Russell Fitchett

Russell Fitchett was born in 1948 and grew up in Millers Point. In this wide-ranging interview he recalls roaming with his grandfather – who lived on Observatory Hill – around the area, old trades and occupations, an adventurous 1950s childhood, traditions and conventions of working class life, and his career as a seaman. In the excerpt below Fitchett recalls another cottage on Observatory Hill which was instrumental in guiding shipping through Sydney Harbour.

This interview is part of Housing NSW’s 2005 Millers Point Oral History Project. The City of Sydney acknowledges the State Library of New South Wales as the archival custodian of the project and digital preserver of the masters.

The cottage itself was originally called the Messenger’s Cottage. There was a set flagstaffs on Observatory Hill which was semaphores for shipping because you could look directly down the Harbour to the Heads [of Sydney Harbour]. The messenger had a bike. In the house next door [to the Messenger’s Cottage] they had photos and paintings of ships for identification purposes and they’d identify the ship coming into Harbour, which were usually sailing ships.

I had seen a lot of the old photos and paintings when I was a kid. The messenger would go to the shipping company, which was usually in Hunter Street, or down that area at the bottom of George Street. They’d find out what wharf the ship had to go to. The messenger would then ride back up the hill and tell the semaphore station, who’d semaphore the ship, or the tug that used to tow them around, and so the ship would know what berth to go to. When we were up there it was called the Messenger’s Cottage, but because of the tenancy that my family had there it is now listed in books as ‘Fitchett’s Cottage’.

It was always called number 2 cottage and that’s directly adjoining the Observatory, there were only the three buildings there. But there was piles of these paintings, some were pencil sketches, some were very old photographs, and they were supplied by the shipping companies. Usually most of them had a profile, a front-on, and a side view of them, so you could work out what ship it was because every ship had individual markings, or whatever. I don’t think they could see the name, especially when they were right at the end of the Harbour, but you’d be able to work out the configuration of the ship and therefore tell the messenger, and he’d go and tell the bloke [at the shipping company].

Frank Heimans