Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Matraville Garden Village

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on February 25, 2015. [No comments]

The official opening of Matraville Soldiers' Garden Village 1918, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW MLMSS 473/6

Matraville Garden Village was the creation of the Voluntary Workers Association. Formed during World War I, the VWA’s main activity was providing homes for returned servicemen. In 1917, 16.2 hectares (40 acres) of Crown land was granted at Matraville under the Voluntary Workers (Soldiers’ Holding) Act for the village.

Based on the English model suburb of Port Sunlight, the original plan included 170 bungalows (93 were built) for disabled soldiers and war widows and their families. The village was to be a ‘memorial to our fallen heroes’ and a reward for servicemen’s sacrifices for the nation.

Street names reminded residents and visitors of World War I battles: Ypres, Pozieres, Beauchamp, Flanders and Bullecourt. Politicians and dignitaries ceremoniously opened individual cottages – but in the end the scheme was a disaster.

Local and state government authorities could not agree which agencies were responsible for various services, so for many years the roads remained unmade, the streets unlit, houses became rundown and the village suffered from lack of amenities.

The area set aside for the village was a sandy wasteland with scrubby hillocks. Shifting sand dunes were a constant nuisance. One couple wrote to the NSW Public Trustee complaining that a sand dune near their home had moved onto their verandah and then into their front room!

Soldiers' Garden Village Matraville' 1920, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 473/6

Rents were also raised and many of the tenants fell into arrears. A failed attempt by the New South Wales Public Trustee to evict a widow and her children received damning commentary in the Sydney press.

The VWA’s leadership proved to be corrupt and inept, particularly the organisation’s President, Dr Richard Arthur, and active member John ‘Lemonade’ Ley. The village was taken out of the organisation’s hands and was finally managed, from 1922, by the NSW Public Trustee.

In the 1970s, the village was transferred to the NSW Housing Commission. It was demolished to make way for 440 housing commission flats. Only the Public School (1927) and a cottage at 6 Amiens Crescent remain today.



Further reading:

Paul Ashton, Matraville, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008.
Paul Ashton, Thomas John Ley, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008.

You can catch up on this morning’s podcast on the 2SER website here. Don’t forget to join us on 2SER Breakfast again next week for more Sydney history: 107.9 at 8:20am. Thanks Paul!


Centennial Park

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on February 18, 2015. [No comments]

Centennial Park c1895. 1893-1897 Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn4469751-s32

This morning Dictionary Chair Paul Aston joined Mitch Byatt on 2SER Breakfast to talk about the history of Centennial Park.

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.

Busby's Bore The access point to Busby's Bore, at Victoria Barracks, Paddington. Contributed by City of Sydney Archives SRC2905

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: 107.9 at 8:20am. Thanks Paul!


* http://www.daao.org.au/bio/tomaso-sani/biography/


Chinese life in Sydney

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on February 11, 2015. [No comments]

Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895, National Library of Australia nla.pic-an24615958

Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895, National Library of Australia nla.pic-an24615958

As we welcome the year of the sheep and the Lunar New Year celebrations kick off this Friday, let’s take a step back in time to the 1800s and look at the Chinese experience in Sydney.

Many of us might assume that the first people Indigenous inhabitants witnessed sailing toward Australia were Europeans. However, there is evidence that suggests that the Aboriginal people of Sydney Harbour may have seen or at least heard stories of the Chinese traders that sailed the globe, and that Chinese contact with Australia probably occurred as far back as 1,800 years ago!

It wasn’t until 1818, however, that the earliest documented Chinese settler, Mak Sai Ying, arrived in Sydney and purchased land in Parramatta. He married an English woman, Sarah Thompson in 1823, changed his name to John Shying and held the licence for a Parramatta public house called the Golden Lion. Some of his children became furniture makers and his descendants live in Sydney to this day.

After the convict transportation system ended in the 1840s, the colony went through a shortage of labour, encouraging the arrival of Chinese workers. By 1852 more than 1,500 Chinese labourers had arrived in Sydney. But by early that same year, news of gold had reached southern China and men from across the country arranged passage to Australia under a credit-ticket system, which meant fares were paid once fortunes were made. With this influx came laws designed to restrict Chinese arrivals, the first of which came in 1861 and then in 1881 and 1888. In addition to anti-Chinese legislation, many blamed the emergence of diseases such as smallpox on the arrival of Chinese people.

Quong Tart and family, outside the fernery at Gallop House in Ashfield c1899-1890, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW a3744004 / PXD 660, 20

Quong Tart and family, at their home Gallop House in Ashfield c1899-1890, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW a3744004 / PXD 660, 20

The statistics tell us that while our city had many Chinese visitors during the gold rushes, very few of them settled permanently. And interestingly, large influxes of Chinese after February resulted from reduced movements during Chinese New Year. Officially, there were 189 Chinese living in Sydney in 1861, 336 in 1871 and 1,321 in 1881.

One popular area for Chinese arrivals in Sydney was the Rocks, which actually became the first site for Sydney’s Chinatown, which is in Haymarket today. They set up Chinese furniture shops, cook-shops and boarding houses in Lower George Street, not far from the wharves. One such furniture shop was called Ah Toy’s, and was one of the largest.

