Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.


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The suburb of Matraville was once principally swamps and sandhills, part of the Botany, Veterans' and Lachlan swamps system which, draining into Botany Bay, provided a significant part of Sydney's water supply in the middle portion of the nineteenth century,

From the 1830s, marshy parts of the watershed became sites of market gardening. Around 1840, Alexander Marjoribanks, a visitor to the colony, observed that these areas were

uncommonly fertile, producing vegetables with the exception of potatoes, sufficient to supply [Sydney] town. [1]

By the 1860s, most market gardening had concentrated on and around the rich fringes of Veterans' Swamp which took in most of Matraville. At this time, Chinese returning from the goldfields began market gardening on leases of crown land. They came to dominate this activity in the district. It is a historical coincidence that James Matra, after whom Matraville was named, had in 1785 suggested to the British government that Chinese labourers could be introduced into the colony of New South Wales.

Matraville Garden Village

In 1917 Dr Richard Arthur and others managed to have the Voluntary Workers (Soldiers ' Holdings) Act passed through the New South Wales parliament. This provided the Voluntary Workers Association (VWA) with 40 acres (16.2 hectares) of crown land at Matraville. There the VWA planned a model garden village, based on Port Sunlight in England, for disabled servicemen and war widows. It was constructed between January 1918 and the end of 1921 as one of two major projects undertaken by the VWA.

Surrounded by a few houses and buildings and some scrubby hillocks, the site was an elevated, sandy wasteland on the fourth section of the La Perouse tramline along Anzac Parade in the relatively poor municipality of Botany. [2] In many ways it was an abandoned place. The site had nothing much to recommend it except emptiness. It was often claimed to be near other places of some appeal – Maroubra Junction, just over a kilometre away to the north east, and, not much further east, Maroubra Beach. There were also a number of forsaken souls living in iron humpies in the scrub around the site.

Ostensibly inspired by a debt of honour to fallen and wounded serviceman in World War I, the Matraville Garden Village was held up as both a significant artefact of the war and a model of wholesome suburban living. Promoters of the village tirelessly asserted that the 'best memorial to our fallen heroes is a comfortable little home for his widow and children on which a memorial stone can be placed'. [3] But the project quickly became the object of both humour and scorn.

Allegations of corruption and mismanagement were levelled at the VWA, and in particular Arthur and his colleague TJ Ley. Subsequently a Board of Control was established in 1918 to manage the village and in 1923 the New South Wales Public Trustee took control.

Amenities in the village were inadequate. Different levels of government bickered over the provision of infrastructure. Rents were raised, many residents fell into arrears and in 1926 the Public Trustee attempted unsuccessfully to evict a widow. The court case attracted significant attention in the press.

By the close of 1926, roads at the settlement were said to be 'almost impassable'. Dilapidated homes remained unrenovated; the church hall was marked for demolition; and tendered maintenance work was reported to be 'done disgracefully'. Fresh paint was found peeling off ceilings before it had time to dry. This, at any rate, was how the village was described by the Matraville Sailors' and Soldiers' Garden Village Welfare Association in its last recorded report to the Minister for Justice on 1 January 1927. [4]

Only 93 of the 170 cottages planned for Matraville were built. [5] And while conditions in the village improved old difficulties continued. Eventually, in 1954, the Public Trustee recommended that:

as a result of the experience gained during the administration of this village for over thirty years, it is felt that the increasing problems... might be permanently solved by a transfer of the ownership of the cottages to eligible occupants... [6]

Public housing

A crisis in state public housing in the early 1970s led the Askin Liberal Government to introduce a Bill into Parliament to amend the Voluntary Workers (Soldiers' Holdings) Act and transfer the settlement to the Housing Commission. [7] A slow process of demolition began in mid-1975. [8] The soldiers' garden village was replaced by 440 Housing Commission flats. Only one home – a cottage at 6 Amiens Crescent – and the public school (opened in 1927) survived. Their retention was secured on the grounds of heritage value. They were, as Bob Carr, Minister for Planning and the Environment in the Wran Labor Government at the time, put it, the only remaining

tangible evidence of... the most significant social project of the immediate post-WWI period. [9]

The last market gardens were closed in 1979 when leases were rescinded for works associated with the Housing Commission. [10] One survives and has a state heritage listing. Today, Matraville comprises around 3300 residential dwellings.


[1] FA Larcombe, The History of Botany 1788–1970, Botany Council, Sydney, 1970, p 13

[2] FA Larcombe, The History of Botany 1788–1970, Botany Council, Sydney, 1970, p 55

[3] Richard Arthur, circular letter to Voluntary Workers' Association Branches, 1 May 1919, p 2, in Richard Arthur Papers, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library manuscript 473, box 6

[4] Matraville Sailors' and Soldiers' Garden Village Welfare Association to WJ McKell, 1 January 1927, Archives Office of NSW file 12/1297.1

[5] Paul Ashton, 'Repatriation Homes: Matraville Garden Village for Disabled Soldiers and War Widows', Journal of Australian Studies, no 60, pp 73–83

[6] Under Secretary, Department of Attorney General and of Justice, Ministerial Minute, 10 August 1959

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1973, p 7

[8] Messenger, 7 May 1975

[9] Messenger, 18 September 1985; KS Gordon (General Manager, Construction and Development, Department of Housing) to the Town Clerk, Randwick, 24 April 1986, State Records NSW 12/1297.1

[10] Randwick Municipal Council, Randwick: A Social History, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1989, p 159; Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors, State Library of NSW Press, Sydney, 1997, p 18