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historian’s perspective on Parramatta Park and non-aboriginal heritage

James, C. for NSW Department of Education and Training Sites and Scenes 1999

Ms James, can you tell me about the historical significance of Parramatta Park?

I would be happy to. I am going to focus on the way it relates to the settlers, but I do hope you will be talking to some Aboriginal people to get their perspective. After all they were in Parramatta for 40 000 years before the settlers.

Yes, I must do that.

To understand the historical significance of Parramatta Park you have to go back to the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. What do you think the number one priority would be for people who had travelled half-way around the world to found a new colony?

Shelter and food.

Very good, you’re spot on. If the colony was going to survive it had to be able to grow its own food. It couldn’t rely on imports, especially in those days before canned food and refrigeration had been invented. To be able to support themselves the settlers had two choices: they either had to learn from the Aborigines and get food through hunting and fishing, or they had to establish farms to grow food based on what they had done in England. Now you would think the most sensible thing to do would be to copy what the people who were already here were doing, but people are not always logical in their behaviour; they tend to do what is most familiar to them. So the settlers, rather than fishing and hunting, like the Aboriginal people, tried to establish farms and grow crops like maize and wheat to make bread (the food they were used to eating in England). Which would you rather eat, a slice of bread or delicious oysters and lovely fresh flathead?

I like oysters with bread and butter.

Ah, so you would take the best from both cultures, very sensible. To get back to the story, the settlers tried to grow crops in Sydney, but as the soil is very sandy and unfertile, their farms failed. Governor Phillip knew then that he had to find a better place for farming and that is why he started the settlement of Rose Hill, which we now know by the Aboriginal name of Parramatta, meaning "the place of eels". In November 1788 a group of convicts and soldiers were sent up the river to start farming. They settled just to the east of where Old Government House is today. Lieutenant William Bradley, an officer from the First Fleet, drew a chart showing the route in the upper reaches of the river and the depth of the water. It starts at what we now know as Homebush Bay, where the 2000 Olympics are to be held, and finishes at Parramatta Park, then called Rose Hill and not to be confused with the suburb of the same name to the east of present day Parramatta.

The little settlement prospered; the Government Farm was a success. The Governor then decided that a town would have to be laid out. He decided this should be done on a grand scale. There is wonderful description of the new town being built, written by a man called Watkin Tench, who was another officer in the First Fleet. The main street was called High Street and was over 65 metres wide; part of it ran right through what is now Parramatta Park. Governor Phillip ordered a small house to be built for his use. It was 14 metres long by 5 metres wide and single storey. The street was lined with huts for the convicts. Their huts were even smaller than the Governor’s House, being only 6 metres by 4 metres. They accomodated up to 14 people, so they must have been crowded!

Another area which was important for farming was the landform known as the Crescent. Located behind Government House, it was a crescent-shaped piece of land facing north which acted as a sun trap and was used for growing grapes. In 1799 Governor Hunter demolished the little Government House which Governor Phillip had built and replaced it with a two-storey brick structure.

Other important things were happening in the area. To the south of Government House was the Government lumber yard. This was like a factory where items needed for the government building program could be manufactured.

As the colony expanded and new areas like the fertile river flats of Windsor and Richmond on the Hawkesbury River were opened up to farming, it became less important to grow crops in Parramatta Park. Areas where there had been intensive agriculture in order to feed the colony were given over to grazing cattle for the Governor’s personal benefit.

Governor Macquarie decided to increase the area of land around his house. He resumed High Street down to O’Connell Street and took away all the convict huts; he made large extensions to his own house and resumed George Salter’s 30-acre farm and turned the farmhouse into the Government Dairy. He also built a new gatehouse and a stable building. The gatehouse was demolished in the 1870s and replaced by the present George Street gatehouse while the stables were destroyed in the 1860s for the extension of the railway from Parramatta to Penrith . Macquarie proclaimed the area as his private domain and published notices warning that people who trespassed there would be punished.

His successor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, built a bathhouse and also an Observatory. Sir Thomas was a keen amateur astronomer. The southern skies were largely uncharted, so this was his opportunity to make fresh scientific discoveries and establish his reputation as a gentleman of science. He used the observatory to succesfully predict the return of Encke’s Comet. Two astronomers, Charles Rumker and James Dunlop, helped him in his research. One person would look through the telescope while the other noted the position of the stars observed. The Observatory was demolished in 1848; only the transit piers survived. The transit piers are the stone plinths on which the telescopes stood. The telescopes used at Parramatta are now in the collection of the Sydney Observatory. The Parramatta Observatory had an international reputation in astronomical circles. It is also the place where Surveyor Thomas Mitchell made his initial meridian mark to begin the first trigonometrical survey of Australia. This means that the location of items on Australian maps is calculated as being east or west of the site of the Parramatta Observatory.

The Governors used the Parramatta House as their country residence and a house in Sydney, First Government House which had been built in 1788 by Governor Phillip, as their town residence. In 1845, First Government House was replaced by the present Government House. The Government was reluctant to maintain two official residences, one in Sydney and one in Parramatta. Finally, in 1855, the decision was made that Government House would no longer be the Governors’ country residence. The house was let to a series of tenants; a photograph survives of Andrew Blake who rented the house in the 1860s. Most of the Governor’s Domain was sold, but 252 acres were retained for public recreation and called Parramatta Park.

Has the Park changed much since it was established in 1857?

There have been many changes. New gatehouses were built in O’Connell Street in 1885 and Macquarie Street in 1887. At one time there was a zoo in the Park and there was a popular swimming area known as Little Coogee. A tramway was established which ran from the Duck River to the Park Gates. In the 1860s the western railway cut the Park in two. In the twentieth century there have been even more excisions. Parramatta High School was built in the Park in 1913, the Swimming Pool in 1957 and the RSL Club in the 195Os, and Parramatta Stadium in 1983. Part of the Parramatta Leagues Club and all of its carpark is on land belonging to the Park.

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