However, in 1878 an there was an upsurge of violence against Chinese traders which led them to petition the government for protection from ‘larrikins’. Today the term ‘larrikin’ holds positive connotations, but back then, it was a word reserved for the undesirables of society, hoodlums and criminals. The source of this violence were trade union meetings which called for an end to immigration, opposed the low wages paid to Chinese workers by Chinese employers and advocated the use of violence. Public rallies were held, with one reportedly numbering around 2,000 people. As they headed up Pitt Street they eventually came to Ah Toy’s shop and attempted to torch the building, aware that many Chinese workers were asleep inside.

Today, things are very different as we celebrate the richness of Chinese culture, and its status as a fixed and vibrant part of Sydney’s multicultural identity. Have a read of Shirley Fitzgerald’s article on the Dictionary of Sydney to find out more about the Chinese community’s fascinating story.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!

The Ram, Chinese New Year Parade in Sydney, February 6, 2011 courtesy Flickr/ Newtown Graffiti

The Ram, Chinese New Year Parade in Sydney, February 6, 2011 courtesy Flickr/ Newtown Graffiti



Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on February 4, 2015. [No comments]

Warwick Keen, The Many Faces of Bungaree, (detail) 2012

Bungaree: The First Australian is an exhibition at Mosman Art Gallery until 22 February. Artwork by Warwick Keen 'The Many Faces of Bungaree' (detail) 2012

The exhibition Bungaree: The First Australian which is showing at Mosman Art Gallery at the moment, pays homage to this important Aboriginal figure from Sydney’s early colonial days. Fascinated by images and accounts of him wearing discarded British military uniforms and imitating the city’s earliest governors, I decided to explore his story in the Dictionary of Sydney.

So who was Bungaree? Bungaree was part of the Garigal clan and was from Broken Bay, north of Sydney. During the early days of British settlement in Sydney, Bungaree adopted the role of a mediator between the English colonialists and Aboriginal people. But before he attained fame in our city’s history, he was something of an explorer. He sailed with the navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders to Norfolk Island in 1798 and Bribie Island the following year. Flinders wrote that Bungaree’s ‘good disposition and open and manly conduct had attracted my esteem’.

In 1801, Bungaree took part in the establishment of the first penal settlement at the Hunter River in Newcastle. Between 1802 and 1803 he became the first Australian-born person to circumnavigate Australia when he sailed again with Flinders, on HMS Investigator. During this voyage, he used his knowledge of Aboriginal protocol to negotiate peaceful meetings with local Indigenous tribes.

Bungaree and his Broken Bay people settled on the north shore of Port Jackson. On 31 January 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him land at Georges Head in Mosman for himself and his people to farm. Bungaree had befriended Macquarie and became a prominent figure in what the Governor termed, the ‘Experiment towards the Civilization of these Natives’. Macquarie even had a brass breastplate gorget made, inscribed with the words ‘Boongaree, Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe, 1815’.

Historian Keith Vincent Smith describes Bungaree in detail in the Dictionary of Sydney. An intelligent man, Bungaree apparently had a penchant for impersonating governors and other local figures, copying their walk and mannerisms like a true entertainer. He used his talents to obtain clothes, tea, tobacco, bread, sugar and rum for himself and his people. As soon as any ship would enter Sydney Heads, Bungaree would arrive in his fishing boat, rowed by two of his wives. Dressed in a discarded British military jacket, tattered trousers and his trademark hat, he climbed aboard and welcomed newcomers to ‘his’ country. Doffing his hat, bowing deeply and grinning widely, he would ask to drink the captain’s health in rum or brandy.

Bungaree, a native chief of New South Wales 1830, , courtesy National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6016167-2

Bungaree, a native chief of New South Wales 1830, courtesy National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6016167-2

In 1828, Bungaree and his clan moved to Sydney’s Domain, where he was seen naked and ‘in the last stages of infirmity’. The effects of age, alcoholism and malnutrition had taken its toll, and he was admitted to the General Hospital in 1830. He died at Garden Island on 24 November 1830 ‘in the midst of his own tribe and that of Darling Harbour, by all of whom he was greatly beloved’.

His distinctive image survives today, as he appears in 18 portraits and other illustrations created by artists of the time. The story, ‘Bungaree, King of the Blacks’ was published in Charles Dickens’ weekly journal All the Year Round in 1859, bringing the famous Sydney character to London readers.

Despite his reputation as a drunkard and a beggar in his later life, he remained a respected figure and was regarded as the most famous character to walk the streets of Sydney. And so may we remember King Bungaree – the flamboyant joker, the pioneer and Aboriginal leader – grinning from history’s pages wearing military attire and raising his trademark hat.

Visit Mosman Art Gallery before February 22 to check out the exhibition, and if you get in quickly, you’ll also be able to catch the installation Bungaree’s Farm, a site specific exhibition, responding and interpreting the site of the first Aboriginal land grant in Australia located at Georges Heights/ Middle Head, Mosman which closes on February 8.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!


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