Sydney sandstone

Weathered sandstone in situ at Tamarama beach
The Paradise Quarry near Saunders Street, Pyrmont

Sydney sandstone is the common name for Sydney Basin Hawkesbury Sandstone, one variety of which is historically known as Yellowblock, a sedimentary rock named after the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, where this sandstone is particularly common.

It forms the bedrock for much of the region of Sydney, Australia. Well known for its durable quality, it is the reason many Aboriginal rock carvings and drawings in the area still exist. As a highly favoured building material, especially preferred during the city's early years—from the late 1790s to the 1890s—its use, particularly in public buildings, gives the city its distinctive appearance.

The stone is notable for its geological characteristics; its relationship to Sydney's vegetation and topography; the history of the quarries that worked it; and the quality of the buildings and sculptures constructed from it. This bedrock gives the city some of its "personality" by dint of its meteorological, horticultural, aesthetic and historical impact. One author describes Sydney's sandstone as "a kind of base note, an ever-present reminder of its Georgian beginnings and more ancient past."[1]

Geology, vegetation, topography

Main article: Sydney Basin
Southbound view of the F3 Freeway carved through sandstone at Berowra

Sydney sandstone was deposited in the Triassic Period probably in a freshwater delta and is the caprock which controls the erosion and scarp retreat of the Illawarra escarpment.[2][3] [4]Six kilometres of sandstone and shale lie under Sydney. In Sydney sandstone, the ripple marks from the ancient river that brought the grains of sand are distinctive and easily seen, telling geologists that the sand comes from rocks formed between 500 to 700 million years ago far to the south. This means that the highest part of the visible lines almost always faces approximately south.[5] It is a very porous stone and acts as a giant filter. It is composed of very pure silica grains and a small amount of the iron mineral siderite in varying proportions, bound with a clay matrix.[6] It oxidises to the warm yellow-brown colour that is notable in the buildings which are constructed of it.

The sand was washed from Broken Hill, and laid down in a bed that is about 200 metres thick. Currents washed through it, leaching out most of the minerals and leaving a very poor rock that made an insipid soil. They washed out channels in some places, while in others, the currents formed sand banks that show a characteristic current bedding or cross-bedding that can often be seen in cuttings.

At a time in the past, monocline formed to the west of Sydney. The monocline is a sloping bend that raises the sandstone well above where it is expected to be seen, and this is why the whole of the visible top of the Blue Mountains is made of sandstone.

From the beginnings of the colony in 1788, settlers and convicts had to work with the stone, using it for building and trying to grow crops on the soil over it. The sandstone had a negative effect on farming because it underlay most of the available flat land at a very shallow depth.

In the late 19th century, it was thought that the sandstone might contain gold. Some efforts were made at the University to test this idea. Reporting on them in 1892, Professor Liversidge said "The Hawkesbury sandstone and Waianamatta shale was, of course, derived from older and probably gold-bearing rocks hence it was not unreasonable to expect to find gold in them."[7]

The sandstone is the basis of the nutrient-poor soils found in Sydney that developed over millennia and 'came to nurture a brilliant and immensely diverse array of plants'.[8] It is, for example, the "heartland of those most characteristic of Australian trees, the eucalypts". As plants cannot afford to lose leaves to herbivores when nutrients are scarce so they defend their foliage with toxins. In eucalypts, these toxins give the bush its distinctive smell.[9]

Sandstone escarpments box in the Sydney area on three sides: to the west the Blue Mountains, and to the north and south, the Hornsby and Woronora plateaux'.[10] These escarpments, avoided by the early settlers, kept Sydney in its bounds and some people still regard the spatial boundaries of the city in these terms.

Other rock types found in Sydney include Narrabeen shale and the younger Wianamatta shale and Mittagong formation.

