The Argyle Cut, located in the heart of Sydney’s The Rocks, is a heritage-listed, deep-rock road cutting that is significant for historical, technological and scientific reasons, and has ties to the industrial and labour development of Sydney.
The conception for the Argyle Cut began in the early 1800s, as growing infrastructure in the colony meant that a direct link between The Rocks and Millers Point was crucial. At the time, the two popular Sydney areas were separated by a giant sandstone ridge. Pedestrians were able to cross the divided Sydney suburbs by scaling the unsafe and deteriorating steps that had been carved into the rock back in 1810, when Argyle Street was first paved and named. Transporting cargo, however, was impossible, and carriages had to make a long detour to access Darling Harbour.
The first plan came from Alexander Berry, one of Sydney’s wealthiest landowners, who ambitiously aimed to cut through the centre of the rock, and then issue a toll to passengers and stock using the cut. Shareholders would receive dividends from the investment, with any surplus funds accumulating until the cost of the initial works was repaid to shareholders. The levy would then be removed. The government quickly shut this down and decided to tackle the work themselves.
In 1832, government architect Edward Hallen drew the official plan for the Argyle Cut. Construction began in 1843, with overseer Tim Lane head of the convict-only labour force. Convicts were chained together and subjected to cruel floggings from Lane and his team. Due to the convicts’ lack of progress with hand tools, as well as complaints from residents and businesses on Argyle Street and surrounds, the project was ultimately abandoned before completion.
The Argyle Cut was eventually completed in 1859, using paid council labour and explosives provided by the Sydney Municipal Council. By 1911, the Sydney Harbour Trust undertook improvements in the area,
knocking down several of the nearby overhead bridges that had been built in the 1860s following the cut’s completion. In the early 1920s, the Argyle Cut was widened, and construction began on the Harbour Bridge to accommodate the growth of both population and transportation across Sydney.
These days, the cut is nestled among tree-lined pathways and some of Sydney’s best night-life at The Rocks. Many of Sydney’s oldest buildings call Argyle Street home, and restaurants, pubs and clubs give patrons a view of the magnificent Argyle Cut walls. Now covered in small patches of moss, the cut’s sandstone ridge has weathered over the last century, yet is still sturdy and continues to provide passage between Millers Point and The Rocks.
For more than 150 years, the Argyle Cut has remained an iconic representation of Sydney’s growth, and continues to be a landmark of history in the middle of a thriving urban landscape.
Pictured: Argyle Cut, circa 1895. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia