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Marsfield is one of 16 suburbs that form the City of Ryde. The city is approximately 12 kilometres from the centre of Sydney and occupies most of the divide between the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers. It is bisected from west to east by one of Sydney's busiest roads, Victoria Road. It is crossed north-south by another main road, Lane Cove Road, and is skirted on the north-west by the M2 Motorway and Epping Road.
When Europeans arrived at Sydney Cove in January 1788, the Wallumedegal or Wallumede were the traditional owners of the area that became Ryde, which they called Wallumetta. This clan formed part of a large Dharug language group.
Early land grants and the Field of Mars
The first land grants in the local government area of Ryde were to two ex-marines in the vicinity of the current suburb of Melrose Park in January, 1792. This area was called 'Field of Mars', Mars being the god of war. From February 1792, small land grants were made to ex-convicts in the area called 'Eastern Farms' (part of the modern suburb of Ryde), because the land was east of Parramatta. By 1794 the area was called Kissing Point, believed to have originated from the way in which heavily laden boats passing up the Parramatta River bumped or 'kissed' the shallow bottom as they rounded a particular point in the river.
In 1798 Kissing Point farmers petitioned the government about the difficulties of surviving on their 30-acre (12-hectare) grants. The district had become important for supplying fruit, vegetables and poultry to the growing colony, but some of the settlers on the Eastern Farms and across Sydney found it hard to a living on their smaller-sized land grants, and wanted more lands for grazing stock. The colonial government's solution in 1804 was to gazette six large tracts of land to be used as commons.
One of these tracts was called the Field of Mars Common. It was an area of 5050 acres (2044 hectares) to the north and east of the Eastern Farms. The common stretched along the southern side of the Lane Cove River from Hunters Hill to Pennant Hills. In the tradition of the English common, it was for the use of the local residents. It also effectively preserved much of the native bushland along the Lane Cove River from land grants and settlement through most of the nineteenth century. The suburb name 'Marsfield' is a reworking of 'Field of Mars'.
The area was not completely isolated from other parts of Sydney. The Great North Road, from Sydney to Wisemans Ferry, travelled through part of modern Marsfield. After crossing the Parramatta River at the Bedlam Punt at Gladesville, it followed the ridge line through Gladesville and Ryde. Modern-day Victoria Road follows this route from Gladesville to Ryde. Where Victoria Road now continues through West Ryde towards Parramatta, the Great North Road turned north at Ryde and followed what is now North, Corunna and Vimiera roads to the crossing at Devlins Creek towards Pennant Hills and thence Newcastle.
By the 1840s the common had gained a reputation for harbouring many unsavoury characters, sly grog and illegal activities. There was also unauthorised timber cutting and squatting. Many residents of the district felt the common no longer fulfilled its original purpose, while others objected to any change in 'the people's land'. A Parliamentary Select Committee was held in 1861 but its recommendations were never followed. By 1874 the proposal to resume the common won. The slowly-increasing population of the district highlighted the growing need for a direct road link to the city and the need for bridges to be built at Iron Cove and across the Parramatta River. The money from the sale of the common was to be used to finance the building of the Iron Cove and Gladesville bridges.
Development of the common lands
The building of the bridges commenced in 1878 but the sale of the common lands did not start until 1885 and continued until 1900. The [media]subdivision and sale of the common brought an important change for the district as streets were laid out and allotments of one and four acres (.4 to 1.6 hectares) were offered for sale. Sections were also reserved for recreation – the largest being the Field of Mars Wildlife Reserve – and for the Field of Mars Cemetery. The first land sale of the new subdivision included lots around Kittys Creek and today's East Ryde.
In keeping with the martial tradition of the name 'Field of Mars', the new roads were also given battle names – Vimiera, Culloden, Agincourt, Crimea, Balaclava and a host of others from various periods of history, including the Hundred Years' War, the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Seven Years' War in Canada, various British campaigns in Africa, and miscellaneous other battles and British victories.
The Municipality of Ryde was declared in 1870 with the first council meeting held in 1871. Originally the Marsfield area was part of this municipality, but in 1894 it seceded and formed its own municipality. Ratepayers in this less-developed area resented what they perceived to be the inequitable provision of council services. The boundaries of the new municipality were the Lane Cove River, Terrys Creek, part of a railway line, Rowe Street East and Blaxland, Lovell, Quarry, Smalls, Bridge and Lane Cove roads. The area included the suburbs of Marsfield and parts of Eastwood.
