Coroners Court (former) - Shops & offices
Statement of SignificanceThe site of the former Coroner's Court was associated with the judicial investigation of unexplained or sudden death from 1854 until 1971. It contains the earliest surviving purpose-built Coroner's Court in NSW, and possibly also the archaeological remains of the two earliest purpose-built morgues in NSW. The place has a unique ability to demonstrate (through its external appearance and internal layout and fabric) the history of the Coroner's office and of Coronial inquests, and has associations with some of NSW's most notorious cases of unnatural death, including the 'Shark Arm Murder' and the Bogle-Chandler case. The former Court was also the site of the first Visitors Centre in The Rocks, the earliest public face of the Sydney Cover Redevelopment Authority. The building is a good representative example of the Federation Free Style as practised by W L Vernon during his period as NSW Government Architect, and is substantially intact both internally and externally.
Coroners Court, City Morgue (demolished 1972),The Rocks Visitors Centre, Offices, antique shop, craft gallery
Government and Administration
Construction Years: 1906 - 1908
Physical Description: The Coroner's Court is designed in the 'Federation Free Style' manner typical of many of the buildings credited to its designer, W L Vernon. The style of the building is restrained, relying on massing and modelling rather than architectural detail for decoration. The building is essentially composed of two structures: - a single storey section, containing courtroom with associated witness rooms, arcade at front and verandah at rear. - a two storey section, containing offices and residence with attic bedrooms. The interior layout on the George St. level (level 3) was designed around a centrally placed courtroom with a hallway on two sides and a verandah and arcade on the other two sides. The rest of level 3 is taken up by the two witness rooms to the south and the three offices to the north. A stairway in the north hall leads up to the original residential parts of the building on level 4, which replicates the floor below, and level 5, which contains a further two rooms. Additional rooms have been created on level 2, under the verandah. (PWD 1991:27; for more detailed information see 27-28)Style: Federation Free Style; Storeys: Five; Facade: Brickwork/stonework; Side Rear Walls: Brick; Internal Walls: Painted brick/plastered; Roof Cladding: Slate with lead ridge capping and copper valleys; Stairs: Timber.
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Historic Notes and Themes
Historical notes: The site of the former Coroners' Court was originally part of the first colonial dockyard, constructed in 1797, which stretched from the MCA to Campbell's Cove. At the northern end of the dockyard, land was set aside for the residence and garden of the Master Boat Builder, Thomas Moore. In the 1820s, Moore's house was converted to the Naval Office, the headquarters for the imposition of Customs. This was then transferred to a new Customs House on Argyle St (into what is now the east store of the Argyle Stores) in 1827 and the Naval Office was demolished in 1833. By 1832, the land was divided in two by a path descending to the water, eventually becoming Bethel Street, named after the Bethel Union, founders of the Mariner's Church. In 1846 following the retirement of John Cadman, his cottage and associated premises were used by the Water Police as a court, constables' accommodation and magistrate's offices, this may have influenced the later location of the morgue.In June 1853 the third coroner for Sydney, John Brenan, suggested to the Colonial Secretary that a Dead House or Morgue be built on crown land near Cadman's Cottage, then being used by the Water Police. The Colonial Secretary asked Edmund Blackett, the Colonial Architect to prepare plans and estimates for the building. Blackett resigned in 1854 to work on the University of Sydney and it is unsure if he or his successor William Weaver prepared the plans for the building. Tenders for the dead house were received in July 1854 and the successful tenderer was Thomas Coghlan who was later prosecuted by the Crown for fraudulently claiming for excavation work that he did not actually carry out. It appears the building was dogged by problems. Weaver managed to incur the Governor's displeasure over irregularities arising out of the completion of the building. In trying to resolve the problems, Weaver instructed further work to be done, which the Colonial Secretary's office refused to pay for, leading to his resignation. The dead house was a simple building with stone foundations, brick walls with external stucco and a slated roof. The facilities were very basic. Water was laid on after the building was constructed with pipes to the room where the bodies were placed and the outer yard. A constable of the Water Police was paid to keep the place clean. In 1862 water closets and dust bins were built nearby, one of three sets of identical buildings for this purpose along the west side of the quay. In 1864 in