Those Bolshie Tin Shed Girls

It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie!

Sexy photographer in jeans shirt with old camera

Another story that has no connection with the Guardian, but has a strong connection to Newtown and the social changes happening throughout the 1970s. The Tin Sheds were the workshops and art rooms of Sydney University’s Art Department, and were literally tin sheds, rough and ready structures.

[For those unfamiliar with the word, bolshie (also spelt bolshy) may refer to a Bolshevik, but is more commonly used colloquially for obstinate, difficult, strong-willed.  (

It’s similar to feisty, which Macquarie defines as showing courage and independence; high-spirited. ( ]

Buzz introduces Harry to these arty young women in her poem, ‘Tin Shed Girls’ with the line “There’s some bolshie girls at the Tin Sheds, Harry, the kind I like.”

She starts telling us about the innovative approaches these young women were taking in their art, but digresses into a lesbian daydream, the girls being not just bolshie but hot.

“I was walking behind one yesterday. She wore tight

jeans I couldn’t take my eyes off. Sweet round

cheeks like warm peaches. I followed her

for three blocks before she turned

down a side-street. Anyhow,

as well as bein hot chicks an anarchists

an feminists, these girls—an the guys

they hang out with—all artists—run

fabulous gigs, well, they do ripper posters

for discos an fundraisers for battered women*

an shelters an anti-war demos.”

[*The term “battered women” referred to women suffering under domestic violence. It was dropped after a politician suggested “battered women” sounded like “battered fish”–ie- fish in batter, ready for frying.]

WAM: the Women Activist Artists

Buzz describes some of the in-your-face approaches these young women artists took:

“They’re challengin the system with their WAM—that’s

Women’s Art Movement . . . They’re not doin arty-farty

stuffy elitist art, they’re reclaimin traditional women’s stuff—crochet an

embroidery, doilies—sounds poncy but it isn’t

cos it’s political, stuff about women’s place

in the social fabric; how women’s work is undervalued,

devalued. How the personal is political. Good stuff, eh!

Gone but not forgotten

Living in Newtown, I’d heard about the Tin Sheds art workshops, but nothing definite. I understood some contemporary artists of the 80s and 90s in Sydney—male and female—were products of the Tin Sheds. Not all the women students reworked traditional female handicrafts. Some were printmakers, others were photographers, potters, metalworkers, and painters.

I knew roughly where the Sheds were in City Road, opposite Victoria Park, but never got around to looking for them. Then I spent a year in Katoomba, up in the Blue Mountains. When I came back, the Sheds were gone, demolished, replaced with a modern functional building for the university’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. The only remnant, ghost, the new gallery’s name:

Tin Sheds ghost

Working on Newtown Voices, I knew I needed to include the Tin Shed Girls, not only for their creative approach to art and politics, but because they were also active in early pro-gay and lesbian protests and consciousness raising activities. As a lesbian anarchist, Buzz would naturally know some of them. I needed to know them too, so Buzz could speak through my voice, using her own words.

Under a Hot Tin Roof

I did what research I could online about the Tin Sheds, and discovered a book had been published about studying and working there: Under a Hot Tin Roof. It was out of print, and only available in the State Library of NSW’s reference collection. I bothered the friendly and helpful curator at the Tin Sheds Gallery, and he chased up the very last unsold copy of the book, which I promptly bought. It’s a fabulous work of social history, with interviews and photos from original students, and many photos of their works.

Under a Hot Tin Roof covers nearly 40 years from the late 1960s when the old World War 2 sheds (used by CSIRO during the 1940s and 50s) were hastily converted into art workshops, with uncovered spaces between the spartan buildings.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the Sheds, but there are evocative B&W pics from the 1970s & early 80s in the book as well as vivid descriptions from former students.

The Sheds were “ . . . a group of old tin sheds with nothing whatsoever to offer in the way of comfort to the occupants. Hot in summer and icy in winter, they are referred to by various users as a sweatbox, a safe haven, a hidey-hole, a vital off-beat meeting place, a factory space for producing work, and a home.”

[Kenyon, Therese: Under a Hot Tin Roof

Art, Passion and Politics at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, p 25

State Library of New South Wales Press 1995

ISBN 0 7305 8933 1]

In the photos they look like old garden sheds. The antithesis of classrooms and lecture halls. It’s easy to see why the progressive art and music teachers adapted them as workshops for teaching the philosophies and practicalities of their arts.

