Butchery, Bigamy and Booze: The Secret History of the Sydney Harbour YHA

The site of the Sydney Harbour YHA is one of the country’s most significant archeological spaces. Formerly known as the Cumberland Street Archeology Site, The Big Dig (opened in 2009) houses the remnants of over 30 dwellings dating back to the earliest days of the colony of Sydney, uncovered in an archeological excavation in 1994.

The majority of the hostel’s buildings are raised on pillars above the archeological remnants to minimise the impact of development, and to maintain visual and physical access to the remnants covering the majority of the site. Visitors to the YHA, both those staying there and members of the public, can wander around and experience this amazing slice of history first-hand.

And it is pretty amazing. From the discoveries made on this site, we have been able to uncover some pretty wild stories from Sydney’s past. Like the story of George Cribb.

George was, to put it politely, a very colourful character. He arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1808, and within a few months had established himself as a butcher, providing ‘fine fresh pork’ to the residents of early Sydney. He went on a spree purchasing massive amounts of land – almost half the site! – establishing a slaughter yard, a butcher shop, and a hotel. He started this spending spree only nine months after arriving, and didn’t slow down until 1813.

How on Earth could a convict afford to make such investments, and in such a short time?

Quite the lothario, George married another convict called Fanny Barrett in 1811, despite already having a wife back in England. Her name was Martha. Upon hearing word of her husband’s massive wealth and having no idea about his new love, Martha wrote to George, telling him she was coming to the colony to be with him.

This didn’t exactly suit George. Bigamy was illegal, and he couldn’t risk anyone causing a fuss and ruining his sweet gig. Besides, he was already under heavy surveillance on suspicion of illegally producing booze (though there was not sufficient evidence to charge him) and he really could do without any added interest from the constabulary. He had made a name and a pretty good empire for himself, and he wasn’t about to let a lady bring it down. So he paid Fanny off. With George’s money in exchange for her silence, his second wife returned to England.

It’s clear that George Cribb wasn’t exactly the sweetest man in Sydney, but he was definitely a fascinating one. After Martha passed away, George married a second Sydney woman, widowed publican Sophia Lett. Fossil pollen from the garden of the home he shared with both Fanny and Sophia shows they grew peas, beans, apples and lemons there. They also had a deep, circular well that provided cool water, but by 1814 it was instead used just to discard waste, like bottles, old shoes, and bones. But was that all it stored?

By 1819 George was wealthy enough to own racehorses, and he leased out several houses he had purchased on Cumberland Street. But he was never too far from the gaze of the law. Eventually his dealings caught up with him, and all was lost. He disappeared from the records. He was not in the 1828 census at all, and the last record of his existence was an appearance in Parramatta Court in 1830, charged with cattle theft.

The story of George Cribb had ended, with no new chapters to be added. That is, until the archeologists came in 1994. Of particular interest was that well, which is still visible today.

In it, yes, was all the rubbish – the bottles, the old shoes, the bones. But there was something else. Something that, maybe, could help explain his quick and easy success.

An alcohol still. The kind used to illegally produce booze.

George Cribb had evaded that charge his entire life, but 180 years later, his secret became history.

The Sydney Harbour YHA is the most awarded hostel in the entire world. It has received over 30 awards in the fields of heritage, education and tourism, including the Australian Tourism ‘Hall of Fame’ award for winning ‘Best Backpacker Accommodation in Australia’ three years running. Its practises focus heavily on sustainability, and it is located within walking distance of many of Sydney’s major attractions. The roof of the Sydney Harbour YHA looks out over the entire harbour, and is a prime spot for New Year’s Eve celebrations every year.

Standard rates are from $47pp per night multi share, or $176 per room, per night double/twin with that amazing harbour view. YHA members save at least 10%. Book at www.yha.com.au.

Image by Ethan Rohloff.

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