response to a request from Dr Bedford, an additional room was built to provide a small office and the building was re-floored with Caithness stone. All of the windows in the locality required shutters 'to prevent them from being injured'. The building was used to house bodies that were awaiting identification and by the coroner and jurymen as they were required to view the body before proceeding to a coronial inquest. It was however 'simply a room with a table in it' as the coroner noted in 1885 and with only enough space for two bodies. If there were more than this they had to be laid on the floor where jurors had to step over them when viewing.The problems of keeping such a building in a sanitary condition in the Sydney climate proved difficult. In 1856 it was reported to have been in a 'filthy state' in the same memorandum requesting the obscuring of the windows. Smells were a frequent problem, the Coroner in 1862, John S Parker reported to the Colonial Secretary that the ventilation was insufficient, 'at the request of thirteen respectable citizens who composed the jury that had to view the body of a sailor who had been taken out of the harbour in a state of decomposition and had to be kept there two days'. Three more ventilators were added and this may be the beginning to the tradition of holding the Coroner's Court proceedings in the Observer Hotel across the road. In the earliest years of settlement and for much longer in country areas, bodies were viewed and inquests held in the home of the deceased or in a nearby public house, the largest commonly available building where there was sufficient room in which to assemble the requisite jury of twelve men. While the dead house provided a place for bodies to be kept when awaiting identification and for viewing by the jury, the inquests on bodies held in the dead house at Circular Quay were held in nearby hotels. Henry Shiell (city coroner from 1866) noted in 1880 that all inquests on bodies lying at the dead house at Circular Quay had been held in the Observer Hotel for ten years free of charge, before they moved to the Brecknock Arms Hotel. When the publican, Mrs Ross, left the Brecknock Arms in 1880, Shiell reported that the landlord of the Observer Tavern had asked him to resume holding inquests there, which was the nearest of all the hotels in Lower George Street and had sufficient accommodation. The usual fee of 10 shillings per inquest would be required. Three years later, when the room at the Observer Hotel was frequently not available the inquests moved to the White Hart, later renamed the Soudan Hotel. The original generosity of the Observer's landlord may have been more than repaid by takings when inquests were held. Jurors no doubt required considerable liquid refreshment after their duties and public interest in the proceedings of the coroner's court would have also guaranteed increased patronage particularly for the more sensational cases. Inquests were also held at many other hotels in the locality.The Sydney coroner does not appear to have been provided with office accommodation until about 1858 when rooms in the Hyde Park Barracks were converted for use by the District Court and other legal officers. There was no actual court room and the coroner and his jury had to use 'a miserably small wretched unhealthy room' whose 'unwholesome atmosphere' and proximity to the building's cesspools could occasion the removal of the jury to a nearby hotel in order to conduct an inquest. In 1878 a court room was finally provided at the Hyde Park Barracks but in 1884, after less than six years, this was taken over for use by the District Court and the Sydney coroner, Henry Shiell moved his office to his residence in Upper Fort Street. Three years later in October 1887 accommodation was once more provided at the Hyde Park Barracks in what was now somewhat grandly named Chancery Square. The available premises were more commodious than previously, comprising a court room, offices and jury retiring room. It seems that the coroner remained here until the construction of the purpose-built coroner's court in George Street North in 1907. In 1861 the investigation of fires was added to the coroner's duties and by 1886-1887 Henry Shiell had an annual workload of over 600 reports of deaths or fires from the Sydney police. By the later 19th century handbooks and manuals for magistrates and coroners were being produced as additional areas of investigation and new responsibilities were added to their role.From 1888 the building was known as the North Sydney morgue. The South Sydney morgue, which was built in 1881, was near Belmore Park close to the Devonshire Street Cemetery.By the turn of the 20th century when the government resumed The Rocks, the facilities of the 1850s dead house were well out of date. In 1901 the South Sydney morgue on Elizabeth Street near Belmore Park was demolished for the construction of Central Railway, which necessitated the removal not only of the occupants of the adjacent Devonshire Street Cemetery but also of many historic buildings at the south end of Pitt Street.Plans for the new morgue were