Jim Bendfeldt, who lived in Bellevue in Leichhardt in 1972-3, has been in touch. He recalls goat races on the ‘large grass-covered mound of dirt, our own private hill’ after a Dural visitor arrived with several animals in tow. ‘We played ‘King of the Castle’ involving the young goat (usually the winner), ourselves, a Labrador and a fickle cat. Once the kid escaped and we found it up the road in an upstairs office surrounded by terrified office workers standing on their desks.’
Jim was one of Bellevue’s last legal tenants:
We nicknamed the house The Ritz although most locals (mistakenly) called it Venetia. It was run down and didn’t have electricity connected, but a couple of years earlier some local artists and students were able to negotiate an agreement with the then landlord to rent the house and stables, for the princely sum of $5 per week as an art studio. The makeup of Bellevue’s residents would change periodically; they included Sydney Uni students, local artists, hippies and anti-expressway activists.
It was great value for us. During the Whitlam years tertiary education was free but we had little money and the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme didn’t come into effect until July 1973. To pay for food and rent we worked as window cleaners, magazine sellers and bartenders, and there was plenty of local casual employment at the Markets (before they moved to Flemington) and the railways at Darling Harbour (before its development).
Downstairs at Bellevue there were several tiny rooms, some without windows and just big enough for a mattress. (We learned that Bellevue was at one time owned by a sea captain and the crew stayed in these rooms when the ship was in port.) Upstairs was a little grander with high ceilings, floors covered in geometric patterned ceramic tiles, and fireplaces surrounded by colourful picture tiles. The lounge room was a very large double room. Beside the big kitchen was a walk-in pantry. There was a communal shower area, but the only water was cold so they must have been a hardy bunch in the old days. Occasionally we would feel a breeze coming from a vent in one of the walls. One day we removed the louvered wooden cover and found a series of narrow passageways behind it. We were hoping to discover some treasure, but all we found was an old Victorian shaving mug so we re-attached the cover to keep any vermin out.
We kept the house clean and tidy. Whenever someone first moved in they would occupy one of the tiny rooms downstairs, and once a room became vacant upstairs, they would move into that. From time to time we would wake up of a morning to find a collier ship sailing past the window on its way to the old coal wharf at Blackwattle Bay.
The doors all functioned and we patched up any broken windows with clear plastic sheeting. The fireplaces worked, and in winter we scavenged scrap timber along the waterfront and sacks of coke that had spilt on the coal wharf. Instead of electric lighting, we used candles and kerosene Tilley lamps. There was an icebox in the kitchen to keep food cool, and we cooked on a couple of Primus kerosene stoves. A local bakery gave us fresh bread, misshaped loaves that couldn’t be sliced. We couldn’t fish in Sydney Harbour because the water was too polluted but there were plenty of ‘cheap eats’ cafés along Glebe Point Rd. We had close friends on a small farm near Dural and would occasionally swap city life for rural living.
We created our own entertainment. We would have jam sessions on our little timber wharf with up to a dozen people joining in, mostly Glebe locals. One evening a man driving home to Paddington with a piano on the back of a flat tray truck spotted us as he was waiting for the Glebe Island Bridge to swing closed. He turned up at the bottom of Leichhardt St, climbed onto the back of the truck and started playing. Well, that certainly was a night to remember. As we didn’t have any immediate neighbours, we could play music well into the night without bothering anyone.
Other times we would walk down to Harold Park when the races were on, and climb up the low cliffs below Cliff Terrace overlooking Minogue Crescent. From there we could watch all of the races and enjoy an outdoor picnic supper.
We went on a few adventures. One day after a storm, a corrugated iron water tank washed up near Bellevue. Three of us climbed in and decided to paddle it across to Balmain. It was slow going as the tank was round and we were paddling in circles, pushed by a south-easterly breeze. So we took off our shirts and tied them together and between the two paddles to make a crude sail, and this got us across Blackwattle Bay.