The civic infrastructure for the Marsfield Municipality was based in Marsfield, not Eastwood, even though Eastwood had a station on the main north-south railway line. The council chambers were on the corner of Herring and Abuklea Roads, on the site of the present Macquarie Presbyterian Church. Since 1885, there had been great expectations that a tramway would be built from the city, probably via the new Gladesville Bridge, to the Field of Mars. But the tramway was not built in the 1880s or 1890s, and those buyers who had bought on the basis of this promise found they were, at best, weekend visitors to their properties. When the tramway was extended, it went no further than Hattons Flat, Ryde (now the site of the Ryde Civic Centre).
One such family was the Christie family. Robert Gordon Christie emigrated from Paisley, Scotland in 1886 with his wife Mary and three children, Bob, Nettie and Jack. He had worked as a carpet designer in Kilmarnock and after arriving in Sydney found work as a lino designer for Anthony Hordern and Sons. The family lived first at Balmain and Rozelle. In 1892 Robert Christie bought 22 acres (9 hectares) of land at Marsfield. On the weekends the family worked on clearing the land and building a little wooden house. The weekly journey from Rozelle was made on foot since the tramline was never built. After clearing the ground, they planted an orchard of peaches, nectarines, persimmons, figs, quinces and guavas.
Harry Curzon Smith's vision
The most imposing building in Marsfield is Curzon Hall, a two-storey construction, part castle, part mansion, part baronial hall. It was built between 1897 and 1900 by Harry Curzon Smith, a businessman and entrepreneur who had the lease of railway refreshment rooms. By 1894 he controlled all the New South Wales Government Railway refreshment rooms north of Singleton, as well as those on the Narrabri line and at the Sydney terminal. He also had the lease of Caves House at Jenolan Caves and ran a horse-bus service from Gladesville to Curzon Park on the Lane Cove River at North Ryde, where he had a picnic ground.
In the early 1890s, he bought 270 acres (109 hectares) of land at Marsfield and soon afterwards construction of Curzon Hall began in Agincourt Road. His dream materialised in 1900 when the 20-room mansion was completed, complete with wide portico, large balconies, entrance hall, spacious cellars, separate ballroom and imposing stables.
In 1901, Smith also erected a school in Agincourt Road. It opened as a private school on the understanding that responsibility for the establishment would eventually be assumed by the state government. When this expectation was not met, the school was disbanded and the building became a public hall. Marsfield did get its own public school in January 1910.
Smith also lobbied the government to build a bridge across the Lane Cove River (de Burgh's Bridge), founded the Marsfield School of Arts and was president of the local progress association.
Smith clearly thought big. Not only did he build a landmark building in the midst of farms, he envisaged the area around the current Top Ryde Shopping Centre as a tourist destination. At the beginning of 1904, he bought 17 acres (7 hectares) on the edge of the village of Ryde. He subdivided the greater portion of this land but reserved a large block on the corner of Pope Street and Lane Cove Road, and around 1909 began building a tourist resort. He gave it the name 'Hampton Court Tourist Residential'. It was to be a five-storey structure with 70 bedrooms, billiard rooms, spacious cellars, a turret tower of two further storeys and a flat promenade roof. Smith also envisaged extensive picnic grounds across Hattons Flat, with the expectation that Hampton Court would be a rendezvous for tourists. Smith died in June 1913 leaving Hampton Court unfinished.
Hampton Court was demolished but fortunately Curzon Hall was not. In 1922 the Vincentian Fathers purchased the building and 17 acres (7 hectares) of land for ₤8,000 and used it as a seminary for six decades. When the Vincentian Fathers moved out in 1982 the building became a restaurant and subsequently a function centre. The siting of Curzon Hall and Smith's association with his local area would have provided a strong impetus to make Agincourt Road the central position in the municipality.
Marsfield School of Arts was established there in September 1906. The Marsfield Methodist Church began services further north along Agincourt Road at the corner of Balaclava Road in 1907. In the same year, the name of the Municipality of Marsfield was changed by the government to the Municipality of Eastwood, though the council continued to meet in the old premises at the corner of Abuklea and Herring Roads. A town hall, designed by Varney Parkes, was erected in Agincourt Road in 1911, on a site purchased in 1908. In November 1909 the allotment adjacent to the site of the proposed town hall was sold to Messrs Lovell, Norman and Scott and a hall was built. It appears curious to a modern observer that Eastwood Town Hall, and so much of the civic infrastructure, is so far away from Eastwood proper.
Subdivision plans for the area from the first decades of the twentieth century show how the siting of the Town Hall and the School of Arts in Agincourt Road determined the subsequent subdivisions. Beedham Hill Estate (1910, 1914, and 1917) consisted of lots between Abuklea and Agincourt Road. Other subdivisions included Taylor's Orchard Estate in 1915, Vimiera Estate in 1918 and Curzon Estate in 1919.