Hewing and working the stone

Discarded blocks of Sydney sandstone

The quality of the sandstone known to Sydneysiders as Yellow block became well known early. Called on by the Colonial Architect, for example, to be used in the main buildings of the University of Sydney, the stone was supplied from the Pyrmont quarries where there were at least 22 quarrymen working by 1858. Among them was Charles Saunders, licensee of the hotel 'The Quarryman's Arms' who became Pyrmont's biggest quarrymaster.[11] Pyrmont yellowblock not only had good hardness, texture, and colour, it was also suitable for carving and so it could be incorporated into buildings in the form of sculptures and finely carved details. The sculptor, William Priestly MacIntosh, for example, carved ten of the explorers' statues for the niches in the Lands Department building in "Pyrmont Freestone".[12]

Saunders' quarries, known locally as Paradise, Purgatory. and Hellhole, were so named by the Scottish quarrymen who worked there in the 1850s. The names related to the degree of difficulty in working the stone and its quality. The best stone was 'Paradise', a soft rock that is easy to carve and weathers to a warm, golden straw colour.[13][14] The Paradise quarry was near present-day Quarry Master and Saunders Streets, Purgatory quarry was [15] near present-day Pyrmont Bridge Road, and Hellhole was where Jones Street now is, near Fig Street.[16] Before World War I, quarries opened up in other Sydney suburbs, such as Botany, Randwick, Paddington and Waverley.[17]

The men who worked the stone were highly skilled and organised. Their trade union was the first in the world to win the eight-hour working day in 1855.[18] The daily wages for quarrymen and masons in 1868 has been cited as ten shillings, while labourers earned seven to eight shillings per day at that time.[19] Stonecutters were subject to a range of lung diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and a disease known as "stonemasons' phthisis", now known as a form of Silicosis or industrial dust disease. In 1908 questions were asked in the Legislative Assembly in the parliament of New South Wales about how likely the men cutting sandstone in Sydney were to contracting the disease and whether the Government should grant medical aid to them.[20]

Early building

Argyle Cut

The early administrators sent groups of prisoners to an area nearby, named The Rocks, to eke out what ever existence they could from the land and build housing for themselves. These first occupants hewed out sandstone from the outcrops and built simple houses. Convicts were also employed tunnelling through what is called the 'Argyle Cut' in The Rocks. The rock was dumped in the mangrove swamps at the head of the Tank Stream to begin to make Circular Quay. Later development in The Rocks area led to bond stores and warehouses being built on the bay, with better housing and pubs for entertainment. Millions of cubic feet of sandstone was excavated from Sydney's Cockatoo Island to create a dry dock on the island.

In the early days settlers found at hand a convenient substitute for stone in the hardwoods, and in Sydney sandstone was so plentiful and so easily worked that no one thought of going afield to explore for something better, and even today [1915] freestone, as the sandstone is often called, is nearly everywhere employed by architects and builders.[21]

Demand for Pyrmont stone surged in the years following the gold rush when prosperity meant that many public and private buildings were constructed. From the 1870s, various building sites had up to 300 masons working and carving the stone. Historians have reported that during this period, there were more masons working in Sydney than the whole of Europe. It was estimated that by 1928 total production of dressed sandstone from Pyrmont was more than half a million cubic yards (about 460,000 cubic metres) and much was carted away to build other places.[22][23]

Testing the stone

Crushing strengths and fire resistance tests carried out on Sydney sandstone showed that the compressive strength was 2.57 tons per square inch, or 39.9 megapascals (MPa). The crushing strength for ashlar masonry and lintels averaged 4,600 pounds per square inch (31.7 MPa). Recent tests have recorded compressive strengths of up to 70 MPa. In fire resistance tests, designed to assess the resistance to collapse of a building in a fire, the sandstone came through better than some of the very hard stones, especially the granites.[24] (The stone was subjected to temperatures approaching 800 degrees Celsius, for 15–30 minutes and plunged into cold water.)

