The Domain was established by Governor Macquarie along with the Botanical Gardens in 1816 when it encompassed a far larger area than we know today. Now only four small precincts, it used to cover the area from Woolloomooloo Bay to Circular Quay and south to Hyde Park. The edges were chipped away by the establishment of cultural institutions like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the State Library of New South Wales, the Opera House, Government House and the Conservatorium of Music. Later road infrastructure carved out portions with the development of the Harbour Tunnel and ramps for the Cahill Expressway.
During the day the Domain has always been characterised by picnics, cricket, public commemorations and weddings. But at night beneath the fig trees and on the lawns, Sydney’s lovers have found an alternate space. As early as 1832 Daniel Delaney was charged with ‘making love to a ‘Shelah’ in the Domain at the unseasonable hour of 11pm.’
For many of Sydney’s homeless it’s also been place of refuge. During the 1930s as people lost their jobs and failed to make rent, they turned to the Domain. A whole shanty town soon sprang up. At night there were campfires, as people gathered round billies of tea, gossiped and told stories.
Perhaps most significantly the Domain represents a space where people can gather to protest, to rant and to rally.
In the late nineteenth-century there were failed attempts to curb its use as a space for political forums and regulate the use of perceived inflammatory language. Instead it continued to thrive as a protest space hosting the Anti-Conscription rallies in 1916 and the following year, during the Great Strike, one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts, the park saw weekly gatherings of 100,000 people per week. In the 1960s, anti-war moratorium demonstrations were held there, in 1975 there were huge demonstrations protesting the dismissal of the Whitlam government and in the 1980s, Palm Sunday peace rallies were held.
At Speakers Corner on Sundays, people have long mounted their soapboxes to voice their diverse opinions on the social and political issues of the day.
The time-honoured tradition of protest will continue at the Domain this Friday 20 September when more than 35,000 people are expected to attend the global climate strike.
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!