Farms and orchards for Sydney
At the end of World War I, the New South Wales government embarked on a programme of encouraging returned soldiers or soldiers' widows to take up poultry farms on small blocks of land in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Encouragement was also given to those interested in establishing orchards and farmlets to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to Sydney's growing population. The Christie family, who were already well established in Marsfield, took to poultry farming with great success. Robert Christie and his son Hugh formed a partnership to establish the Dunbar Poultry Stud. A large number of poultry farms were established in this area.
In the 1920s there was a government proposal for a series of rail links, including one between Eastwood and St Leonards. This was supported by the community as it was generally believed that it would encourage settlement in Marsfield. From Eastwood through Denistone to East Ryde, the promise of this rail link prompted proposals for land subdivisions. Perhaps the plans went into the same bottom drawer as those for the Field of Mars Tramway, because neither eventuated. The Epping Road (formerly Spooner Highway) was completed in 1940, linking the area to the city in a manner previously proposed by this railway.
While some residential subdivisions did take place, the area was resolutely rural. It was primarily a farming area, producing fruit, flowers, vegetables, milk, poultry, eggs and pigs. This is best exemplified by a discussion of the disposal of nightsoil. Before 1940 most residents of Marsfield and North Ryde buried their own nightsoil on their poultry farms and orchards. In 1939 Eastwood Council extended its nightsoil collection service to every residence in the municipality. The new arrangements were to come into effect on 1 January 1940 but many residents with large blocks of land could see no reason to pay for a service that they could still carry out satisfactorily for themselves. When the first pans were delivered to households, residents returned them to the front of the Eastwood Town Hall. A photograph captures this moment: Eastwood Town Hall nearly dwarfed by nightsoil pans, with the following placard: 'Mr Council we don't want your can, but we'll make you have it. Mr Ratepayer. OH YEAH'.
Eastwood Town Hall was substantially destroyed by fire in September 1937 but re-built within a year. In 1948, as part of a number of Council amalgamations across Sydney, the Municipality of Eastwood was re-absorbed into the Municipality of Ryde.
Losing the green belt
Much of the North Ryde/Marsfield area was covered by green belt zoning under the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme. The scheme was adopted in the immediate postwar years, with the green belt conceived as
a girdle of rural open space encircling the urban districts … ensuring for all time ready access by urban populations to countryside specially planned and maintained for their benefit.
The scheme was intended to prevent urban sprawl, and placed various restrictions on green belt areas, including disallowing the erection of dwellings on new subdivisions into lots smaller than five acres (two hectares). A secondary purpose of the zoning was to provide for future sites for large institutions such as universities.
The scheme faced enormous opposition: from government departments bent on pursuing their own interests in road development and housing; from councils losing rateable land to open space; and from individual property owners unable to maximise the potential profit from subdivision of their land. But the biggest challenge to the scheme came from Sydney's expanding population, which grew at a rate not predicted when the scheme was drawn up.
By the late 1950s, the original boundaries of the green belt were being revised in various parts of Sydney. In December 1959 1,700 acres (688 hectares) in the Marsfield-North Ryde green belt were released for rezoning. The area became a battle ground between local landowners, Ryde Council and the State Planning Authority. The council had plans for large-scale industrial functions as well as residential development. The state government sought to delay the decision on zoning, pending a decision on a plan to build the Castlereagh Expressway.
In March 1963 a decision was finally made to build a university at North Ryde, and in September 1964 the state government announced that 939 acres (380 hectares) of green belt land surrounding the new Macquarie University were to be rezoned for residential and industrial use. The State Planning Authority and Ryde Council agreed on the development of a North Ryde industrial area similar to the industrial area surrounding Stanford University in San Francisco.
A final release of green belt land at North Ryde came in September 1969 following a decision by the State Planning Authority to build a major shopping centre (Macquarie Shopping Centre) in the area.
Conservation Management Plan for Eastwood Town Hall, Willandra, The Parsonage and Westward Cottage, City of Ryde, Ryde NSW, 2007
Dorothy Carmichael, Tales of Marsfield, the author, Eastwood NSW, 1973
Philip Geeves, A place of pioneers: the centenary history of the Municipality of Ryde, Ryde Municipal Council, Ryde NSW, 1970
Peter Krix and Colin Jones, Marsfield Public School, 1910–1985, Marsfield High School, Marsfield NSW, 1985
MCI Levy, Wallumetta: a history of Ryde and its district 1792 to 1945, Ryde Municipal Council, Ryde NSW, 1947
Megan Martin, A pictorial history of Ryde, Kingsclear Books, Alexandria NSW, 1998
Kevin Shaw, Historic Ryde: a guide to some significant heritage sites in the City of Ryde, Ryde District Historical Society, Ryde NSW, 2002