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Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

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Site Investigations - Observatory Hill

Investigations into a locality’s past can encourage an appreciation of its importance, and contribute to understandings about the heritage of other localities, regions or countries. This section uncovers the range of local resources, including government records, library and archival collections, and offers advice on accessing materials.

Observatory Hill has, throughout its history, served as a site of Aboriginal occupation and the location for a variety of important Government facilities and buildings. It was the site of Australia's first windmill 1796-97 which acted as a symbol of the colony's earliest attempts at self-sufficiency. In 1804 construction of Fort Phillip, a citadel for defence from insurrection, was commenced and together with the Military Hospital built by Governor Macquarie in 1815, made Observatory Hill part of a military installation that stretched from the Battery at Dawes Pt. to the barracks and parade grounds at present day Wynyard.

Important to the maritime history of the colony was the establishment on Observatory Hill in 1825 of a Signal Station. This transmitted and received messages via South Head, from ships in the Harbour and off the coast. In 1850, with the departure of the military from Wynyard to Victoria Barracks in Paddington, the Military Hospital was converted for use as a school. At that time it was known as the Fort Street Model School, later to become Fort Street High School and eventually to become the NSW headquarters of the National Trust.

Observatory Hill derives its name from the Sydney Observatory which grew from plans for a simple timeball tower to a full astronomical observatory in 1858. The Sydney Observatory is currently a part of the Powerhouse Museum. When it was operating, the Observatory took daily records of Sydney's weather until 1922 when the Weather Bureau building was erected. Nowadays, the weather station is automatic and housed in the enclosure next to the Environmental Education Centre. A limited number of readings are taken at this location because construction and development in the city has rendered some recordings unreliable.

Lead-up Activities:

Wherever possible, teachers are encouraged to pre-visit the study area to familiarise themselves with the area and to select the most appropriate activities and format for the day (the staff at the Environmental Education Centre are available to assist). The most successful fieldwork visits are those that have direct relevance to current classroom learning and we recommend the completion of the suggested lead-up activities to enhance classroom learning and to emphasise to students that their fieldwork is an extension of their school's educational program.

Activities carried out prior to the Site Study will prepare students for the day and provide a link with classroom learning.

These should include:

  • defining terms and concepts involved with heritage. (Refer to glossary, bibliography and internet sites)
  • investigating Aboriginal culture and groups present in the local area prior to white settlement.
  • revising basic mapping skills; scale, contours, direction etc.
  • describing features of local heritage
    • around the school (ea. Honour Boards) and
    • in the local area (ea. Memorials, Historic Houses).
  • identifying some sources used in investigating heritage.
  • examining the work done by archaeologists.
  • schools will need to reproduce a class set of Student Activity Booklets for use on the day. Students should be given a "walk through" in preparation for their visit.
  • students should also have an opportunity to study contemporary and historic maps on The Rocks and Millers Point to place Observatory Hill within the context of the growth of the colony and its position in relation to the Central Business District. (Internet addresses may help here)

Fieldwork Aims:

  • To assist students to gain a knowledge and understanding of aspects of Australian History centred around Observatory Hill.
  • To provide opportunities for students to examine the significance of continuity and change in the development of the Observatory Hill area.
  • To encourage students to develop an interest and involvement in the investigation of heritage.
  • To provide opportunities for students to study past and present environments and develop empathy with the contact experience of Aboriginal people and relationships of past, present and future environments.
  • To assist students to identify the natural, social/cultural, built and spatial components of the environment of Observatory Hlll.
  • To assist students to develop an appreciation of the contribution of other cultures to past and present environments.

The Site Study at Observatory Hill Environmental Education Centre, formerly Fanny Cohen Hall, the gymnasium for Fort St. Girls High School. the site study has been designed as a full day field trip.

These notes are designed to assist teachers in conducting activities at each site.

Additional information about conducting a site study: An approach to conducting a site study - Paul Ashton

An introduction to the Site

SITE 1. Observatory Hill Environmental Education Centre

Evidence of heritage can be seen in important buildings of the past. Other examples include relics, natural areas, gardens, parks and sacred sites. In fact. our heritage is anything that is a valuable feature of the historical and contemporary environment that we seek to conserve from development or decay for ourselves and for future generations.

John Bailey

A series of slides will be shown to introduce the thematic approach to the site study.