prepared in October 1905 by the Government Architect's office, then under the direction of W L Vernon. The architectural style was typical of the new buildings being constructed in The Rocks at this period by the Department of Public Works, using dark brick with sandstone trim. The new facility was to be built on the site of the old morgue and its associated buildings including the caretaker's quartersThe facilities in the new building were still quite basic, consisting of: a receiving room, the morgue (where bodies could be viewed from a glass partitioned corridor), the post mortem room and a laboratory. The building was long, narrow and single storey. On the Circular Quay side natural lighting was provided by semi-circular windows below the eaves and on the west side (where the building was set at the foot of a 'precipice') by clerestory windows. Privacy was guaranteed by this arrangement. A high wall along the eastern boundary on the Circular Quay frontage, then a public street providing vehicular access, gave the building extra protection from the public gaze. In November 1904 the Department of Public Works wrote to the City Council asking for permission to close Bethel Street in connection with the erection of a new morgue. The closure of Bethel Street would provide a roughly square site between the Sailors' Home and the Mariners' Church, where the existing morgue was already located. The street had been vested in the Sydney Harbour Trust in June 1901 after being resumed by government in 1900 but was subsequently revested in the Minister for Public Works for the purposes of erecting a new morgue. Bethel Street, was reduced to a narrow lane running along the wall of the Mariners' Church. The new Morgue was designed and completed before the Court. Before it's construction, several structures on the site had to be demolished, these included the old Dead House, a caretakers cottage, and a set of stairs. A year after the plans were prepared for the morgue, the Public Works Department designed the new coroner's court to be built on the George Street North frontage. The building was constructed on top of the 'precipice' that formed the backdrop to the morgue, part of which remained exposed in the east elevation of the new court house. Where the new building cut across the original line of Bethel Street, a stone retaining wall was to be kept. The construction of a retaining wall had been included in the original specifications for forming Bethel Street in 1871-1872 and the wall can be clearly seen in later photographs.Like all courts, the design for the new coroner's court ensured the proper separation of the various parties involved in the proceedings, each of whom had separate entrances and associated facilities; the jurors, coroner and court officials on the north side of the building and the witnesses on the south side, separated by the central court room and its flanking corridors. As was thought proper at the time, female and male witnesses had their own waiting rooms, with the ladies toilet leading directly off the ladies' waiting room. For the all-male jury, toilet facilities were provided in the basement at the north-east corner of the building. Like other justices, the coroner had his own private facilities leading directly off his room. The back verandah provided access via internal and external stairs to the morgue below on the quay. Above the offices at the north end of the building were the court caretaker's quarters, on the first floor and in the attic. The court room was of typical plan with double ceiling height windows at roof level for additional natural light and a central lantern for ventilation. Unlike other contemporary court rooms, more particularly those for the higher courts, the coroner's court had windows at ground level, protected to some extent from outside disturbance by the arcade on the George Street North side and at the back by a verandah. The coroner's court was completed in 1908 at a cost of £4235. With both a new morgue and coroner's court, the Government Architect reported that 'Sydney now possesses a complete establishment with the most modern appliances and fittings.'Construction of the two buildings also involved the loss of a large tree which earlier photographs show next to the Sailor's Home. It may also have lead to an interesting historical discovery. In 1920 Charles Bertie recorded that 'some 30 years ago' a paving slab discovered in Bethel Street turned out to be the tombstone of a sailor on the 'Sirius' of the First Fleet. The memorial was to George Groves, a boatswain's yeoman.On the south side of the site a new dwarf wall and fence were constructed along the Sailors' Home boundary. At the north-east corner, against the inside of the perimeter wall, were new urinals and WCs and at the south-east corner the caretaker's office. As bodies could be received at any time of the day or night, the morgue attendant was required to be on duty at all times. A minor addition was made at the rear of the coroner's court in 1909, although no plans could be found, it seems likely that this was to provide a garage for morgue transport. In 