Dictionary of Sydney

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Centennial Park

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Centennial Park

Covering 220 hectares, Centennial Park is the largest urban park in the southern hemisphere. It is also an artefact of history.

The park is not a 'natural' landscape. It has been constructed horticulturally within established aesthetic and landscape traditions. It has also been shaped by prevailing ideologies about health, race, social order and the influence of environment on people (known as environmental determinism or euthenics). Changing values of the urban environment can be read in the park over time. All of these influences have been marked, however subtly, on the landscape that is Centennial Park today.

Before Centennial Park

Much of the park's perimeter was shaped by Aboriginal walking tracks. During the earliest weeks after their arrival in 1788, members of the First Fleet and the French La Perouse expedition trod a well-established path east along a ridge to the south head (now Oxford Street and Old South Head Road) to watch for vessels. To the south, a route later known as the Frenchmen's Road opened communications between the British settlement at Sydney Cove and La Perouse's camp at Botany. Both parties, however, avoided the low-lying areas in the upper northern reaches of the Botany basin that were bounded in part by these rudimentary thoroughfares. A century later, this originally uninviting area was to be dedicated as Centennial Park.

Though most Europeans continued to skirt around this sandy, swampy wasteland, the park's future boundaries were further defined when Governor Macquarie set aside the area as a common in 1811. A decade later, water was carted into Sydney from the Lachlan Swamps, which formed part of the common, as the town's water supply from the Tank Stream became increasingly precarious. Subsequently, the common was redesignated a water reserve, and from 1827 until 1837 John Busby was engaged by the colonial government to design and build a tunnel to bring water from the Lachlan Swamps to Hyde Park.

Busby performed his task poorly, earning himself the title the 'Great Bore' in the process. But although overshadowed by the opening of the Botany Reservoir in 1858, water from the Lachlan Swamps and Busby's Bore continued to service some working-class parts of the city until supply was unceremoniously terminated in July 1887. During its operation, the water reserve was subjected to various degradations and numerous inquiries. But the reserve's role in supplying parts of Sydney with water spared it from the speculative land booms and urban development of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Celebrating the centenary

For some time before the colony's centenary in 1888, officials and notables had been contemplating how to mark the event. By 1886, the idea of a 'centennial' park had been accepted in principle. A grand park in the English tradition fitted well with the aims of the Imperial Mission – the provision of 'civilising' institutions such as art galleries for the colonies. In November 1886, Frederick Augustus Franklin – an English civil engineer and municipal politician, who is thought to have designed Wollongong's Stuart Park – persuaded a large party of interested people to visit the water reserve to assess its potential as parkland. They included the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, the Governor, Lord Carrington, and the director of the Botanic Gardens, Charles Moore.

The site was declared suitable for the creation of a grand park and the wheels were set in motion to realise this regal plan. The park's naming, however, did not reveal the political influences in play. 'Carrington' – a name suggested in honour of the park's imperial patron – was secretly shunned: it smacked of elitism. As William Trickett, the Mayor of Woollahra and MP for Paddington, wrote to Franklin: 'We must be careful to foster the idea that the park is for the people.' Elements of the park's design and its early administration, however, discredited these intentions. The grand drive, for example, reflected and reinforced the contemporary social hierarchy. Respectable members of the lower orders were expected to politely observe their betters riding in carriages along the drive. Park by-laws rigidly prescribed proper behaviour. Park authorities were determined that Centennial Park would not become another Domain, a haunt of radicals, ratbags and criminals.

Franklin found Parkes to be an enthusiastic promoter. After his landslide electoral victory in February 1887, the one-time radical and newspaper editor-proprietor, failed businessman and political opportunist, was keen to 'emphatically and grandly' mark the 'greater epoch in Australian history' – the centenary. And Parkes had a special interest in parks. Earlier in the decade he had visited England, where a new brand of liberalism was contending with drastic problems created by industrialisation. A romantic as well as an opportunist, Parkes believed in the liberal goals of the 'improvement' and 'beautification' of cities for the moral benefit of urban dwellers (as well as to promote economic stability). The creation of public parks was an important feature of such reformism. The centenary provided the New South Wales Government with the opportunity to create a public park on a grand scale.

The idea of a 'people's park' found general favour and the scheme went ahead, albeit without Franklin, who was ostracised by his political masters. Later, Franklin laid claim to the park's design in his booklet Correspondence and reports in connection with the origin and design of Centennial Park (1907).

The Centennial Celebration Act passed smoothly through Parliament during the first half of 1887, making provision for the park. But Parkes's vision of a State House within its grounds provoked debate. A Sydney version of Westminster Abbey, the State House was variously described both in Parliament and the press as a 'white elephant', a 'monstrous tomb' and a 'monument to St Henry'. The State House proposal was dropped early in 1888.

Building the park

[media]Work on Centennial Park began on 19 July 1887. Its design, modified to suit its colonial setting, had deep roots in the English school of landscape and park design and in the international park movement, represented in the United States. But the park's specific design was, by and large, an unassuming copy of the work of Joseph Paxton, the gardener and architect who had designed London's Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Charles Moore, director of the Botanic Gardens, was responsible for the park's establishment. Moore's preference for the gardenesque had a lasting impact on the park's landscape. But his temperament and erratic approach to detail greatly frustrated Centennial Park's first overseer, James Jones, who saw much of the park as his own creation.

Personal antagonisms and pride notwithstanding, work on Centennial Park progressed, building to a frenzied pitch just before the official dedication on 26 January 1888. As with its conception, the opening was grand. However, much remained to be done to transform the park into the sylvan landscape promised by its promoters. The sandy, windswept nature of the area made it difficult to plant, given contemporary botanical and horticultural knowledge. This, combined with later funding problems, meant the park took shape slowly. When Moore retired in 1896, his successor, Joseph Henry Maiden, inherited only a skeleton.

