Once a sandy, swampy wasteland, Centennial Park is the largest urban park in the southern hemisphere, covering 260 hectares (9640 acres). The northern boundary of the Park was an Aboriginal walking track still in use by the Gadigal people when the First Fleet arrived.
In 1811, Governor Macquarie set the land aside as a common (called Lachlan Swamps) as a potential source of water. In 1827 John Busby began a scheme to supply water between Lachlan Swamps and Hyde Park. Know as Busby’s Bore, it took a decade to complete by convict labour (Busby didn’t like convicts and didn’t do many site visits). The Bore opened in 1937 eventually becoming overshadowed by the opening of the Botany Reservoir in 1858.
By the 1870s, the Bore’s water supply had become polluted. The NSW Medical Gazette 1870 said it provided ‘a potable fluid… of far more disagreeable nature than the witches broth in Macbeth’. With the opening of the Nepean scheme in 1880s, water supply from the Lachlan Swamps was cut off in 1887.
Shortly afterwards, the site was chosen by Sir Henry Parkes and others for a grand park to mark the Centenary of the colony of NSW. Purportedly designed by Frederick Franklin, civil engineer, some wanted to call it Carrington Park after the Governor but Henry Parkes wanted it to be a ‘people’s park’. The idea took hold and provision for the land was included in The Centennial Celebration Act passed in 1887.
Liberal beliefs at the time held that the ‘improvement’ and ‘beautification’ of cities had moral benefits for urban dwellers. The park would benefit the lower classes of society by ‘raising their intellectual character’ – being a place where people could observe their betters and show that they were respectable, as well as improving their education by learning the Latin names of plants. To ensure this, a host of bylaws were enacted, guaranteeing that the Park would not become another Domain where political spruikers and others congregated.
Work on the Park began in May 1887. It was built by unemployed Sydney men doing ‘relief work’ during recessionary times. The Park opened on 26 January 1888 with a crowd of 40,000 people. Many of the initial plantings were experiments with exotic species that died. As the more successful plants matured, the vision for the Park slowly emerged.
Problems with the management of the Park running well into the twentieth century led to its decline. Despite the Arcadian ideals expressed by the Park’s founders, it became a contested place:
- controversy surrounded the installation in 1893 of Tommaso Sani’s sculpture ‘We Won’*
- cars were seen as vehicles for improper activities and their presence in the Park led to the introduction of lighting in an attempt to curb immorality;
- suicides were common in the Park in the 1910s and 1920s;
- in February 1986 the murdered body of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp was dumped in Busby’s Pond;
- vandals have defaced the Park throughout its history – the statue erected to Sir Henry Parkes in 1897 after his death had to be put in storage in 1970 after it was vandalised.
During the 1930s depression the Park became neglected. In the 1950s, artist Paul Atroshenko remembered it being ‘empty and derelict…a lot of ponds were just used a dumping grounds for…old tyres and all that sort of stuff. Administrative arrangements had always been a significant problem; this changed when the Park was transferred to the Premier’s Department in 1979. The Park’s wildlife is significant: it is home to long-finned eels who, as part of their life cycle, leave the lakes in the park, head for Botany Bay and travel 2,000 kms to New Caledonia. There they lay 1,000s of eggs and die. The eggs move on the southern ocean currents, arrive back in Botany Bay and the young go back to the Park.
You can read more of Paul’s history of Centennial Park in his essay for the Dictionary here: Centennial Park by Paul Ashton. You can catch up on this morning’s podcast on the 2SER website here: Dictionary of Sydney: The history of Centennial Park. Don’t forget to join us on 2SER Breakfast again next week for more Sydney history: 107.3 at 8:20am. Thanks Paul!