1911 further changes were made to provide a washhouse for the caretaker. This was built at the south-east corner of the building at the southern end of the verandah. In order to access this from the existing quarters, the roof of the verandah was converted into a flat area with a covered lobby leading to it from the existing stairs to the attic storey. A protective railing was provided along the new roof walkway.In 1935 the Corner's Court was the scene of an inquest into a bizarre death which has become famous throughout Australia. It concerned the alleged murder of James Smith, and became known as 'the Shark Arm Murder'. On 17 April 1935 a fisherman caught a large shark which he took to the aquarium then located at Coogee. A few days later the shark became sick and regurgitated a large amount of undigested matter, including a human arm with a tattoo attached to a length of rope. The arm was identified by the tattoo as belonging to James Smith. The inquest into his death by the Coroner was challenged in the Supreme Court by arguing that an arm did not constitute a body. This led to calls for the Coroner's Act to be altered.Thirty years after the morgue was built, its facilities were very out-dated and by the later 1930s the Commissioner of Police was recommending that a new morgue be built. Overseas examples, such as the morgue in Glasgow, were cited as examples of appropriate modern standards and facilities. In 1936 representations were being made that the Morgue was poorly sited. In December the Captain of the P&O Strathaird observed that the passengers could clearly see into the post-mortem room where a body was visible. Residents around the vicinity of the Morgue, including the Superintendent of the Sailor's Home also complained about the sights and smells from the building. In 1937 the Commissioner of Police organised a conference discussing building a new morgue and the requirements needed. Nothing had been done by the time the Second World War was declared in 1939 and the only addition to the site was an air raid shelter with concrete roof, built on the west side of the building next to the rock face. It was later used as plant room and store. As the war drew to a close, the City Coroner brought the matter to the attention of the Under Secretary of Justice. The morgue was unhygienic, too small, lacked any refrigeration facilities and was 'crude and altogether unworthy of the third largest City in the British Empire'. When the grave diggers refused to work from 23-27 December 1944 the morgue was 'filled to overflowing with stinking dead bodies'. In 1945 the Morgue was inspected by a committee who were less than impressed by its siting and accommodation and they also recorded that at times the stench emanating from the building was offensive. Following this report, required alterations were finally made and the building was enlarged. Meanwhile the Coroner was concerned about the state of the Court and he submitted a list of urgent repairs in 1948, but there is no record of any work being carried out. The Government Architect, Cobden Parkes, supported this assessment, commenting that the 'present building is a disgrace. The whole set up is so crude that I cannot understand how it has continued in the present conditions for so long'. A report by the Public Service Board in 1945 added further weight to the argument for improvements. In the immediate post-war period a lack of funds and of building materials limited construction work, but the needs of the morgue remained pressing. Alterations and additions, including the installation of refrigerated chambers, were finally undertaken in 1947-1948. Meanwhile the morgue moved to temporary premises in the George Street North police station. To provide extra space, an addition was built on the east side of the building within the area once occupied by the yard and perimeter wall, making room for a caretaker's bedroom, doctor's office and waiting room for those who had come to identify bodies. In the process the whole of the interior plan of the morgue was reconfigured eliminating most of the corridor along the west side and providing much needed refrigeration cabinets for bodies. The design in contemporary style made absolutely no concessions to the architectural style of the original building. The finished product was far from ideal. While the installation of refrigeration was certainly welcome, the accommodation had not been increased to the extent requested. Only fifteen chambers had been installed (thirty had been requested) and with a five-day working week the morgue could get full very quickly.There are no surviving plans of any changes to the coroner's court after 1911 other than those associated with alterations and additions to the morgue. In 1912 new legislation provided that the coroner could sit alone without a jury. This would have rendered some of the court facilities obsolete. In 1952 additional post mortem accommodation was provided on the west side of the morgue (formerly the air raid shelter, then in 1946 used as a plant room and store) for three more post-mortem tables and a relocated store. The