AT reader, Ian Dodd, sets out to reveal historical sites dating back to the 1700s around Sydney, often left off the tourist map.
I have a question. What constitutes an old building in Australia? Is it something built 100 years ago? Are we talking late Georgian or early Victorian architecture? Are they homes that were built off the riches of the Bathurst Gold Rush, or perhaps second-generation farmers building on the success of pioneers like John Macarthur? Or are they the more renowned landmarks like Fort Denison on the harbour, Sydney Town Hall, even the Queen Victoria Building?
Well what many Sydney-siders don’t realise is that there are historical sites dotted about the city, dating back to as far as the 1700s. That’s right, buildings and sites that are remnants of the 18th Century, back to the cradle of modern Australia, back to an era of convicts, when survival of the colony was touch and go.
Here is an insight to some of the lesser-known historical destinations around the city I have found, which you can explore too.
ABORIGINAL ROCK CARVINGS
ERA: 700AD – 1790
LOCATION: Balls Head Drive, Waverton, adjacent to the HMAS Waterhen service road.
I thought I’d start here, because this site is easily accessible and visually very powerful. At this site are a number of rock carvings including the outline of a human, whale, fish and “spirit man”.
They were first noted by a surveyor, W.D. Campbell back in 1899, but the site was a local worship area for the Cammeraygal tribe, who had gathered on these rocks for 1000 or more years.
The most stunning of the engravings is that of a whale. It’s around six metres long and unmistakable, but what many people miss is a small detail near the tail. Sitting inside the whale, is the image of a horse, suggesting this 1000-year-old site was created during the birth of modern Australia. The local people were observing and recording what they were witnessing, as Governor Arthur Phillip came ashore at Circular Quay.
For the tribe, it must have been an absolute revelation – the same way the discovery of the platypus was to Europeans. I love this site, because there recorded in the rocks is the very moment when two cultures would be changed forever.
CAPTAIN COOK’S LANDING PLACE
ERA: April 29, 1770
LOCATION: Botany Bay National Park. Solander Drive, Kurnell.
While on the subject of rocks, there’s another rocky shelf that we should celebrate. It’s the exact spot where Captain James Cook (1728-1799) first stepped foot on Australian land, often referred to as “Landing Rock”. Those rocks are just as they were in 1770, where Cook moored his Bark, HM Endeavour, just off the rock for eight days.
History should never underestimate Cook. Born in Yorkshire, his brilliance at sea saw him ascend to the level of Captain. In his life he made three major voyages, this being the first (1768-1771).
Around the landing site is an obelisk commemorating the feat; the site of a well where he sourced fresh water, and two fascinating memorials.
The first recognises Joseph Banks (1743-1820). He was a naturalist, a scientist and a botanist – the best Britain had to offer. Science celebrates him with 80 plant species named after him, the most famous being the Banksia.
The second remembers Able Seaman Forby Sutherland. He was a ship hand and the official poulterer – charged with preparing bird dishes for dinner. Sutherland died from tuberculosis while Endeavour was moored. On May 2, 1770, Sutherland was buried here, making him the first British subject to die in Australia, and the first European to be buried in New South Wales.
HMS SIRIUS RELICS
ERA: January 26,1788
LOCATION: Macquarie Place, Sydney
These relics are the last tangible objects that can be traced back to where and when it all started. Sitting in Macquarie Place is a cast iron bow anchor and cannon from HMS Sirius (1780 – 1790), which escorted the first fleet into Sydney Harbour in 1788.
The cannon was landed shortly after the foundation of the colony and the anchor was retrieved from Norfolk Island after Sirius wrecked in 1790. These relics were placed at the site in 1907, while there are a few more relics from HMS Sirius displayed in the Museum at Norfolk Island, including a second anchor.
These relics are often skipped over by historians, but give a real feeling into the flimsiness of the first fleet settlement over 200 years ago; built on a colony of tents, some crude firepower to keep order and the most basic of sailing vessels.
MUSEUM OF SYDNEY – FIRST GOVERNMENT HOUSE
ERA: 1788 – 1846
LOCATION: Corner of Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney.
Once the First Fleet became established on land, the tent city began to disappear and building commenced.
