 large ships and would be 1300 feet long and 150 feet wide, with a depth of 45 feet down to the harbour floor.

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Captain Wagstaff’s plan, 1878 (Illustrated Sydney News, National Library of Australia).

The people’s gateway

With trade ships moving out of Circular Quay in the 1870s to less-crowded moorings at Darling Harbour, the precinct became a passenger port, with the first ferry wharf being constructed in 1879, and by 1890 the hub of the Sydney ferry network.

The wharves have been upgraded a number of times. From simple weatherboard Victorian buildings to a Federation Style in 1901 showing mock Tudor Revival influence, and again in 1939 with timber cladding and copper roofs. At this time, Wharves 2 to 5 were rebuilt, while Wharf 6 would remain unchanged until 1956 when it was rebuilt to match the other wharves. The wharves were refurbished in 1986 and again in 2000 in time for the Olympics.

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Alfred Street and the ferry wharves before the Cahill Expressway – note the Federation Tudor Revival-style wharves (Records NSW).

From this growth, families made a living out of providing taxi (the watermen) and ferry services with many still well-known names today. The ferry companies also blossomed, perhaps the most famous being the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company that coined the phrase ‘Manly; seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’. People flocked to board the gang planks and take the trip, which Sydneysiders often jokingly referred to as ‘overseas travel’.

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K-class ferries and vista across Circular Quay, 1926 (Sam Hood Collection, National Maritime Museum of Australia).

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Watermen and their canoes opposite Customs House, awaiting a fare (Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum).

From paddlesteamers like Brighton, grand “B” Class ferries were built on Sydney Harbour sporting Aboriginal names, including Baragoola (meaning the flood tide), Barenjoey, Bellubra, Balgowlah, Burra Bra and Binngarra. They would be joined by vessels that came to Sydney from the UK including Dee Why, Curl Curl and South Steyne. For faster services, hydrofoils became a familiar favourite during the 1970s.The 1980s wharf upgrades included hydraulic boarding ramps – replacing the gang planks and a new fleet of ferries heralded in by the Freshwater and Queenscliff.

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Launched in 1922, Manly ferry MV Baragoola was perhaps the last large vessel to be built on Sydney Harbour (BPA).

Of course, the Manly ferry is only part of the story, with other wharves offering services to the North Shore, Inner West, Eastern Suburbs and as far west as Parramatta – while the International Terminal is a gateway to the world.

A bright future

Transport for NSW is continuing the evolution of Circular Quay to make the area more accessible for the 15 million visitors and 60 million commuters who use ferries, light rail trams, the railway, buses, foot or bike and those wanting to simply enjoy the sites, vistas and history of the Quay itself.

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Circular Quay in 2019 (Cieran Murphy Photography).

Transport for NSW is in the early stages of consultation with neighbours, businesses, property owners, tenants, historians and the public, on how to deliver a Circular Quay precinct that is befitting of its history, location and economic importance and is asking for community input through until August 31, 2020.

To have your say, head to


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