On another occasion we found a cast iron bathtub washed up and dragged it out of the harbour. It floated but was very unstable, so we made an outrigger from a metal drum strapped to a length of timber, and then paddled it around the old Glebe Island Bridge and back to Bellevue.
Later someone moved in who had a canvas canoe, which we would paddle everywhere from the coal terminal (where the fish market is now) to Balmain and even to Circular Quay where we moored near the Water Police wharf to discourage anyone from stealing our craft. We would then catch the bus to Haymarket and buy up lots of fruit and veggies at Paddy’s Market and then come home by canoe. One day we accidentally paddled into shipping lanes and were towed back to Glebe by a Maritime Services boat!
Jim also has vivid memories of Parkes Developments and the battle for Bellevue. Jim remembers a time when, if heritage was threatened, the entire local community was motivated to act: home owners, renters, students and squatters.
Glebe in the 1970s was the equivalent of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District with many brightly painted terraces with a significant population of bohemians. Earlier tenants had graffitied ‘ZAP!’ on an outside wall of Bellevue and it became known as ‘The Zap House’. As an expression of direct action the word ZAP originated in the USA to define noisy opposition to homophobic public figures; it also referenced the Zap Comix of counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb. Many of us in the Zap House made a reasonable income selling American underground comics, books and magazines on the Sydney and NSW university campuses. These had been reprinted from the originals by Pierre, a Frenchman who set up a printing press in his shop between Cowper and Mitchell Sts on Glebe Point Rd. Environmental awareness, multiculturalism, left-wing politics, women’s rights and gay rights were some of the issues covered.
But our concerns were not mainstream. In 1973 Sydney was in the grip of development mania. NSW Premier Robin Askin wanted to carve out huge swathes of Glebe for freeways and Parkes Developments planned to build dozens of units in our local area. The company decided to evict us so they could demolish the house. They were under the impression that we were squatters and didn’t realise that we had a formal lease. After we received notice, the next few weeks were difficult and even frightening; some of our household members were threatened on the street. We felt very vulnerable and needed support. The times were dangerous. Squatters in Victoria St, Kings Cross, were risking their lives and two years later Juanita Nielson was murdered. As some of our group were actively involved in the anti-expressway campaign, we sought assistance from the Glebe Society and Joe Owens of the Builders Labourers Federation.
Although the BLF placed a green ban on Bellevue, we anticipated trouble from Parkes Developments and plastered the house with large hand-written notices: ‘This house is occupied; any attempt to demolish it will be regarded as an attempt on our lives’. ‘We are not responsible for any retaliatory actions.’ We also collected bucket-loads of rocks.
When a bulldozer turned up on a low loader truck we had time, because of the narrowness of the access streets from Glebe Point Rd, to scramble and notify people. Glebe Society members risked their motor vehicles in a bumper-to-bumper blockade. Finding they couldn’t get near the house by land, Parkes hired a motorised barge, loaded the bulldozer on board and brought it over from the Balmain side of Blackwattle Bay. They unloaded it on the western side of Bellevue and started tearing down the stables. We pelted the bulldozer’s blade with rocks (which made a lot of noise) and three drivers quit that day rather than risk injury. The closest they got to the house was chipping at some of the sandstone on the westernmost corner. Sadly, the stables were demolished.
A couple of days later we received an invitation from Parkes’ managing director Sir Paul Strasser to meet with members of his board at their offices in the city. We didn’t want the house destroyed under any circumstances, so we offered to move out only if the house were to be given permanently to the local Council or the Glebe Society to refurbish and maintain as a resource for the community. We demanded a written, witnessed agreement.
Parkes Developments went into liquidation in 1977. Bellevue and its surrounds were acquired by Leichhardt Council, passing to the City of Sydney in 2003. The story of the ongoing battle for Bellevue can be read online in earlier Glebe Society Bulletins: Jim Coombes’ account in Issue 9/1975 and Jeanette Knox’s overview in Issue 2/2007.