This week the Minister for Environment and Heritage announced that Redfern Park and Oval would be included on the State Heritage Register, a list of heritage places given the highest level of State protection. The listing recognises the importance of the park in the history and the story telling of the state of NSW. Dr Mark Dunn, Dictionary author and supporter, and the deputy chair of the Heritage Council, was our special guest this week on 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery, to talk about what makes Redfern Park so special.
Redfern Park and Oval is on Gadigal land. The area was originally a low lying marsh area that Europeans looked on as a swampy waste land, a dangerous ‘pestiferous’ bog, which they called Boxley’s Lagoon.
In the 1880s, the land was set aside for a park, and in 1885, Redfern Park was officially proclaimed as part of the beautification of this part of Redfern by the then Redfern Municipal Council. It took about 5 years to fully build the park, which is a Victorian style park design with a central focal point and radiating pathways with signature tree plantings, as well as a sporting oval at the southern end. The trees were chosen by the Director of the Botanic Gardens, Charles Moore, whose favourites were fig and palm tress (you can see his influence in plantings in parks and streets all over Sydney).
In the centre of the park is a large cast iron fountain, which still works. This was donated by local businessman and nursery owner, John Baptist, in 1889. At the time Redfern was known as the place to go and buy plants, with several large nurseries and gardens nearby.
The sporting ground now known as Redfern Oval was there from the start, initially as a cricket pitch. Sydney’s first bowling club was also built in the park.
From the 1920s, the Aboriginal population of Redfern began to grow as people moved to the area to take advantage of the employment opportunities offered by the factories and rail yards. As the community reestablished itself, the park became increasing important for meetings, social events and political activism, and it is this significance to the Aboriginal community that makes Redfern Park and Oval so special.
The South Sydney rugby league team had played at Redfern Oval since the formation of the club in 1908, and in the 1940s the Redfern All Blacks rugby league team also officially formed (though may have been in existence for at least a decade before).
It was at Redfern Park that the first discussion about the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal service and Aboriginal Medical Service are said to have been floated. These two organisations were the first of the type in Australia.
During the leadup to 1988’s bicentennial celebrations, it became clear that Aboriginal people and their point of view had been left out of planning and discussions about ways to mark the anniversary. On Australia Day/Invasion Day 1988, it was from Redfern Park that over 20,000 people gathered and marched in protest. Tens of thousands of Aboriginal people had bused into the city and into Redfern over the days before from all over Australia to take part in protest, the biggest ever coming together of Aboriginal people . Another 20,000 people joined the marchers when they reached Belmore Park too, all marching against Invasion Day. It was the largest Aboriginal protest march to that time and started the Change the Date movement.
In 1993 PM Paul Keating chose the park to be the site of his launch of the International Year of World Indigenous Peoples and gave his now famous Redfern Address. It was a transformative speech in Australian politics, shifting the debate around reconciliation and paved the way for the Apology in 2007. This was a cultural turning point and changed the way Australia thought about itself.
For these reasons and more, this is why Redfern Park and Oval have been added to the State Heritage Register. Physically this registration doesn’t mean a great deal, although it does mean there are some additional restrictions in terms of development. What it really does is give the park and the oval the recognition that this place is one of Sydney’s most important public spaces, and has played an important part of our state’s story. Its Aboriginal stories, traditions and connections mean that everyone in the state should know about Redfern Park.
Mark Dunn is the Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association, the Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW and a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!