plant servicing the building had to be moved and was accommodated within part of the back verandah of the court house, necessitating some changes to the windows on the east wall of that building. By 1959 the City Coroner's office was in the room at north-east corner of the building that had formerly been the jury room.While earlier additions to the morgue had been to provide much needed extra space for bodies, the developing science of forensic medicine required appropriate laboratory and staff facilities, which were completely wanting in the existing morgue. The final addition to the morgue was built in 1967 and was for the Department of Public Health, Division of Forensic Medicine. The caretaker's washhouse built in 1911 was converted into a glass blowing room and frozen section laboratory and additional offices were built on top of the flat roof on the east side of the building that had also been built part of the 1911 work. In the process two of the existing dormer windows were removed from the eastern elevation of the court house. This was however very much a temporary solution and in August 1971 the coroner's court and morgue moved to new premises on Parramatta Road, Glebe.In 1971 following the removal of the morgue and coroner's court to the new premises, the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority resolved to demolish the old morgue for a car park site. The proposal was one of a number of projects opposed by the Builders' Labourers Federation as part of their Green Bans at The Rocks but demolition was eventually allowed to proceed. In January 1972 a number of women held up work by standing in front of a bulldozer working on the site, but by then most of the morgue had been demolished. For the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority the vacant coroner's court provided an opportunity to promote itself and its work to the public and the building was remodelled as a visitors' centre. The work was carried out in 1972-1973 by Philip Cox, Storey & Partners Pty Ltd. The north wing, which had originally consisted of offices and the caretaker's quarters, was converted into office space, including accommodation for the Authority. In the court room all of the furniture was removed and the space used as a visitors' centre and exhibition gallery while the former witnesses' waiting rooms were converted into toilets. The court's two separate entrances provided in the original design to ensure the separation of the various parties attending court, proved useful as separate entrances to the private office space and to the public areas. The Rocks Visitors Centre was formally opened on 1 February 1973 by the Lord Mayor, David Griffin and served as a showcase where the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority could present facts about the redevelopment scheme and could also promote tourism. Faced with what Owen Magee, SCRA's director, described as 'the Builders' Labourers Federation onslaught and the accompanying blizzard of misinformation' the Visitors Centre provided room for displays, models and drawings of sites under review and for the exhibition of archaeological artefacts excavated on The Rocks. The accommodation was however somewhat limited and despite 'extensive alterations' made in 1976, the floor space was very constricted for display purposes. The Centre later included a theatrette that featured an audio-visual presentation of the history of The Rocks and plans for the future. By 1985 the Centre had 200,000 visitors a year. Part of the north wing was used as tea rooms during this period.In 1986 the Centre was refurbished by Concepts Plus to provide a new staff lounge and staff toilet, an area for artefact storage and a curator's workroom with some additional storage on the car park level. Part of the north (administrative) wing of the building was leased by the Parks Service Division of the Department of Environment and Conservation. The Authority itself undertook further works to the building in 1986-87, removing the toilets from the former witness rooms and making an opening in the wall between them, as well as one between the former jury room and clerk's room. At some stage prior to this, the offices on the flat roof added in 1946 must have been removed, as in 1986 a new membrane roof was installed and the additional brickwork on the original parapet wall was removed.The Visitors Centre remained in the former coroner's court until 1990 when it moved to the Sailors' Home next door and became the Sydney Information Centre. Following this move the former courtroom and basement were occupied by the firm Bottom of the Harbour Antiques. The central and southern parts of the building are currently used by the Craft Centre and the administrative wing is leased out.Archaeology Notes: The "Dead House" stood here from at least the 1830s. A laneway, Bethel Lane, was created in 1861 and cut diagonally from south at George St to north at Circular Quay West. In 1871 a headstone of 1788 was discovered here opening debate that a cemetery may have been located nearby. The new morgue and coroner's court were built in 1907.