19th and 20th century architectural examples

The main public buildings in Sydney, completed from the 1850s until the 20th century were built in sandstone from Pyrmont where some 50 quarries operated. In 1909, for example, when an enquiry was undertaken about remodelling the Parliamentary Buildings in Macquarie Street it was reported that "the external work, excepting the southern flank, was to be carried out in Sydney sandstone and the main flight of steps in stone obtained from the Purgatory quarry".[25] Many of Sydney's early sandstone buildings remain but many have been demolished. Demolished buildings include: Vickery's Warehouse, Pitt Street; Robert C. Swan & Co warehouse, Pitt Street, Mason Bros stores, Spring Street; Harrison Jones & Devlin warehouse, Macquarie Place; Mutual Life building, George Street; The Union Club, Bligh Street.[26]

Buildings in Sydney

Places of worship

St Mary's Cathedral, formal use of Sydney sandstone in Gothic revival style
Art Gallery of NSW, formal use of Sydney sandstone in Neoclassical style
Queen Victoria Building using Sydney sandstone in a Neo-Romanesque style

Educational buildings

Sydney University Great Hall Sandstone Crest (one of a series)
Newington College
Memorial to the Dead 1914-1918,
designed by William Hardy

Galleries and museums

Public buildings

Commercial buildings



Buildings outside Sydney

Declining stock and changing attitudes

Quarries were being worked out by the end of the 19th century and cutting the stone became more difficult than before as depths increased. The combination of slowing demand and technical difficulties forced quarries out of business,[28] although restorations and extensions of important public buildings still required Sydney sandstone. After the Saunders quarries closed, Pyrmont yellowblock sandstone was no longer available.

The stone was still appreciated in the 20th century. In 1938, for example, appreciation of the stone prompted criticism of proposals to use brick in Sydney especially in ecclesiastical architecture. "It Is doubtful if any country In the world has a building stone more perfectly suited for church building than our Sydney sandstone, even for the most delicate and intricate tracery."[29] By the middle of the 20th century, when new modern building materials, such as steel and structural reinforced concrete, had begun to be used, sandstone use had changed. By 1953, sandstone was "the rock foundation of most suburban gardens".[30] Sandstone buildings were considered old-fashioned and many were demolished. Some gained a reprieve after much debate. The Queen Victoria Building, for example, a grand and ornate building occupying an entire Sydney block and faced with Pyrmont stone, was threatened with demolition and replacement by a car park.[31] A great debate among supporters and opponents of demolition followed. One architect, Elias Duek-Cohen, referred to its material in his defence of the building: 'It has a fine facade in warm-coloured stone ... forming a richly modelled surface'.[32] Demolition of sandstone buildings in The Rocks was forestalled in part because of a Green Ban. A revival began when the heritage value of these older buildings was recognised.

Contemporary reports have noted the contribution of sandstone quarrying to ecological degradation.[33] "Sandstone quarrying is very detrimental to native flora and fauna. It destroys habitat, alters landform, drainage and soil conditions, creates waste pollution, and usually generates noise and dust ... Existing features ... can be removed or obliterated, and local waterways affected by sedimentation. More widely, the extraction and processing of sandstone requires considerable energy, with its related environmental impacts."[34] The impact on the Pyrmont peninsula has been described as an example of "systematic destruction of ecology in favour of economy ... The peninsula may be an extreme example of what happens when ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘economic growth’ take the box seats of society."[33]


Towards the end of the 20th century, it was realised that more stone would be needed for future conservation work. The New South Wales State Government established a Centenary Stonework Program to ensure its availability. The program was also a catalyst for private projects as well as conservation and maintenance research.[35] Even though the government rescued large blocks and stockpiled it, shortages continue because developers excavate large building sites and break the material up into unusable pieces. According to the manager for the State Government's Centenary Stonework Program, Ron Powell, "There is nothing stopping developers at all from just trashing it".[36] In 2008, a Sydney city councillor said that planning laws stand, City of Sydney Council can allow the yellowblock to be "harvested" but cannot mandate that developers excavate the stone in a way that preserves it.[36] Conservation and a revival in use has caused some clashes between principles and practice.[37]

