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

Life wasn’t meant to be easy

While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty

Kicked out of homes

Once again, a screamer headline across the front page of the weekly Guardian, this time on October 25, 1978, teamed with an incongruous photo of a Surf Rescue speedboat breasting the waves at Bondi, (a piece of advertorial)

No houses for the poor

Steep rise in rent cost

“While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty for up to three years.

 “The Marrickville area has one of the highest percentages of people looking for emergency housing in the State.

 “According to a recent survey, 40 family groups, involving nearly 100 people sought emergency housing within a month.”

The Guardian estimated that “one and a half percent of the Marrickville population —a third more than the State average” was homeless. It quoted the NSW homeless organisation Shelter, that

“people are now sleeping in cars and parks —as in the 1930’s depression. Meanwhile government flats at Annandale and Marrickville are standing vacant.”

This story, and several others about poverty, homelessness and evictions— especially ones related to Sydney University’s expansion beyond its 1860s City Road site —led me to put much of this material in Buzz’s voice, in ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy.’

If you haven’t met Buzz yet, she’s a social justice warrior who lives in an anarchist squat and teaches car maintenance at WEA (Workers Education Association). She’s very outspoken about the injustices she sees around her, and frequently quotes items she‘s read in the Newtown Voice.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy” was a famous quote in 1971 by Australian Federal Liberal Party leader (later Prime Minister)  Malcolm Fraser. A wealthy grazier and powerful politician, his quote was resented by ordinary Australians  who understood it to mean “stop complaining about your lot.”  Buzz wasn’t going to take that lying down!

Jeez, Harry, when Malcolm Fraser told us

life wasn’t meant to be easy—the smug

patronisin bastard—I didn’t think it was

gunna get this bloody tough.

… Seems like things are almost as

bad as in the Depression, specially in

Newie an Marrickville. Welfare groups say

lotsa people are sleepin in parks an cars.

An guess what? Accordin to The Voice

there’s plenty of places empty that are

owned by the government—blocksa flats

for migrants in Marrickville and Annandale,

But never been used. Jeez, Harry, I dunno,

where’s this country goin? What happened

to the lucky country? To a fair go for every

one? I reckon we need a bloody revolution!

An I mean Bloody!

Sadly, many of the issues that affected people in 1978 have come around again.

Buzz has some strong words to say about Sydney Uni’s relentless expansion beyond City Road into surrounding streets, and the added effect of students sharehousing on the shortage of affordable housing in the area. I’ll cover the Uni effect in later posts.

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