Historical significance: The site of the Coroners Court on George Street is important in the history of NSW as having associations with the early development of Sydney since 1788, and earlier with the Cadigal people of Sydney Harbour. To the Cadigal the site formed part of a strip of land along the western shore of Warrane (Sydney Cove) which they called "Tallawolladah". The fact that this area was named denotes it as a special or particular place for the indigenous peoples of Sydney Harbour before the coming of the Europeans.The site is associated with George Street, which is the first road created in the settlement and thus the oldest road in NSW. The history of George Street with its uses and changes since 1788, illustrate and inform the aspirations and way of life of Europeans in Australia.The former Coroner's Court has historical significance as the earliest purpose-built Coroner's Court in New South Wales (and the only pre-1970 Coroner's Court), and has a unique ability to demonstrate through its external appearance and internal layout and fabric the history of the Coroner's office and of Coronial inquests, including the social status of its various users. The surviving building provides the only remaining evidence of the site's association with early colonial methods of dealing with the investigation of unexplained or sudden deaths, over a continuous period from 1854 (when the Dead House was constructed) to 1971. The former Court was also the site of the first Visitors Centre in The Rocks, the earliest public face of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, and thus has an important place in the events that led to the preservation of The Rocks. The place meets this criterion at a State level for its contribution to the history of the judicial investigation of deaths in NSW and of the State-significant area of The Rocks.
Historical association: The former Coroner's Court is associated with the public architecture of Walter Liberty Vernon, NSW Government Architect from 1890 to 1991, and is a good representative example of his work. The site has associations with the Colonial and later Government Coroners from 1854 until 1971, and with some of NSW's most notorious cases of unnatural death, including the 'Shark Arm Murder' and the Bogle-Chandler case. The building meets this criterion at a State level.
Aesthetic significance: The former Coroner's Court is a good representative example of the Federation Free Style typical of the work of W L Vernon, in its use of an unpretentious, almost domestic design invoking the truth-to-materials aesthetics of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, and using picturesque elements and a dramatic roof line with restrained use of ornamentation. The building meets this criterion at a local level for its aesthetic contribution to the State-significant area of The Rocks.
Social significance: The place does not meet this criterion, as it has no particular association with an identifiable group.
Research significance: The remains of an early sandstone wall and rock outcrop beneath the building have some potential to contribute to information about the early history and character of this part of The Rocks. The place is therefore considered to meet this criterion at a local level.
Rare assessment: The former Coroner's Court meets this criterion at a State level, as the earliest purpose-built Coroner's Court in NSW, on a site associated with the judicial investigation of unexplained deaths in Sydney since 1854.
Representative assessment: The former Coroner's Court is a good representative example of the Federation Free Style of architecture as practised by W L Vernon during his period as Government Architect. The former Coroner's Court meets this criterion at a State level.
Intact assessment: Archaeological resource. It is possible the original alignment of Bethel St may exist under part of the building.
Physical condition: Archaeology Assessment Condition: Partly disturbed. Assessment Basis: Bedrock visible, with floors terraced into hill slope, and below George Street level. Basements. Rear of site level with Circular Quay West. Visible bedrock indicates that the original surface has been cut into. The evaluation of the site depends on the dating of the quarrying, as early levelling will allow the subsequent build-up of archaeological deposits. Foundations of the second morgue (c1907), demolished in the 1970s, are present in the vacant site at the rear. It is possible that the foundations also exist for the earlier morgue and the original alignment of Bethel Street as it joins George St.
|Australian Theme||NSW Theme||Local Theme|
|Governing||Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities.|
|Developing local, regional and national economies||Activities relating to buying, selling and exchanging goods and services.|
|Developing local, regional and national economies||Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements.|
|Building settlements, towns and cities||Activities associated with the provision of services, especially on a communal basis.|
|Governing||Activities associated with maintaining, promoting and implementing criminal and civil law and legal processes.|
|Marking the phases of life||Activities associated with the initial stages of human life and the bearing of children, and with the final stages of human life and disposal of the dead.|
|Heritage Listing||Listing Title||Listing Number||Gazette Date||Gazette Number||Gazette Page|
|Register of the National Estate||1/12/036/0536||Coroner's Court (former)||21/10/1980||2463|
|Local Environmental Plan|
|National Trust of Australia Register||10500||11/09/1981|
|Royal Australian Institute of Architects register||4700848|
|Heritage Act - State Heritage Register||01541||Coroner's Court (former) - Shops & offices||10/05/2002||2868||85|
|Public Works Department - Former register|
|Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage register||Place Management NSW|
|Within a National Trust conservation area||10499|