Historians Walk the Talk

A man and a woman holding a wide photo.

Dr Ian Hoskins holding a copy of a panorama of Sydney Harbour photographed from Holtermann’s tower in 1875.

If you want to get to know an area better, enjoy history and some gentle outdoor exercise you should consider joining history walks.

Historians have been conducting history walks for many years.  You can join a walk guided by a historian or you can download the notes for a history walk and do the walk in your own time.

This week I joined a history walk conducted by North Sydney Council historian, Dr Ian Hoskins.  The walk was one of myriad events held throughout New South Wales last week for the annual festival of history – History Week.

Following Photography’s Footsteps’ introduced walkers to sites associated with nineteenth century patron of photography, Bernhardt Holtermann, as well as those linked with photographer of the construction of the Harbour Bridge, Frank Cash.  But it also included a lot more.

Bernhardt Holtermann was a German man who made his fortune mining gold in New South Wales.  With this wealth he became an important patron of photography, financing the photography of many sites in country New South Wales and Victoria as well as panoramas of Sydney.

Hoskins explained that these photos were recorded on wet glass plates. Due to the size of the lens used, the glass plates captured extraordinary detail which we are only now being able to see with the advance of digital technology.  The State Library of NSW has digitised many of these photos so you can explore them online.

We started at the gates to Shore School. The school buildings include Holtermann’s tower which Holtermann built in 1874 specifically for the purpose of taking photos.  The building has been significantly modified over the years so the original building is now unrecognisable.

“Anything passed on verbally stays in there”, remarked one of the walkers, Merv Leonard.  A history walk is a sensory experience.  Throughout the walk we heard a narrative about the history of the area from Ian Hoskins. While we can look at photos in books and read descriptions of a locality on a history walk there is nothing like standing next to a building to understand its dimensions.  In the past people walked a lot more than we do today.  We can come closer to understanding the experience of people living in the nineteenth century when we feel the hilliness of the location through our feet and legs.

Old stone church from the nineteenth century

St Francis Xavier Church, built in the 1880s with a twentieth century office building towering over it.

Ian Hoskins described North Sydney of the 1870s as a ‘religious landscape’ as we walked past several old churches.  These buildings were prominent in the 1870s and 1880s when the area had a much smaller population than today. The dominance of the churches in the landscape would have exerted a subconscious and conscious reminder to residents of religious life.  These churches are now overwhelmed by tall office buildings.  The mindset of a period is reflected in the built environment.

A highlight of the walking tour was Wendy Whiteley’s garden.  She has spent years cleaning up the land owned by NSW Rail in front of her house.  Whiteley described the land as a ‘rubbish dump’ when she started.  It is now a beautiful garden maintained by two full-time gardeners and open to the public.  We didn’t have time to wander through it on the tour but I will definitely return to explore it properly.

Wendy Whiteley's garden.

Wendy Whiteley’s garden.

The Magic Pudding from Norman Lindsay's much loved children's book of the same name.

The Magic Pudding from Norman Lindsay’s much loved children’s book of the same name.

The foreshore walk at Lavender Bay is a display of pop culture from the past.  We found little sculptures of Felix the Cat and the Magic Pudding created by artist, Peter Kingston, before walking past Luna Park.

A history walk is interactive.  While the topic of the tour is pre-determined and the guide has prepared a narrative to share while walking, participants can ask questions and where relevant, contribute their own knowledge and experiences.  I asked Ian Hoskins about the iconic North Sydney swimming pool which sits on the edge of the harbour between Luna Park and the bridge.  Apparently the site where the pool now sites was used for steel fabrication while the Sydney Harbour Bridge was being constructed.  After the bridge was opened the land became available and the pool was built in 1936.  It is a joy to swim in this pool because of its fabulous surrounds.  Each year a highlight of the NSW Masters Swimming calendar is the evening sprint carnival at North Sydney.

Swimming pool with Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background

The spectacular North Sydney swimming pool just before the start of the annual Masters Swimming sprint carnival.

A quick search online reveals many history walks available throughout Australia whether self-guided through downloadable notes or walks with guides like the one in which I participated.  It is an enjoyable way to get to know a locality better and a good opportunity to learn more about the history of a place.

I am writing a number of posts about the varied forms and media that historians use to share history with the public.  As this post demonstrates, historians don’t restrict themselves to sharing history by writing books.

Historians walk the talk.


I have written about the response of the walkers to Ian Hoskins’ history walk for the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW – ‘Walking and Talking Historians‘.  In that post I also discuss some of the logistical matters that historians need to consider when conducting these walks.