Activity: Snapshot in Time

Students will be shown a series of slides depicting the changes that have taken place from pre-contact to the present day. Students will be given a portion of a photograph which relates to one of the themes (ie. pre-contact, military, scientific, educational or present day). During their investigation of Observatory Hill they will need to identify the object to which it belongs and the theme it relates to.

Activity: On the way to Site 2 - Optional Message Trail


The message trail provides students with an opportunity to be a vital part of heritage investigation on Observatory Hill. The trail will lead from the Field Studies Centre to the Band Rotunda in Observatory Park, and targeted students will be stationed along the way. After having been told a particular feature of interest, they will relay that information to the rest of the group as they pass by on their way to the next site.

When the entire class has passed along the "Message Trail", participants will be asked to recall aspects of heritage that they were told along the way to the Rotunda.


SITE 2. Observatory Park, Band Rotunda

Aborigines have occupied Australia for well over 50,000 years and the Kadigal, a subgroup of the Eora People who lived in the area around Sydney Harbour, had a well developed society that had minimal impact on the environment in the Observatory Hill area.

European settlers believed they had the right to take the land occupied by Aboriginal People because the Aborigines did not appear to own or use it. In fact they had different views on how the land should be used. Whatever the Aboriginal people and the settlers considered important, whether it was a cave, a hill, a water hole, an open grassy area, trees or rocks - they wanted it for different reasons.

Activity: From Kadigal to Colonist

The class is divided into three groups; Aboriginal people, colonists and present day Australians. The groups will have to rank, from one to five, the items they are shown according to their own group perspective. As well as ranking the items each group will be asked to explain the uses for each object according to the value it ha been given. Their findings will be used as a basis for discussion on value systems.

Activity: The Way it Was

Students read a Dreamtime Story and study the Aboriginal symbols which portray key words in the story. A second story is then read to the class, and students record their own key words and matching symbols. These are then used to retell the story on a headband by painting the symbols using red ochre.


SITE 3. Observatory Park and the Exterior Walls of the Sydney Observatory

The area known today as Observatory Hill has undergone a number of changes. In 1788 a flagstaff erected on the Hill gave the area the name Flagstaff Hill. Following the completion of the first government windmill in 1796 the site also became known as Windmill Hill. The stone walls on the eastern side of the Sydney Observatory are remnants of Fort Phillip, a citadel first constructed in 1807. The Fort was intended to protect the city and the government of the day from political insurrection considered most likely to come from disgruntled Irish convicts. The Fort was never completed and its cannons were only ever used on ceremonial occasions. The chains that were used to limit the amount of recoil can still be seen on the walls of the Fort today.

Activity: Heritage Spotting

Students are to take rubbings from the evidence of the Military presence on Observatory Hill including the memorial and cannon near the Band Rotunda.


SITE 4. Outside the Western Wall of the Sydney Observatory, close to the site of Fort Phillip and the Old Signal Station

The first Observatory in Sydney was set up in February 1788 by the French navigator, La Perouse, at the spot on the northern side of Botany Bay that now bears his name. Lieutenant William Dawes, a RoyaI Marine with the First Fleet, built an Observatory on the tip of what is now known as Dawes Point. A permanent Observatory was finally built in 1858 and it sat beside a signal station that had been erected on top of the old walls of Fort Phillip. The base of the original semaphore transmitter can still be seen outside the Signal Masters Cottage above the Fort Phillip wall.

The signal station relayed messages to and from the colony and ships in the harbour via South Head. Messages were coded and transmitted using semaphore flags.

Activity: Crack The Code

Flags and signal code cards for the student activity at this site are available from the Field Studies Centre. Students are to encode, transmit via semaphore flags and then decode messages supplied to them. This exercise helps to develop empathy and a better understanding of the communications technology at the time.

The Sydney Observatory was responsible. not only for cataloguing the southern sky, but also for raising and lowering the time ball at 1pm every day to indicate the exact time to the citizens of Sydney. In 1982 the decision was made to close the Observatory as a working centre for astronomy and to convert it into a museum for astronomy and related fields.

Crack the code - semaphore activity

SITE 5. The Sydney Observatory - Be a Colonial Architect

Students are to be seated on the lawn in front of the Observatory building. Students need to study the building and identify the missing details and complete the sketch in their booklets.