Squatting’s the Go

It’s also easy to understand why some male students created temporary homes from the underground spaces between the sheds. It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie! Squatting was a risky but economical way for people to make a home. Buzz lived with five or six others in an anarchist squat—an abandoned two-storey warehouse-workshop on the edge of Hollis Park in Wilson St (close to the toilets visited by Jaro).

Coincidentally, the Sheds were in the old industrial and residential suburb of Darlington, which the university was expanding into during the 60s and 70s. Buzz tells us more about squatting and homelessness in her angry rant against the university’s expansion into her home suburb. We’ll hear from her later, in a post on ‘The Yowie’.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

Mardi Gras Festival Part 2

the beginnings of Mardi Gras in Sydney on Saturday June 24, 1978

Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag
Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag at a pride parade

This is the second post looking at life for gays and lesbians in 1978, and the start of the Mardi Gras celebration.

2018 marks 40 years since the first March, held on Saturday June 24, 1978. It’s also the first Mardi Gras since the passing of the Australian “gay marriage” legislation, allowing any two adults of any gender to marry. Mardi Gras is always special, but these 2 events make it doubly special this year.

In Part 1, I looked briefly at the life of a gay man 40 years ago, as exemplified by Harry’s friend Jaroslav.

In this post, we’ll hear from Buzz about the beginnings of Mardi Gras in Sydney on Saturday June 24, 1978. For those who haven’t met Buzz, she’s a feisty lesbian social justice warrior living in an anarchist squat. She tells it like it is:

Gough promised us free education but

Gough’s not in charge any more, so

it won’t be free for long. Not much is,

(‘cept love an that’s not free for all,

Only for straights like you).

The Guardian did not run any stories about the events of that Saturday — why should it, since they didn’t happen on the Guardian’s patch: Newtown, Enmore and Marrickville, and strangely, Balmain. My research was done through reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun newspapers, and memoirs of some of the originals, the much-loved and revered 78ers.

The way Buzz tells it, there was nothing gay — in the sense of bright and cheerful — in the way events turned out. This is an important part of Australian social history, not just for LGBTIQ+ people, but for all of us, to remember how our society has moved from bad to good, from oppression to grudging acceptance in some areas, and to hope for future shifts towards inclusion and acceptance for everyone.

In ‘I nearly got arrested’, she tells Harry about going to the International Gay Solidarity Day in Hyde Park:


got myself arrested. Wouldn’t a done me any good,

what with squattin’ illegally (yeah, yeah, I know, all

squattin’s illegal, smartarse), bein picked as a lesbian

I’d lose my job at the garage an WEA wouldn’t

want me teachin car maintenance anymore

Buzz went to the consciousness-raising protest day in Hyde Park with some of the girls from the Tin Sheds (more about them in a later post),where they listened to talks about

what life’s like

for homosexuals—gays AN lesbians, after Stonewall

in the US, an in England, where they’ve got that Festival of Light shit run by Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

The old bat’s comin here in a coupla weeks to speak

at a national conference on homosexuality, an she wants to tell us how wrong an evil we are, an how

we wanta destroy society. It was a beaut day

The march was planned for the evening, but Buzz dipped out, saying she had to start work early at the bakery in the morning. Lucky for her. She missed all the excitement and the horror that ended Australia’s first gay and lesbian march.

Like me, Buzz read about it in the papers. (I assume the police worded up the media  beforehand, like they did with the Greek migrants, to make a good front page story.) A huge group of people marching and singing along Oxford St at 11 pm, past the pubs and clubs and bars, gathering more people as they went, some estimates being around 2000. Until

The cops

Corralled em all in Darlo Rd that they’d closed

off an got stuck into them with batons an boots

(readin between the lines). They arrested 53

people…I coulda got caught too, if I’d gone with

the girls. Life’s tough when you’re not straight.

This is why the Mardi Gras celebratory parade — which gets bigger, louder, more flamboyant, and with more community groups and organisations taking part each year — marches, sings and dances down Oxford St, with the 78ers in the place of honour.

Note: For the sake of ‘poetic licence’ I put the police bashings in Darlinghurst Road (‘Darlo Rd’), when in reality the brutality was inflicted back at the cells. The cops weren’t going to  kick and bash unarmed people in front of  journalists and photographers.

[Information and photos from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives can be found on The Guardian Australia (TGA) website here. Note: The Guardian Australia has no connection with the 1970s Newtown and Balmain Guardian.]


You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices