We all realise how rapidly the old is giving place to the new, and only by means of pictures will those who come after us know what Sydney was like once upon a time. And in looking at pictures of quiet streets, quaint old homes, beautiful gardens and fine old trees, they will understand why many today still call this queenly city ‘Dear old Sydney’ – Mrs. A.G. Foster, Odd Bits of Old Sydney, (1921) p. 39

About the Fosters

Married couple Josephine Ethel Foster (1870-1955) and Arthur George Foster (1861-1924) both shared a combined passion for photography and Australian history. Arthur and Ethel were among the first members to join the Australian Historical Society (later RAHS) in 1901. They were awarded RAHS Fellowships in 1921 and 1924 respectively to honour the contribution they made to the organisation and Australian history.

The Fosters spent considerable time and energy in preserving old Sydney, photographing many of its iconic buildings, which were to be demolished to ‘give place to the new’. This dedication ensured that traces of lost places remain, especially that of Sydney’s vanished burial ground – Devonshire Street Cemetery.

In January 1901 the State government announced its plans to clear the cemetery to make way for Central Station. The Fosters responded by dedicating every weekend for two years drawing monuments, transcribing headstone inscriptions and taking photographs before the bodies were exhumed and reinterred in other sites. Dead Central, the 2019 State Library of NSW exhibition, drew heavily on the Fosters’ comprehensive documentation of Devonshire Street Cemetery to explain the historical and cultural significance of the site.

About the Foster Collection

After the death of Ethel Foster, the RAHS Library acquired her collection of over 250 books, 30 volumes of press clippings (scrapbooks) and 381 glass slides.

  • The scrapbook collections are a combination of Foster Press Clipping and Pamphlets. Assembled between the 1880s and 1930s, these 51 volumes highlight important historical events, as well as the social history of NSW. They include newspaper clippings, souvenir booklets and small monographs, invoices and accounts, handwritten correspondence, lists, plans and notes, postcards and photographs, rail and tram tickets and invitations. The contents of the scrapbooks are a reflection of Sydney’s history, and also relate to what happened in Ethel Foster’s life at the time.
  • The glass slides collection features 381 slides of early Sydney and 70 rare photographs of the Sandhills Cemetery which accompanied “The ‘Sandhills’: An Historic Cemetery” by A.G Foster read before the Society 1918.
  • The photograph collection contains images taken of early Sydney, landmarks and buildings and also includes three bound volumes containing 75 prints from the Devonshire Street/Central Station project.

“The lady* seated on the crooked bole of the ‘monotoca’ wears a smile of satisfaction. Her labour of love is finished” – Mr. Arthur Foster, ‘The Sandhills: An historic cemetery’, (1919), p. 195


Elise Edmonds, ‘Dead Central,’ State Library of NSW, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/dead-central, accessed 24 September 2020.

A.G. Foster, Odd Bits of Sydney, Tyrrell’s, Ltd, Sydney 1921.

A.G. Foster, ‘The Sandhills: An historic cemetery’, JRAHS Vol. 5, Pt. 4, 1919, pp. 153-195.

Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘Foster, Arthur George (1861–1924)’, People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-arthur-george-27600/text34993, accessed 24 September 2020.

Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘Foster, Josephine Ethel (1870–1955)’, People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-josephine-ethel-27601/text34995, accessed 24 September 2020.

A profile on Ethel Foster features as part of the RAHS Women’s History Month webpage.