Monday, January 3, 2011

Darlinghurst: Detritus: Violet Investigates the Secret Tunnels of Alexandra Flats

I was so intrigued by reader Stephen Hickmott's story, published here last week, about the secret tunnels beneath the former Marist Brothers College, that I had to investigate. 
Obviously, my first thought was to gain access to the building on Liverpool Street, which is now the Alexandra Flats, but because I don't know anyone who lives there, I was going to have to employ my powers of persuasion.

I went to the front gate and had a look around. The gate was locked and to gain access you either had to have a key or be buzzed in by one of the residents. 
I wondered what to do. I could jump the gate, but that wouldn't be much good because then I still needed to get past the solid - and locked - front door. I have never picked a lock in my life and wasn't about to start breaking the law now. 
I figured it would take too long to explain the secret tunnels over the buzzer system and anyway, anyone who heard the story would probably just think I was bonkers.

So I came up with a little story about a parcel I needed to deliver and then buzzed the number of an apartment, which I figured would be up on the top floor. If the person was on the top floor, they may feel there was enough distance between us, to just let me in.
A man answered.
''Hello, I'm sorry to bother you,'' I said.
''I just wanted to leave a parcel inside, can you please buzz me in?''
The man was no fool: ''What's the apartment number?''
Rats, I thought, he probably knows everyone in the building. 
I took a stab in the dark: ''Number seven.''
He replied, ''Aren't they in?''
''No,'' I said.
He asked, ''What do you have?''
I replied, ''Just a parcel I need to leave inside.''
''Okay,'' he said. ''I'll come down.''
The man arrived about two minutes later. 
I suppose he expected me to pass the parcel through the gaps in the locked gate, but before he even reached me I quickly apologised, admitted I hadn't quite told the truth and then tried to explain.
He seemed rather bemused by my tale, and I suppose because I don't look all that threatening, he let me in.

The area beneath the stairs, where I expected the broom closet to be, was actually open and had a tiled floor. I didn't take a photograph because I was so conscious of taking up this poor man's time that I kind of foiled my own investigation. Anyway, if you look in the photograph above, you can see the front door, which opens to a small, tiled foyer area (beneath the stairs). Behind me, on either side of the stairs, were two small cupboards. 
This one was unfortunately locked and the man did not have a key:

To the right of that exit sign and a hallway that leads to the back of the building, was another cupboard, which wasn't locked:

But the broom cupboard in Stephen's story was home to a 20 feet chimney sweep and I had a hard time imagining it squeezing in to this tiny space. Nevertheless, I had a little snoop along the ground inside the cupboard. I doubt this small area would have ever been covered in floorboards, although it did appear to be boarded-up with plaster-board.
I briefly considered removing all the junk inside for a better look, but I didn't think the man would appreciate me making such a mess. 
So I thanked him for his time and then set off on foot to Kings Cross train station to pursue Plan B.

I travelled by train across the border to Town Hall station in the Sydney CBD and then walked around the corner to the entrance of Town Hall House at 456 Kent Street. I had booked an appointment with the City of Sydney Archives to view the East Sydney Technical College Conservation Master Plan and their offices and storage are on level one of this building. 

As you no doubt know, the East Sydney Technical College was built within the grounds of the old Darlinghurst Gaol in 1921, about seven years after the penitentiary closed. I had hoped the Conservation Master Plan, written in February 1998 by Dr Jim Kerr, Wendy Thorp, Craig Burton and Graham Brooks, would reveal detailed plans for the tunnels beneath the old gaol.

 I was filled with some hope when I turned to the contents page and saw a reference to the court house tunnel:

But when I turned to the page in question, the text only referred to a tunnel linking the gaol to the neighbouring Darlinghurst Courthouse. 

