Stylised letter 'D' for Darlinghurst
Stylised letter 'D' for Darlinghurst
Part 1

'The social event of the season'

…skate and be graceful,

skate and enjoy yourself as you have never done before.

Robert J Aginton, roller skating champion, 19091

Illustration of Darlinghurst Skating Rink

Darlinghurst Skating Rink, 15 June 1889

Illustration of the Darlinghurst Skating Rink featured on the cover of The Bulletin 10, no 487, 1, 15 June 1889, National Library of Australia, [Trove]

At 8pm on 23 May 1889 hordes of people gathered in Darlinghurst and eagerly waited for the ‘social event of the season’ to commence. A reported 2,000 people watched as the doors to the new Darlinghurst Skating Rink opened. They were promised discounted admission and free instruction for any novice lady among the crowd.2

The building was styled and decorated to emulate the Imperial Palace of Japan, and occupied the south side of the block bound by Liverpool, Burton, Thomson and Forbes streets. It was built on a sloping piece of land, with the lower part, facing Thomson Street, being on brick pillars. The structure had brick walls and a roof of wood and galvanised iron, and the main entrance on Burton Street featured stucco work.3

The rink was designed by the prominent architect, Robert Clarence Backhouse, a man who had worked on some of Sydney’s most popular theatres including the Palace, Lyceum and Tivoli. Backhouse also designed many of the largest skating rinks including the Elite Skating Rink, Redfern, the Crystal Palace Rink on York Street, Arcadian Palace Skating Rink in Goulburn, New South Wales, and of course, the Darlinghurst Skating Rink.4

Illustration of people skating

'The Skating Rink', 8 August 1874

Wood engraving print published by Hugh George for Wilson and MacKinnon, State Library of Victoria, [Accession No: A/S08/08/74/72]

The Bulletin newspaper proclaimed the Darlinghurst Skating Rink the ’largest rink in the world’, while the Sydney Morning Herald said it was the ’largest and best fitted skating rink in the Southern Hemisphere’. At 350 feet long and 130 feet wide, it took a reported 300 men to construct the building in 10 weeks.5

As the crowds flowed into the building, they proceeded up a flight of steps where a screen shielded the immense 32,500-square-feet skate hall. The complex included a manager’s office, ladies’ drawing room, retiring room and lavatories, a gentlemen’s hat and coat room, smoking room and a refreshment room toward the Liverpool Street end, which measured 65 feet long by 38 feet wide. Five large doors also fronted Forbes Street, offering swift exit points. An engine room which powered the lights was located underneath the building on the Thomson Street side.6

The entire rink was was illuminated by electric and gas lights overhanging timber floors of American pine. There were 18 electric arc lights and five large gas chandeliers, with 30 burners each, and fans and ‘Chinese lanterns of all sorts and sizes’ flickered above. The pillars were draped in multi-coloured cloth and national flags.

As patrons glided across the room, they saw themselves reflected in large mirrors placed on the walls around them, while the band of the First Regiment of Volunteer Infantry played in full uniform from a bandstand suspended mid-air from the ceiling in a ‘sort of circular cage’.7

Illustration of man and woman with skates on

'May I have the pleasure of a fall or two with you?' by Livingston Hopkins, 1888

In Arthur Gayll, The history of Botany Bay, The Bulletin, National Library of Australia, [Trove]

The fashionable residents of Woollahra, Potts Point, Darlinghurst and surrounds were in attendance on opening night, wearing ‘handsome furs, plush mantles and rich jackets and wraps’. And a ’new feature’ was handed around by attendants in the form of a ‘skate programme’ which featured a pencil attached for participants to fill in the names of their partners, in the style of a dance card.8

The show had begun…

Read the next part of the story.

  1. ‘The Romance of Roller Skating’, Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette, 20 March 1909, 4,↩︎

  2. ‘Advertising’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1889, 2,; ‘Darlinghurst Skating Rink’, The Bulletin 10, no 487, 1,; and ‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  3. ‘The Darlinghurst Skating Rink’, The Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  4. ‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 1899, 3,, ‘The Grand Crystal Palace Rink’, Australian Star, 12 June 1888, 5,, ‘A Rising Architect’, The Bulletin 10, no. 488 (22 June 1889): 13,, ‘Untitled’, The Bulletin 22, no. 1126 (14 September 1901): 35,; ‘Obituary’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17,; and ‘The Darlinghurst Skating Rink’, The Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  5. ‘A Rising Architect’, The Bulletin 10, no. 488 (22 June 1889): 13,, ‘Advertising’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1889, 2, and ‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  6. ‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1889, 6, and ‘The Darlinghurst Skating Rink’, The Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  7. ‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1889, 6, and ‘The Darlinghurst Skating Rink’, The Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1889, 6,↩︎

  8. ‘Sydney Gossip’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 June 1889, 35,↩︎

Cite this Site

Nicole Cama, ‘Darlinghurst Skating Rink - 'The social event of the season'’, Darlinghurst: A digital history project mapping the people and places of Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, 2023, Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney,, accessed .