In 1788, on a section of road now known as New Bridge Street, Governor Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) built a house to reside in. That building is where the Museum of Sydney is today.
Under the forecourt, the foundations of the building have been preserved and the original structure has been marked out by a series of silver studs in the ground.
Some parts of the granite pavement have been angled, to allow visitors to the site to view the studs and footings of the 1788 building below.
Once inside the foyer of the museum, a full scale section of the front façade has been rebuilt, using bricks recovered from the site. These bricks were the subject of a substantial archaeological dig at the site in the 1980s.
The façade gives the visitor a real sense of the building that was once existed until its demolition in 1846, after the Governor’s residence was moved to Parramatta. Moreover, under the floor of the museum is a 1790s drainage system has been exposed and preserved.
DAWES POINT BATTERY PRECINCT
ERA: 1789 – 1925
LOCATION: Hickson Road, The Rocks (under the Harbour Bridge)
Located in a park next to the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge are the excavated remains of Dawes Point Battery. These remains were part of an archaeology dig back in the 1990s, and have uncovered footings and remnants dating back to 1789.
The earliest remnants are the work of William Dawes (1762-1832), an officer of the Royal Marines, astronomer, surveyor and colonial administrator. Dawes was an interesting character, having twice deeply offended Governor Arthur Phillip, and was offered the role of official colony engineer as long as he apologised to the Governor. Dawes refused.
The earliest part of the site is the floor of the original powder magazine, dating back to 1789. The functional parts of the battery were constructed between 1791 and 1801, then were later dressed up by colonial architect Francis Greenway (1777-1837), in 1819. The battery comprised six guns and remained the dominant building on the site until the mid 1920s, when it was demolished for construction of the Harbour Bridge.
What is surprising is the amount of the original structure still left. You can clearly see the outlines of buildings, gun emplacements and even an intact subterranean powder magazine.
The battery was originally built to protect the colony from invasion (primarily from the French and later the Russians), but today it’s an interpretive park in stark contrast to the engineering marvel of the Harbour Bridge, directly above.
THE GRAVE OF HENRY EDWARD DODD
LOCATION: St John’s Cemetery, 1 O’Connell Street, Parramatta.
In the back blocks of Parramatta is a quaint little cemetery named St John’s, which dates back to the beginnings of European settlement. It was established in 1790 with ten burials, and by the end of 1791, a further 67 burials had taken place.
The cemetery is surrounded by a solid brick wall and is divided into four sectors. In the fourth sector (or the back right side) is the grave of Henry Edward Dodd (c1748-1791). The headstone simply reads “H. E. Dodd 1791”, and is the oldest undisturbed marked grave in Australia.
Henry Dodd was a superintendent of convicts at Government Farm, Rose Hill – or in other words, Governor Phillip’s head butler.
He was a free settler and considered a brilliant gardener. In fact, he’s recognised for growing the first successful wheat crop in the colony, at a time when the colony was starving. He was also known for developing greens like cabbage.
Dodd used his influence to reduce the military presence around Parramatta, convincing Governor Phillip that convicts and free settlers could live without the need of strong military supervision.
His death was widely felt in the colony but the reasons behind it remain a bit of a mystery. Records suggest he caught a chill while camping outside to try and catch convicts trying to steal his produce.
His importance afforded him a marked grave in the cemetery, while other notable people buries there include Charles William Wentworth and Samuel Marsden. Detailed cemetery records were destroyed by fire in the 1930s.
LOCATION: 70 Alice Street, Parramatta.
This is the oldest house in Australia. What I love about this place is the uneven ceiling lines, deep verandas, colonial windows and cedar architraves. While outside, an olive orchard dates back to the beginning of the house.
Originally a four-roomed dwelling on a hillside overlooking the Parramatta River, Elizabeth Farm was remodelled by the 1820s, into a smart country house with pleasure gardens and more than 100 acres of open country.
It was the home of John Macarthur (1767-1834) and his wife Elizabeth (1767-1850). Macarthur was the pioneer of the Australian wool industry and the family still reside in a classic Georgian mansion in Camden, known as Camden Park.
John Macarthur arrived in New South Wales as a soldier in 1790, with a large fleet of convicts being transported to the young colony. The conditions were horrific on his voyage and by the time they arrived, 278 convicts had died (about a quarter of those who left England).