[media]Maiden – a gentle man with a liberal philosophy – took the reins in a period of consolidation, significantly embellishing the park. While respecting Moore's original ideas, botanical taste and design preferences, Maiden set new directions. Aspects of educational botany were promoted with a significant emphasis on native plantation. The park's amenities were improved and park usage liberalised.

Managing the park

Centennial Park continued as the premier colonial venue for celebrations, reviews and other displays of national strength and racial pride. When the Great White Fleet of the United States came to Sydney in August 1908, a review of citizen soldiery, cadets and some naval personnel in Centennial Park made, as the Sydney Morning Herald observed, 'a magnificent sample of what Australia can do'. Despite 'problems' with 'undesirables', vandals, droughts and, from the early 1900s, motor cars (which were viewed as moveable sites of indecency), the park flourished.

During World War I the focus of activity in Centennial Park shifted from consolidation to maintenance, and the park experienced a gradual fall from grace in the postwar period. Even before Maiden's retirement in 1924, the park had dropped to the bottom of a long pecking order in the Department of Agriculture's hierarchy. Centennial Park had been under the control of the Colonial (later Chief Secretary's) Office, until the Department of Agriculture took charge in 1908. However, the Botanic Gardens continued to directly administer the park. After 1924, as recession deepened into the 1930s Depression, even basic maintenance became problematic.

While the subdivision of crown land around the park from 1904–05 had been provided for in the Centennial Celebration Act (1887), the 1930s saw various encroachments on the park itself. The Eastern Suburbs Hospital was constructed on parkland in this decade, as was a second reservoir, which went up on the site originally proposed for the State House.

These encroachments raised public protest, as did the poor condition of parts of the park, but to no avail. Shortages of funds and staff meant that much maintenance became reliant on the availability of Depression relief workers, while the only major initiative for refurbishment came from outside the park's administration. The latter part of the 1930s saw Queens Park (part of Centennial Park) cleaned up and landscaped under an independent and active works committee. Centennial Park's numerous and extremely popular sports facilities escaped neglect only because users were obliged to maintain their own areas.

For some time during World War II Centennial Park was occupied by the army, a situation that momentarily silenced park critics. During the 1950s, however, public agitation for improvements to the park began again. Great protests were also stirred by proposals in 1950, and again in the early 1960s, to 'alienate' large portions of Centennial Park for sports facilities.

Public outcries and political pressure, underwritten by a buoyant economy, led to the establishment of a works committee in 1964, just after a controversy over proposals for an extensive sports complex in the park. The committee was voted considerable extraordinary funds to make substantial improvements, and by the late 1960s the results were attracting public praise.

The delicate balance between maintenance and development in the park was disturbed again in 1972 with a proposal from the Australian Olympic Committee to take over a large chunk of Centennial Park for an international sporting complex. Three things saved Centennial Park from the mass of bitumen and concrete that had come to characterise 'progress' in much of Sydney: protest on an unprecedented level; the industrial muscle of the Builders Labourers Federation; and professional advice against the complex.

In the wake of that controversial proposal, local activists focused their attention on the non-participatory style of management used in Centennial Park and on the multitude of problems created in the park by cars. During peak hours Centennial Park's roads were used as a short cut by many eastern suburbs motorists.

The Centennial Park Trust

Piecemeal decision-making and political opportunism proved inadequate to cope with the changing nature of park usage in the context of an expanding environmental movement and demands for popular democracy. In March 1979, Centennial Park and the Botanic Gardens came under the direct administration of the Premier's Department. On 1 July 1980 an independent board of advice was appointed to prepare a plan of management for Centennial Park.

Echoing arcadian ideals voiced by earlier analysts, the board recommended that the park should be treated primarily as a 'designed landscape with the urban context' where individuals might find 'respite from metropolitan pressures'. Centennial Park 'must also continue to expand its role as a conservation park and a refuge for wildlife'. The appointment of a director and a seven-member trust was proposed to implement new directions and a more participatory style of management. John Mortimer was appointed director in January 1982, and the Centennial Park Trust Act was passed on 22 December 1983. The first meeting of the trust was held in November 1984.

Centennial Park continues to undergo constant reconstruction. Old plantings are replaced by new, fashions in sport and leisure come and go, and the degree and nature of control and regulation change. New monuments have been erected, with variable results. Some stand out, such as the Federation Pavilion constructed in 1987 and officially dedicated on 1 January 1988. But their meanings, like those embedded in the park's landscape history, sometimes remain hidden. The Federation celebrations in 2001 failed to capture the popular imagination, and few people who visit this prominent spot in the park understand the site's significance. Historical meaning is not inherent in any artefact, whether it is a magnificent and complex urban parkland or a simple object. Only through research and, ultimately, interpretation, can these places be made to speak.


Paul Ashton and Kate Blackmore, Centennial Park: A History, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1988

Australian Town and Country Journal, 2 July 1887, p 18

Walter Bunning, Report and Review of Moore Park and Alternative Sites in Sydney for a major Sports Complex, Sydney, 1973

Conybeare Morrison and Partners, Centennial Parklands Conservation Management Plan, Sydney, 2002

Department of Public Works, Centennial Park Conservation Study, Sydney, 1986

FA Franklin, Correspondence and reports in connection with the origin and design of Centennial Park, Sydney, 1907

James Jones, 'Diary of the Head Gardener, Botanic Gardens 1884–89', State Records, 2/8558

NJ Thorpe, 'The History of the Botany Water Supply', Sydney Water Board Journal, vol 3 no 3, October 1953, pp 74–85