In spite of the shortages, the revived industry continues to quarry, process, and supply the stone for building, landscaping, commercial, and conservation work in Australia and there are public courses available in Stonemasonry.[38] It is now also used as a contemporary building material in major constructions and restorations such as Governor Phillip Tower and the Commemorative Museum, winning international architectural awards for excellence. Architects, such as the Robin Boyd Award winner Graham Jahn, describe Sydney's sandstone buildings as "wonderful".[39]

Conservation use

Weathered 19th century wall of Sydney sandstone
Contemporary wall of Sydney sandstone

In February 2012, conservation work began on the sandstone of the clock tower of Sydney Town Hall as part of a four-year, $32 million project to restore the building, which dates from the late 19th century. The capitals on top of the tower columns needed replacement because they had been badly affected by weather and pollution. The work needs about 26 cubic metres of yellow block sandstone and is done by a team of expert stonemasons working on the ground.[40][41]

Contemporary use

Sculptural uses of Sydney sandstone make aesthetic and symbolic use of the material's connection with Sydney's geology as well as its flora and fauna. For example, the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney commissioned sculptor Chris Booth to design a living sculpture (entitled Wurrungwuri) for its grounds, officially unveiled 9 March 2011. One of the two main pieces of the sculpture is a 'sandstone wave', consisting of about 200 tonnes of sandstone blocks in an undulating form reminiscent of the tectonic forces that created the stone. The sculptor says the design is 'inspired by the sandstone stratas it emerges from and, of course, the link to the sea which it cascades towards ... its evolution is from the geomorphology.'[42]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sydney sandstone.


  1. Falconer 2010 p.3
  2. Fairley, 2000 p. 19
  3. Branagan, 2000
  4. "The Sydney Basin". Australian Museum. 2 June 2009. Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  5. Flannery, Tim, "Introduction: The sandstone city" in Flannery 1999 pp8-9
  6. Flannery, Tim; 'The Stone', in Deirmendjian, 2002.
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  11. Irving 2006, pp9-10
  12. Irving 2006, p11
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  19. Irving 2006, p10
  20. "Stonemasons' Phthisis". The Sydney Morning Herald. 13 August 1908. p. 4. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
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  24. Irving 2006 p61
  25. "Parliament House". The Sydney Morning Herald. NSW. 16 January 1909. p. 11. Retrieved 13 January 2011.
  26. Irving 2006 p57
  27. "An untrained Architect". The Sydney Morning Herald. 7 May 1938. p. 21. Retrieved 12 February 2011.
  28. Irving 2006, p41
  29. "Letters". The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 February 1938. p. 8. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  30. "Flagstones in your garden". The Sydney Morning Herald. 3 February 1953. p. 7. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  31. Shaw, 1987, p78
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  33. 1 2 Broadbent 2010 p584
  34. Broadbent 2010, p428
  35. Irving 2006 p78
  36. 1 2 Frew, Wendy (5 January 2008). "This is one honey of a stone, and it's almost gone". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 12 February 2011.
  37. Swann, Jasper. "Sydney yellowbock: is its revival a blessing or a curse?" (PDF). Retrieved 4 June 2016.
  38. TAFENSW Certificate III in Stonemasonry
  39. Graham Jahn – Practising Architect professional biography
  40. Hasham, Nicole (7 December 2011). "Work will put fresh smile on Town Hall's dial". The Sydney Morning Herald. NSW. Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  41. McKenny, Leesha (10 April 2012). "Old trade, new look: stonemasons carve Town Hall a fresh face". Sydney Morning Herald. NSW. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  42. Mark Savio, 'A Living Sculpture' in The Gardens, Issue 87 (Summer 2010/11) p26. ISSN 1324-8219


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