Macarthur and his wife arrived unscathed; they were the lucky ones, free settlers. Macarthur went on to forge trade between England and Australia, even returning to the UK on two occasions.
At Elizabeth Farm he stocked 130 goats, 100 hogs, two mares, two cows and a number of chooks. The grounds around Elizabeth Farm were also the first to be ploughed in Australia.
Today Elizabeth Farm sits in suburbia but remains an oasis, easy to imagine what life might’ve been like over 200 years ago. Sadly, most people don’t know this little bit of colonial Australia exists but I think it should be on the “must see” list of everyone.
LOCATION: 813 Victoria Road, Ryde.
Beside one of the busiest road arteries in Sydney, Victoria Road, is a building that dates back to the first few years of European settlement. In stark contrast from the heavy traffic passing by outside, ‘Addington’ stands proud, as an impressive colonial settler’s cottage, with a distinctive long veranda.
Today, what you see from the road is an 1810 building with extensions (wings) built on each side during the late 1840s. But these structures are built around the original three-room settler’s cottage, hidden within.
The cottage was constructed in 1794 by emancipated convict, James Stewart, on a thirty-acre land grant to establish a farm. It was originally known as ‘New Farm’, but following the rebuild in 1810 it coined the name ‘Addington’, after the village in Greater London.
When the extensions were built on the eastern side, builders used the original sandstone bricks from 1794. By then they’d become so soft they crumbled under the pressure of fingers, so were preserved with several coats of paint, and are still there today. Never under estimate the value of structural paint!
Since then, Addington has been home to Thomas Bowden, the colony’s first professional teacher (1822) – where he also started a boarding school, and in the 1880s the building was home to Sir Henry Parkes.
Today Addington is being maintained and restored by Ryde City Council, who occasionally host open days at the cottage.
THE GOVERNOR’S DAIRY
LOCATION: Parramatta Park
Smack bang in the centre of Parramatta Park is a very simple but wonderful convict house.
It was the home of George Salter (1751-1832), and was constructed in 1798 as a single-room cottage. By 1814, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had taken over the cottage, expanded it and turned it into a dairy; however the nuts and bolts of the original cottage remain.
Salter was transported to Australia for seven years, after being implicated in the deaths of two men. He was one of a group of three implicated and in 1788, his two cohorts were hanged while Salter was given a last minute reprieve from the hangman’s noose.
So from his home in Devonshire, he was deported to Parramatta and soon became a model convict. In fact he was so good; the Governor granted him 30 acres, where he grew 10 acres of wheat and 20 acres of maize. Within a few years he was allowed to manage three convicts to help around the farm and own a horse.
Salter later relocated to a larger farm after Macquarie took over the property, but today it is maintained as part of the Parramatta Park heritage precinct.
OLD GOVERNMENT HOUSE
LOCATION: Parramatta Park.
The central part of the Parramatta Park heritage precinct you see today was built in 1799 by Governor John Hunter (1737-1821). Hunter became Governor of the colony in 1794 and demolished an earlier building for the new design.
By 1815, Governor Macquarie substantially added to the house with a number of side extensions, but the essence of the house has remained true to Hunter’s original design.
It was a very successful building, housing ten colonial governors through its lifetime.
Out the front of the residence is a memorial to Lady Fitzroy, who was killed in 1847 when her carriage hit a tree on the way to St Johns Church. It was a sad end to Government House’s working history, with Governor Fitzroy the last governor to take up residence there.
Also in the vicinity is the 1880s Tudor design gatehouse; the remnants of the colony’s first observatory and the Governor’s bath house.
The setting of Old Government House transports you back to colonial days, having changed little in 212 years.
Today it is managed by the National Trust and is a treasure of colonial design and furnishings and in 2010 it was given world-heritage listing because of its importance.
Sydney has a poor record of managing its history yet miraculously, a few examples of the 18th century buildings and places still survive.
It’s well worth taking a closer look, to get an understanding of what life was like in the formative years of the colony. It’s pretty amazing how our ‘young country’ still has tangible evidence of our European heritage, which dates back to the late 1700s. That’s old!