Redfern history

Redfern is a suburb a short drive south of the city centre. It is where many Aboriginal people choose to live. Murals document Aboriginal activity and issues. The political centre is “The Block”, a former railway factory area.

Redfern is roughly defined by four streets: Eveleigh, Caroline, Hugo and Hudson.

Redfern train station at sunset. Redfern railway station. There was, and still is, constant migration of Aboriginal people from remote areas to the city and vice-versa.

Redfern was named after surgeon William Redfern who was granted 100 acres of land in 1817 by the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.

In August 1859, Redfern was proclaimed a municipality of Sydney. Part of the suburb was then a market garden with open-air markets selling produce direct to its citizens. “Heaps of Kooris worked in the markets, the railways, in meatworks and in factories, such as the chocolate factory,” remembers historian Heidi Norman [1]. “There was a real acceptance of Aboriginal people in the workforce.”

There was a mixture of races, with Chinese, English, Aboriginal, Portuguese and other people sharing the suburb, and some of the older buildings are still part of the cityscape today.

Aboriginal people from rural areas migrated to Redfern in greater numbers during the 1920s, lured by work opportunities at the Eveleigh railyards.

By 1945 Redfern was home to 158 factories.

I don't want dirty blacks living here.—A white landlord kicking out Aboriginal tenants in the 1960s, illustrating the need for affordable Aboriginal housing [2]

Redfern gave birth to Australia’s first Aboriginal-run health, legal and children’s services in the 1970s. In 1972, The Block became a unique project in Aboriginal-run housing and the focal point for the reconciliation movement [3].

In the 1980s the manufacturing sector became increasingly automated, and Redfern changed. Once it was a “haven” and “modern sacred site” for Aboriginal families [2]. But “after decades of being ravaged by poverty and low employment, discrimination, drink, drugs and death, crime, heavy-handed policing, riots, antagonistic politicians and negative media coverage” had turned into “a kind of hell” for some of its residents.

On 10 December 1992, then-Prime Minister Paul Keating made his now historic speech in Redfern Park. For the first time he publicly acknowledged to Aboriginal people that European settlers were responsible for the difficulties Aboriginal communities continued to face: “We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

Redfern today

A festival brochure [4] described Redfern as “a place of many stories, of inspirational leaders, fiery rhetoric and activism. It is an urban meeting place for Aboriginal Australians from all over the country.”

“Sometimes besieged, always resilient, at Redfern’s core is its thriving and dynamic community, home to many of Australia’s political and cultural trailblazers.”

“Known to locals as the ‘Black Capital of Australia’, Redfern is home to artists, leaders and citizens who vigorously offer Sydneysiders an alternative history and, potentially, our alternative future.”

In 2006 Redfern was home to more than 11,400 people. The suburb celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009.

Redfern is blackfella gathering ground number one.—Mick Mundine, CEO Aboriginal Housing Commission [5]

The Block

Redfern The Block. The Block in Redfern with some of the houses earmarked for demolition in the background.

The area the surrounds the Block has been a meeting place for Aboriginal people for “tens of thousands of years” [6]. In more recent times the area was a focal point for the reconciliation movement.

Referring to a time when many residents were stuck in a vicious cycle of drugs, alcohol and violence, the Block was called “The Blockage” [5].

The Aboriginal Housing Company—Australia’s first community housing organisation— is the landlord of many of the Block’s properties, the first urban-based land that Aboriginal people owned in the Sydney CBD. But the AHC had trouble collecting its rent and maintaining the crumbling houses, as it only received little public funding [2].

A mural of the Aboriginal flag on the wall of the Elouera-Tony Mundine Gym has become a de-facto icon for the Block. Tongan-born Alex Tui, a former world champion kickboxer, painted the mural in 2000 to “bring people together and [reaffirm] ownership of [Aboriginal people’s] part of Sydney.” [7]

In early 2010 the last 20 remaining houses on Eveleigh, Vine, Louis and Caroline Streets were demolished to make way for replacement housing, commercial, retail and cultural spaces. This so-called Pemulwuy Project takes its name from the famed Aboriginal warrior.

Because of its significance the Block is regarded by many Aboriginal people as a “modern-day sacred site” [6].

I love The Block, I love being a part of it and Redfern.—Shane Phillips, CEO of the Tribal Warrior Association [2]

My home on The Block
Will no longer be;
Because the Aboriginal Housing Company
Is going to evict me.

Put me out on the streets
Ain't that bloody sweet?
After many years living in hell
In them run down houses
That Mickey thought were swell.

And now the redevelopment
Is finally here after all those bloody years waiting?
Wanting a new home
But only to be told I have to leave and vacate The Block.
A 60 days eviction notice
Is all I bloody get instead?
Of a new house in this place
I once called home
The Block!

Poem by an Aboriginal resident of The Block [8] in the wake of the November 19, 2010 deadline before demolition began in early 2011. Read more Aboriginal poems.

Getting there

From Sydney’s CBD take any south-bound train. Redfern is the first stop after Central.


View article sources (8)

1. ^ ‘Redfern celebrates’, Koori Mail 458 p.38
2. ^ a b c d 'Ambitious plans for a piece of our history', Koori Mail 491 p.6
3. ^ ‘The Block, Redfern’, TimeOut Sydney 21-27/5/2008 p.36
4. ^ Sydney Festival program 2011, p.8
5. ^ a b TimeOut Sydney 21-27/5/2008 p.8
6. ^ a b ‘The Block featured’, Koori Mail 510 p.38
7. ^ ‘Redfern’s famous flag returned to its former glory before demolition’, SMH 25/1/2014
8. ^ ‘The Block’, Koori Mail 486 p.26

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:, Redfern, retrieved 1 October 2021