Celebrating a French-Australian birthday with a love affair that has stood the test of time
The Alliance Française de Sydney is turning 120
This year the Alliance Française de Sydney is proud to welcome an important anniversary, marking 120 years since it first opened its doors in 1899. Despite this impressive journey, the existence of this language and cultural organisation only represents a piece of a much larger puzzle, concerning the long and rich history shared between France and Australia.
These bilateral relations date as far back as Australia’s first colonial settlement, when La Pérouse arrived mere days after the landing of Captain Cook. It is a widely acknowledged fact that, had La Pérouse not encountered some bad weather, Australians today could have been native-French speakers.
There is also the instance of Napoleon and Josephine Bonapart’s profound infatuation with Australia’s natural landscape, which resulted in approximately 200 species of native Australian flora (including all thirteen known varieties of Eucalypts) to be planted in the garden of their shared home in France, La Malmaison. This garden was also home to several kangaroos, emus and black swans, picked up during scientific expeditions to Australia (1800-1804) led by Nicolas Baudin.
Fast-track to the mid-1800s, Australia welcomed an influx of French immigrants to Australia with the discovery of gold in Victoria, coinciding with a period of economic and political disturbances in France under the dictatorship of Napoleon III. A second wave of French immigrants arrived in the 1870s and 1880s as a result of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent civil war (the Commune). It was also during this time that many French winegrowers decided to immigrate to Australia in search of more favourable growing conditions after their own vineyards had been devastated by phylloxera.
By the early 1890s, there were around 4000 French-born residents in Australia, with half of them in NSW. Some of the most prominent were wool traders however there were also engineers, bankers and even journalists.
In 1892, due to this rapid expansion of the French community in Australia, the French Consulate was upgraded to a Consulate-General and the French language newspaper, Le Courrier Australien, was launched. In order to consolidate the infrastructure of the French community, the Consulate-General moved to the Bond Street Chambers in Sydney, which at the time also housed other local French associations such as FACCI (the French-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry), the French Benevolent Society and the Alliance Française de Sydney.
The Alliance Française de Sydney has since become an integral part of Sydney’s cultural landscape and a prominent fixture in the local community. However this has not always been the case, with its long and colourful history marked by moments of flux and uncertainty.
Throughout its dynamic lifetime, the Alliance Française de Sydney has successfully navigated many cultural changes and pivotal moments in history. This can be seen with the declaration of World War 1 which resulted in a discernible absence of many members of Sydney’s French families and a general disruption to everyday life. During this time, the Alliance Française de Sydney was forced into a hibernation period, regressing to its original incarnation solely as a lending library (1896-1899).
In turn, this downsizing played a part in the Alliance Française de Sydney being no longer able to pay rent to stay in independent premises. It subsequently became a war refugee in Mlle Boggio’s ‘Modern School of Languages’ in Moore Street, (which would later became part of Martin Place) before relocating again to Castlereagh Street, then Bridge Street before finally settling at its current location on Clarence Street.
In addition to these times of adversity, there have also been moments of great success and triumph. This can be seen in the evolution of the Alliance Française de Sydney from merely a library, to a school adopting solely a pedagogical approach, to the vibrant language and cultural centre that it is known as being today. Throughout this transition it has stayed true to its core mission of promoting Franco-Australian exchange and yet over time, the ways in which this duty has been served has hugely diversified and expanded. For a school which originally had no social ambitions, over the years (with the changes of leadership and under the guidance of certain pivotal General Managers and Consulate-Generals of France), artistic and literature events were organised, recital competitions, conversation evenings and more.
In fact, during the tenure of Albert Pinard as Consul-General, the first social event of the Alliance Française de Sydney took place at Paddington Town Hall on the 6th of October in 1903. This involved a benefit ball which, according to reports by Le Courrier Australien, was a hugely successful evening and attended by “le tout-Sydney” (everyone in Sydney).
Another highlight for the Alliance Française de Sydney was during the early 2000s, when the famed architect Harry Seidler designed the now iconic, spiralling staircase which elegantly cascades from the first floor through to the entrance foyer. This stands not only as a beautiful tribute to his iconic Modernism sensibilities but equally, represented his last commercial and public design before he passed away in 2006.
Moreover, considering this long history spanning across 120 years (a lifespan which is on par with Australian household brand Bega Cheese or the revered landscape and portrait artist William Dobell if he were still alive) the Alliance Française de Sydney is excited to celebrate this incredible milestone and welcome the next chapter. It will be marking this anniversary with a series of events, workshops and promotions that will run from Friday 13 September until Sunday 13 October at its CBD location.
For more information about the Alliance Française de Sydney 120 Year Anniversary program, please visit: https://www.afsydney.com.au/cultural-events/120-year-anniversary/.