About Victoria St

Victoria St has long been one of Sydneyâ??s most prized locations, described by the National Trust in the 1970s as the â??Montmartre of Sydneyâ??.

It was also the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia (see Squatspace). In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows of houses here through his company Victoria Point Pty Ltd, with plans to demolish the terrace houses and build a number of office and apartment towers. Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.

Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.

Victoria St was not only noteworthy for its architectural heritage; most of the terrace houses and tenement buildings, many converted internally into separate flats, were rooming houses for transient low income earners, such as wharfies, artists, labourers, city workers, elderly residents and other characters of note. Following the eviction notices, more than 400 tenants were to be removed from their homes. Some tenants left voluntarily, while others chose to defy the order and stay, forming the Victoria Street Residents Action Group (VRAG). Attempting to stop the demolition from going ahead, the VRAG won the support of the National Trust as well as the BLF, who agreed to place a â??green banâ?? on the threatened houses.

One of the leading spokespersons of the Victoria St residents group was a man named Mick Fowler, a tenant at 115 Victoria St. Fowler, one of the wharfies who lived in the area, is described by John Birmingham in Leviathan as â??a big bullnecked seaman with a slightly scary Dennis Lillee moustache, sideburns like Texas and a hint of Elvis in his hairstyleâ?.

Fowler had returned one day from a long voyage on a bulk carrier to his rented room in 115, then a boarding house where his mother also lived. He found her sitting on the front step, surrounded by their belongings, and clutching hold of fifty dollars given to her by Theeman to cover the cost of moving and storag.

Fowler contested the eviction, and his fight to stay put in his rented room at 115 Victoria attracted others to the cause, typifying the fight of the working class man against the forces of wealth and privilege, a struggle over who had the right to live in the inner city suburbs of Sydney. Fowler was also a jazz musician, and wrote freedom songs against the development. His battlecry â?? â??Across the Western Suburbs We Must Wanderâ?? â?? was a tirade against the banishment of working families from the communities in which theyâ??d lived and worked for generations.

The activists who joined Fowler and his fellow residents were agitating for a different kind of city living. On 10 June 1973, a group of squatters moved into 57 Victoria Street, and over the next seven months the rest of the 22 dilapidated old terraces earmarked for demolition were occupied by many more. Victoria Street became one of the first publicly visible examples of an urban squatting community in NSW (Squatspace 2004). Squatters on Victoria St rejected the city that Sydney was becoming â?? â??a city of wealth and plunderâ?.[1] Living as communally as possible, they removed fences, and established a food co-operative, a shared child-minding centre, and rotating cooking roster. They managed the commune through weekly consensus-based meetings. Film nights were held in one house; another building was used as a mechanicsâ?? workshop.

The developer moved quickly to remove the squatters. After their presence in the premises was found by the courts to be illegal, police, working in concert with a team of security guards acting on behalf of Victoria Point Pty Ltd, arrived on morning of 3 January 1974 to forcibly remove the squatters, using sledgehammers and crowbars to remove barricades.

Forty of the squatters were jailed that morning, but at number 115, Mick Fowlerâ??s place, two of the squatters headed for the roof of the three-storey building. They climbed to the top of the chimneys, where they remained for the next seventeen hours. Supporting crowds staged an impromptu concert there. The squatters were released on bail later that day, on the condition that they would not return to occupy their homes.

On the day Mick Fowler was forced to leave his premises, his supporters held a mock funeral outside his home to mark â??the end of the life of Victoria Stâ??. They buried a casket out the front of the premises labeled â??The Right of Low Income Workers To Live in Victoria Stâ??. It could still be there if you were to start diggingâ?¦

The squattersâ?? action, working in concert with the buildersâ?? labourersâ?? green ban, delayed the project and cost Theeman dearly â?? he estimated that his interest on the loan heâ??d taken out to undertake the development was at around $4m in 1970s dollars. However most of the obstacles to Theemanâ??s plans were removed after the NSW branch of the BLF was deregistered and the squatters and residents forcibly removed.

By that point, Theeman was left to battle one remaining vocal opponent – a woman named Juanita Nielsen who lived in a small studio apartment at 202 Victoria St. A wealthy heiress who had recently returned from London, Nielsen was a quite different urban activist to the radical squatters who had previously agitated against the development â?? strikingly stylish, very wealthy, and relatively aloof. She edited her own local newspaper NOW, in which she editorialised against the high-rise alongside the advertorials for local restaurants and underwear stores.

Nielsen mysteriously disappeared on 4 July 1975, and she has never been found. Her last known act was to visit the Carousel nightclub to discuss advertising for her newspaper. For decades the fate of Juanita Nielsen remained a mystery. In 1983, an inquest jury found there was no evidence to say how she died, but they did say that the police investigation was hampered by an atmosphere of corruption, real or imagined. Two of the men at that meeting at the Carousel nightclub were subsequently convicted of conspiracy to abduct Juanita Nielsen. In 2004 Peter Rees, a local resident and former Canberra Press Club journalist, published the outcomes of his own investigations into the unsolved matter in Killing Juanita â?? A True Story of Murder and Corruption (2004). Allegations made in that book by an eyewitness Loretta Crawford prompted the NSW Homicide Squad to re-open the Nielsen investigation. The case remains open at time of writing.

The unresolved case of Juanitaâ??s disappearance has continued to haunt the city.  When I first heard the tale, after I’d first moved to Sydney, I was told her remains were buried in the concrete foundations of the Victoria Heights apartments. But perhaps the truth is even more shocking. After Abe Saffron, notorious Kings Cross nightclub owner dubbed â??Mr. Sinâ??, died in 2007 his son told the Sydney Morning Herald she was murdered at the Carousel nightclub in an â??accidentâ??. â??To dispose of her remains, they cut her up and placed the parts in weighted bags and dropped them in the ocean off Sydney Harbour,â? he told the newspaper.

With no remaining opposition Theeman was able to proceed with his development â?? albeit on a smaller scale that he had originally proposed. By scaling back Theemanâ??s plans, the protesters had prevented the demolition of a number of historic houses on the street. But they hadnâ??t been able to prevent the eviction of low-income tenants like Mick Fowler, who worked down at the docks at Wooloomooloo. And the resident activist Juanita Neilsen had lost her life. As former BLF President Jack Mundey saw it, after the events of Victoria St, governments at all levels, Federal State as well as City councils, would no longer be able to go ahead and approve development plans without consulting the wishes of the people.

Victoria Heights today. Author's own image.

Victoria Heights today. Author's own image

What is seen today on Victoria St gives little indication of the struggles that occurred here. A small plaque commemorating the Fowlerâ??s life adorns the entrance to the Butler Stairs:

Plaque on Victoria St

Memorial Plaque on Victoria St

The story of Victoria St is richly documented in audiovisual history, particularly thanks to the dedicated work of documentary maker Pat Fiske, who undertook extensive filming of the protests and interviews with key players. The NFSA collection includes two of her documentaries, Wooloomooloo (1979) and Rocking the Foundations (1985), which each deal with the story of the Victoria St protests and the era of the Green Bans.

The NFSA collection also contains folk songs from the Green Bans movement, and oral history recordings featuring BLF President Jack Mundey, and documentary maker Pat Fiske. The ABC archives also include extensive media coverage of the events of Victoria St. This is complemented by a 1977 radio documentary by David Ives called â??The Ballad of Victoria Stâ??, produced for ABCâ??s youth radio station â??Double Jâ??.

Watch an excerpt from Rocking the Foundations (1986) here. Reproduced with permission from Pat Fiske. Accessed with the support of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).

Leave a Reply