SITE 6. The National Trust Building

In 1815, Governor Macquarie commissioned the building of a military hospital on this site to service the medical needs of soldiers who were barracked nearby at Wynyard. In 1850, following the military move from Wynyard to Victoria Barracks in Paddington, the hospital was converted for use as a school. The school was originally known as the Model School and went on to become Fort Street High. The boys left the school in 1916 and moved to new premises at Taverners Hill, Petersham, and in 1975 the girls moved out of the school and it became the NSW headquarters of the National Trust. The National Trust is an independent body of people who work to preserve those features of our society that are regarded as having heritage value. Examples of their activities include the purchase and restoration of Old Government House, Parramatta, involvement in the debate over development of the Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo and conservation of wilderness in the South East Forests of NSW. Further information is available via their web site http: //www.tandem.

Activity: Fort Street Student Profile

Students are to examine the extract from the Fort Street School Punishment Book and class photo of 1917. They will then complete a student profile based on this evidence.

Activity: Pen Pals

As an extension of the education theme, students will practise in the old style writing using a feather (quill) pen and ink. A lettering guide, similar to copperplate style and blotting paper will be provided. Students are required to write out two questions they would like answered by students from 1917. Class discussion should follow as to the likely answers to the questions

Activity: Architects at Work

Students are to identify the features on the southern side of the National Trust building that correspond to the groups of architectural elements on Activity page 10. They are then to circle the elements on the sheet that they can see and write the correct identifying number in the appropriate place on the sketch.

Students at Observatory Hill

Present day

SITE 7. Return to the Observatory Environmental Education Centre

Activity: Snapshots in Time - follow-up

Students will be required to place their portion of the photograph in its correct theme and together with other students, re-arrange the pieces to form a complete picture.

Over the years a number of development proposals for the Observatory Hill area have been made that threaten the heritage of the site.

Observatory Hill

Follow-up Activity: To save or Not to Save

Students are to write an imaginary letter to the editor, or government body, such as the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, explaining why the Observatory Hill area should be protected from development because of its heritage value.

Follow-up Activity: Cover Story

Use the space on the cover of the Student Activity Booklet to allow students to sketch a mosaic impression of their investigation of heritage on Observatory Hill.


  • Archaeology - The scientific study of any culture by excavation and description of its remains.
  • Citadel - A fortress in or near a city built to fire upon the inhabitants in times of insurrection or unrest.
  • Bunya Nuts - Edible nuts of the Bunya - Bunya Pine.
  • Copperplate - An ornate, rounded style of handwriting.
  • Eora - The nation of Aborigines who lived in the Sydney region. The word itself means people. Also spelt EORAH and IYORA.
  • Heritage - Those valuable features of the historical and contemporary environment that we seek to conserve from development or decay so that future generations may share in the aesthetic, cultural, political, social and economic legacy bequeathed from one generation to the next.
  • Kadigal - The Aborigines who lived in the area around Observatory Hill. A group of the Eora.
  • Semaphore - A system of signalling in which a flag is held in each hand at arm's length in various positions.
  • Site Study - An enquiry-based visit to historically significant locations. (The field work involved is an integral part of the mandatory question on heritage in the History 7-10 Syllabus).
  • Tuhbowgule - The Eora name for Sydney Harbour. Also spelt TUBOWGULE.
  • Warrane - The Eora name for Sydney Cove. Also spelt WARRAN and WARRUN.


  • Board of Studies History 7-10 Syllabus, 1992
  • * Fitzgerald, S & Keating, C Millers Point. The Urban Village, Hale & Iremonger, 1991
  • * Horan, Ronald S Fort Street, Honeysett Publications, 1989
  • * The National Trust of Australia Local History. Ideas and Suggestions for Teachers. The Heritage Council of Australia, 1981
  • Kerr, James Semple Sydney Observatory, Museum of Applied Arts and Science, 1991
  • NSW Dept. School Education Australian History 7-10 Curriculum Support Document
  • Australian History Support Document Met. North Region, 1993
  • Public Works Dept. of NSW Observatory Hill Conservation Management Plan. Govt. Architects Branch, 1987.
  • * Vulker, Judy Studying Australian Architecture. Royal Australian Institute of Architects, 1990

* Denotes that the book is available for loan from the Observatory Hill Urban Field Studies Centre.

Heritage internet sites

Web sites with a focus on heritage and/or the Observatory Hill Site Study

The FSC acknowledges the invaluable support given to it by the National Trust, Fort St Public School, Sydney Observatory and the Department Land and water Conservation in researching the background to the site.

Pauline Dowd This program has been created and designed by Paulene Dowd.


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