Outline History of Paddington

Paddington has many layers of historical and social associations. The area where the suburb is now located was originally inhabited by the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation. After colonisation and white settlement in 1788 the development of the suburb was largely due to improvements in road transport from the settlement at Sydney Cove eastwards along the ridgeline, the route following the Gadigal people’s walking tracks to South Head.

Early Land Grants 1810 – 25

The first land grants in the Paddington area, in 1811 and 1817, were made in the name of the Crown, with the aim of developing the essential service industries of milling, distilling and thatching. A subsequent larger grant of one hundred acres was made to Robert Cooper, James Underwood, and Francis Ewen Forbes. First promised by Governor Brisbane on 4 November 1823, it was not gazetted until 1831. These wealthy landowners built a distillery at the junction of the springs cascading downhill to Glenmore Brook in the lowland valley. The Glenmore Distillery began operation in 1824, and a new road, Glenmore Road, was formed, winding uphill to provide access to the ridge.

Rushcutter Valley Land Grants 1830 – 40

Once in place, Glenmore Road opened up the valley during the 1830s for a number of smaller land grants to the emerging ‘gentry’, professional men and merchants, who built imposing villas on the ‘Rushcutter Valley’ slopes leading down to the harbour. The irregular shape of these grants was to have a lasting effect on the form of today’s Paddington.

Paddington 1840 – 70

Disputes between Cooper and Underwood led to the division of property, and the suburb’s name emerged in 1839, when James Underwood subdivided 50 of his 97 acres on more even terrain to the north of the ridge, naming it the Paddington Estate after the London’s Borough. This subdivision extended from what was then named the Old South Head Road (today’s Oxford Street) to what is now Paddington Street.

Early developments in the area followed soon after with the commencement in 1841 of construction of Victoria Barracks, located ‘two miles distant from Hyde Park along the South Head Road’, and built to accommodate members of the New South Wales Corps formerly housed in the town of Sydney. The village of Paddington soon emerged opposite the Barracks, much of it around the cottages of the many artisans including stonemasons, quarrymen, carpenters and labourers who were working on the construction of the Barracks, along with the dwellings of the small community that grew up to supply goods and services to the military establishment.

As more people settled into the area, a wide variety of new businesses and public buildings opened up along the Old South Head Road to the east of the Barracks, with churches, schools and lively pubs and taverns playing important roles in helping to develop a sense of identity for Paddington’s various working communities. This rapid development and population growth led to Paddington’s incorporation as a municipality in 1860.

Boom years 1860 – 1890, then decline

A speculative building boom commenced, with subdivision of many of the valley’s ‘gentry’ estates, creating haphazard development patterns, as each estate sought to maximise its dwelling numbers. There was no overall ‘plan’ and this created much of the charm of Paddington that remains today.

Between 1870 and 1890 the boom continued, and on the larger Underwood landholding, subdivisions on the more even terrain gave rise to a far more regular layout, with many of the subdivisions further subdivided and developed into rows of ‘spec’ built terrace housing. South of the Old South Head Road, development also adopted a more regular pattern, expanding Paddington’s transformation towards a ‘Victorian’ suburb.

This growth was closely tied to improvements in public transport, starting with horse-drawn buses travelling to and from the city via Glenmore Road. The introduction of steam trams in 1881 further facilitated connectivity between Sydney and Paddington.

Despite a considerable slowdown during the turmoil of the economic depression of the 1890s, Paddington’s evolution towards a densely developed urban village continued with the Paddington Reservoir, Post Office, Courthouse, Police Station and Town Hall completed during the century’s last decades. Areas for ‘Public Recreation’ emerged, including Centennial Park adjacent to the southeast, opened in 1888, and Hampden Park (today’s Trumper Park) officially opened in 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year.

The 20th Century

Much of Paddington’s built form and development was largely completed within the first decade of the twentieth century, including the Benevolent Society’s Royal Hospital for Women which opened in 1905. Paddington had remained a popular suburb, despite the losses in population, partly due to the Sudan and Boer Wars and the Great War of 1914-18. Numbers peaked at 26 364 in 1921. However, changing post-war attitudes toward urban living led to a decline in the popularity of terrace housing in Australia, and working-class inner-city areas like Paddington became stigmatised as slums. During those years Paddington’s working families were joined by immigrant and minority groups, including the Chinese market gardeners and the Jewish community.

Post-World War II

Light industries continued operations and remained scattered throughout the suburb, but much of the housing stock began to decay and Paddington was officially considered a slum, described by County of Cumberland Council planners as a ‘completely substandard area of old terraces.’ However, a resurgence took place after World War II, and while Paddington continued to house many working-class families, it also welcomed migrant workers and their families, who were accustomed to close-knit living. Meanwhile many locally born residents moved out to newer suburbs beyond the urban centre. The Paddington community became known for its demographic diversity and was chosen as a new home by many European refugees.

A comprehensive re-planning scheme in 1951 threatened wholesale redevelopment, including reconfiguration of most existing streets and replacing almost all of the existing housing with three-storey blocks of flats. Fortunately, due to post-war austerity and shortages of materials, very little of such redevelopment was financially feasible. Students, writers and artists began arriving in the 1950s and 60s, drawn by the picturesque topography and affordability of the area, marking the onset of a lively bohemian period and the seeds of gentrification. During this period, Paddington was the home of several of Australia’s most renowned artists, including Margaret Olley and Donald Friend.

In the following years, the suburb garnered a reputation for its unique historical and aesthetic qualities resulting in increased desirability, subsequent property price rises and a growing awareness of the value and need to protect its heritage.

1960s to today

For the 1960s and subsequent decades refer to A Brief History of the Paddington Society

These days Paddington remains a unique urban area of outstanding national heritage significance, continuing to maintain its high-wealth status, reflecting its attractive location, topography, streetscapes, significant building types and vibrant local culture. Nestled to the northwest of Centennial Park, Paddington includes some 184 streets and lanes. This community is home to some 12700 residents residing in over 6000 individual properties. The housing landscape primarily includes cottages, semi-detached, row or terrace houses, and townhouses that make up approximately 65% of the residences. Apartments account for roughly 32%.

Paddington now boasts a number of parks, including several charming pocket parks, some 15 pubs, numerous art galleries, and hosts the well-known Paddington Markets. The area is also celebrated for its abundance of boutiques and designer outlets. It is home to several schools, both public and private, churches and the College of Fine Arts. For sportspeople, Paddington is historically significant as the birthplace of Australian Tennis at White City and early AFL together with cricket at Trumper Park and the Sydney Cricket Ground to the south. The suburb is well-connected, with numerous bus routes serving the area. Paddington plays a pivotal role as a gateway to the Eastern suburbs and the harbour and ocean suburbs and beaches, including Double Bay, Rose Bay, Vaucluse, Watsons Bay, Bondi and Bronte.

Paddington is world recognised for its dominant late 19th century Victorian character, a character fiercely protected from the 1960s, yet remaining under constant threat. As historian Peter Spearritt notes: ‘What a miracle that Paddington survives’.


Dictionary of Sydney
Paddington: A History Editor: Greg Young, Authors: Paul Irish, Bill Morrison, Garry Wotherspoon, Paul Ashton, Robert Griffin, Robert Brown, Sharon Veale, Peter McNeil, Sheridan Burke, Sandra Hall, Helen Armstrong, Peter Spearritt with introduction by Will Mrongovius.