The remainder of the document included a detailed history of the site, the construction of the gaol in the 1840s, its conversion to a college in the 1920s and conservation policies and guidelines to ''assist in the future management of the complex''. 
There were no other references to tunnels, secret or otherwise.
But I wasn't ready to give up just yet. I went to the Archivist on Duty, Naomi Crago, and asked if it was possible to view the original plans for the Marist Brothers College. 
She said, ''yes, of course, I'll have a look.'' So I scribbled down the address of 280-296 Liverpool Street, and Naomi went off to work, returning later with a list of about 12 early documents that referred to the site. 
The documents that came up in Naomi's search included many references to the neighbouring property, Hilton, at 278 Liverpool Street, the former home of artist John Rae, now the Robin Gibson Gallery. Perhaps the tunnels are also beneath that site?
But, Naomi explained, I would not be allowed to view the development applications and site plans - even the ones dating back to 1911 - unless I gained written permission from the owners of the buildings. 
So I decided to write a letter to the strata manager of the Alexandra Flats, and in the meantime, I went straight back to Liverpool Street to personally talk to Mr Robin Gibson at his gallery.

It was almost closing time at the gallery when I arrived and Mr Gibson and his two young male assistants  - a handsome trio - were enjoying a Christmas drink, as they were about to close for the holidays. It seemed I had made it just in time, for they do not reopen until late in January. 
I began to tell Mr Gibson the story of the tunnels, but he interrupted my little monologue and said, ''Stop, before you go any further . . .''.
And then he proceeded to tell me that in 1980, after he had just purchased Hilton, he was busy in renovating mode when a man appeared at his doorstep.
The man said he used to attend the neighbouring Marist Brothers College and as a young school boy had explored the tunnels beneath the school.
At that time, in the early 80s, the former Marist Brothers College was rather rundown and uninhabitable. For 20 years it had been home to an artists mob, the Side F/X Collective, and was now ready for its own conversion in to the Alexandra Flats. 
Mr Gibson said the man with the tunnel story was so convincing that he enlisted one of the builders on his renovation to bring a jackhammer to the spot where this supposed entryway was, and get to work.
Well, the jackhammer made quite a bit of mess and no doubt a lot of noise, and after much jackhammering uncovered absolutely nothing.
So Mr Gibson wasn't buying my tunnel story and I wondered if the man at his door was in fact Stephen Hickmott.
Anyway, Mr Gibson had plenty of other useful information to impart: The Hilton was where the Marist Brothers lived from 1911 to 1968 and there were two doors - one on the first floor and one of the second floor - linking 278 Liverpool Street to the college next door.
He also told me that in the 1980s, my favourite mansion, Stoneleigh, was so rundown the council nearly had it condemned. The floor boards were rotting apparently. Later, after it was renovated, lefty broadcaster Phillip Adams moved in.
Also back in the 60s, the Marist Brothers College used the ground floor of Stoneleigh to store sporting equipment. 
But Mr Gibson was not dismissive of all secret tunnel stories and added another little mystery in to the mix. Mr Gibson said there was a tunnel from the gaol leading all the way down to the corner of Bourke and Liverpool Streets, which is home to an 1850s Victorian Georgian house, known as either Claremore or Claremont Lodge.
Oh, dash! Another alleged tunnel to investigate. I was becoming quite tired by all this wild goose-style tunnel chasing. Still I was very happy when Mr Gibson signed a letter giving me permission to access the files at the City of Sydney archives.
But when I skipped down the steps of the gallery off in to the night, after a day of investigation, I was still left with more questions than answers.

To Be Continued . . .


Mark said...

Fantastic! fingers and toes crossed that all goes well with your subterranean urban exploring - good luck! - and look forward to reading more :]

Violet Tingle said...

Thanks, Mark. Although my quest takes a lot of time and I think I may need to quit my job to fully dedicate myself to the task of finding the secret tunnels. Yet, I am sure there is SOMEONE out there who knows whether they exist or not. Sadly, I am starting to think the latter.

Anonymous said...

Very cool !! Love the blog..Yeah they are very real , let me no if you got the pix I sent you it's my last day digging there tomorrow & if my Forman slipps out again I will try crawl further in to see were they lead too, if you come past tomorrow befor i cover the hole in I will show you the out side of them from behind the fence Jay bewley