For Those Who Want More…

The North Sydney Council has more information about the history of North Sydney:

The Holtermann photographic collection is a significant record of late nineteenth century Australia.  We are very fortunate to be able to access so much information about this collection online:

  • Start your exploration of the Holtermann Collection by looking at a selection of the digitised photos on the State Library of NSW website.
  • To find out if the place you are interested in is included in the Holtermann collection, go to the State Library of New South Wales home page, write the word ‘Holtermann’ plus the name of the place in the search window. Select the ‘Manuscripts & Pictures’ radio button below the search box and click ‘Go’.
  • This ABC Arts page has some more interesting background to the Holtermann Collection and digitisation.  Make sure you watch the video which includes footage of the largest glass plate negatives in the world and a demonstration of how to create a photo using the wet glass plate technology used by the photographers of the Holtermann Collection.
  • The State Library of NSW wrote blog posts about the experience of digitising these photos and look at the stories behind some of the photos.
  • The National Gallery of Australia has some informative notes, ‘Holtermann Panorama Guide’ which explains the process of creating the photos in Holtermann’s tower and how Holtermann used the photos for exhibitions overseas.
  • North Sydney Council has an information leaflet about Holtermann.

Wendy Whiteley has made a significant contribution to her community by transforming an ugly wasteland into a beautiful garden open to everyone:

  • Whiteley has built the garden on land owned but not cared for by a government authority.  This article in The Age expresses concern that the garden may not survive into the future.
  • Find out more about Wendy Whiteley’s garden through the ABC program, Gardening Australia.

11 thoughts on “Historians Walk the Talk

    • Yes, I need to do a few more. It is easy to live in a place and be oblivious to the fascinating historical stories that surround you. Every place has beautiful history (and very ugly history) but for a variety of reasons it is not valued and is often hidden. I am sure that every place in Australia (and the world) could provide interesting history walks. What is required is thorough research, care to include all the people of the past (not just the important people), and the development of an engaging narrative.


  1. Hi Yvonne, thanks for the great informative review. I so wanted to go on this walk (as did my amateur photographer husband) but we didn’t think our 6 year old would be so into it! I’ll look into the ideas you’ve mentioned about self-guided history walks. My parents also love Mrs Whiteley’s garden, they visit whenever they’re in Sydney. Great blogging!


    • Thanks for your comment Jennifer! I tried taking my primary school aged children to art exhibitions. That went down like a lead balloon! I would think that a self-guided walk would be a good way around this as it enables you to dip in and dip out when you need to.


    • It’s something special. I attend the sprint carnival even though I’m not a sprinter simply to soak up the atmosphere. I spent most of the time at the last carnival I attended taking photos.

      Aside from the view, I love this pool because it is 50m and outdoors. It is sad that many councils are converting their 50m outdoor pools into 25m indoor pools. I’m not so keen on the noisy, steamy atmosphere of indoor pools.


  2. I went on a kind of history walk last week here in Brisbane at the Boggo Road Gaol. Sure, it was a ghost tour – but the stories told are a big part of Brisbane’s history. Going on the history version of the tour in October.

    Next time I’m in Sydney I’ll have to check this tour out. Looks like it’s pretty interesting.


    • I was thinking about Brisbane when I wrote this post. My honours thesis was about the 1910 Bible in State Schools Referendum in Queensland. One of the things I did when researching in Brisbane was to walk to the buildings in the CBD which featured in the campaign. Walking around doing this made me notice things I would not have normally noticed. It also gave me a greater understanding of how the use of prominent buildings in the centre of the city would have helped to raise the attention of the public to the issue.


  3. I love doing history walks, and if I can’t find one (or have left it too late to organise when I’m on holiday) I do the next best thing and get hold of a history walks book. *smacks forehead* I can’t remember its name but there is an excellent one for Hobart, a city I’ve visited a dozen times, and I really enjoyed seeing it with fresh eyes through that book.
    Although not specifically ‘walks books’ there are two that I love: Robyn Annear wrote a terrific history of Melbourne called Bearbrass and it has a map, and the Sparrows have written two in a Radical History of Melbourne series which I have used to plod around the city too. These are nice to have with you when you walk, but because they’re books, one does need to stop every now and again for a restorative coffee while brushing up on the next site to get to.
    I wish historians would write more of them, and I’d particularly like some targeted to my areas of interest e.g. literary sites and art sites of historical interest, maybe even culinary Melbourne (the first coffee shop, the original markets etc). I have books like these that I’ve used to discover literary London and artistic Paris, and I’d love to do the same thing in Australian cities. (I do *not* want an App LOL).


    • Thankyou for mentioning those books Lisa. I must check them out. I hope other historians reading this blog take up your suggestion of writing ‘walking books’.

      There are some apps out there, one of which I will review soon but I appreciate you don’t want to use that form for a walking tour. Would you be interested in a ‘walking e-book’ which you could read on a tablet? The advantage of using mobile technology is that you don’t have to lug around a heavy book.


      • Oh dear, I am going to have to out myself as a Luddite: I loathe, hate and detest tablets in all their manifestations. I have Win8 on my new laptop and I can’t tell you how much I hate those infuriating apps.
        When I’m walking, I simply photocopy the relevant pages, pop ’em in my handbag and chuck ’em out when we’ve done the walk!
        Though I’ve reviewed other books by Robyn Annear, I haven’t reviewed Bearbrass because I read it ages ago when it first came out, but I have reviewed Radical Melbourne, see http://wp.me/phTIP-b0.


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