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  • Self-guided Walks

    Staying fit and healthy is just a walk in the Park! Download our free Centennial Park walking apps - available for Apple and Android smartphones. More info and download links here.

  • Swamp Closures

    Lachlan Swamp will close on days above 36C to minimise disturbance to the Flying Foxes. There will be no access to visitors.

  • Centennial Park History Book

    Our great new book on the history of Centennial Park is now on sale, and can be ordered online. Great gift idea. More info.

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Park History

Lachlan Swamp

Centennial Park is one of Australia’s most celebrated public parks. Dubbed “the People’s Park”, it has was created out from a swamp and rocky outcrop, survived drought, floods and development threats, and today stands as one of the most stunning examples of a Victorian-era park in Australia.

The Park has a long, intriguing, amusing, challenging and (at times) quirky history which is captured in detail on the Centennial Parklands website. The following, however, is ‘a short history of Centennial Park’ that will help give a flavour of its past and why it features as such an iconic and emotive place in the hearts and minds of the community.

Let’s start in pre-European times…

When the First Fleet landed, first in Botany Bay and then in Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour), in January 1788, they were met by people who had lived in this land for many thousands of years. At least 1,500 people lived in the area between Botany Bay and Broken Bay and the intermediate coast.  People belonged to small groups (territorial clans) through which they were spiritually related to specific tracts of land – these clans included the Gadigal, Wanngal, Gamaragal, Wallumedegal and Boromedegal.

The ‘district of Gadi’ was reported to have stretched from South Head to modern day Darling Harbour – an area that would have included Centennial, Moore and Queens Parks.

In terms of the lands where Centennial Park has been constructed, the area was largely swampland. It was not an area that was inhabited on a regular basis. It was, however, considered a meeting place – so provides a great link through to modern day. This land has always been a place of social gathering and connection!

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Supplying water to Sydney…

By the 1820s the Tank Stream, Sydney’s main supply of fresh water, was insufficient and polluted. In 1824, Governor Darling appointed 59 year-old engineer John Busby, as Government Mineral Surveyor. Busby was appointed to locate another water source. The area known as the Lachlan Swamps (located in modern day Centennial Park), with natural aquifers in the Botany Sands geological system, was considered an ideal source of water.  Busby reported that Lachlan Swamps’ was a low-lying marsh with a plentiful supply of fresh clean water “free from every taste and smell, and so soft as to be fit for every purpose”. Busby determined that the water could be conveyed to the city through an underground tunnel or ‘bore’, for distribution at the what is now Hyde Park.

In 1827 construction of Busby’s Bore commenced with convict labour under Busby’s direction, to provide a supply of fresh water to a terminal in Hyde Park. the project experienced many difficulties and it took ten years to complete. Lachlan Swamps served as Sydney’s main water supply from 1837 to 1859 when a combination of the growth of industry, poor maintenance, livestock grazing, and garbage dumping gradually polluted the swamps.

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The idea of a grand park…

During the late 1870s people were lobbying the Councils of Woollahra and Paddington to use the Lachlan Swamps Water Reserve as a public park. They considered it an ideal location for a park, given that 65% of metropolitan Sydney was living within a 5 mile (8 km) radius of the area. The area had become densely populated and it was felt by the local residents that an ‘additional air lung to the city’ was needed.

Governor Carrington, whose idea it was for a large regional park for Sydney suited to riding and recreation, recognised the potential of the site.

The Centennial Celebrations Act of 1887 created Centennial Park and Queens Park set in motion the construction of Centennial Park. The concept behind the design of Centennial Park was the allocation of the highest ground for a memorial hall or State House to commemorate European settlement in Australia. The concept of the State House captivated the mind of the then Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, but the dreams never came to fruition.

The Park’s design was attributed to engineer Frederick Augustus Franklin (an English civil engineer), with the Park’s construction overseen by Charles Moore, then Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney (who trained at two of the world’s great parks – Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens, London) and overseer James Jones, head gardener at the Botanic Gardens (a British estate gardener who had worked at Saumarez Park, Guernsey, and later on the construction of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris, before coming to Australia).

The plan proposed a processional main entry, ornamental gates, plantations, lakes, ornamental water bodies, cascades and fountains, grassed meadows and areas for sport. The dams of the previous water reserve were incorporated into the plan of the Park. Parliament voted 50,000 pounds towards park construction, with an emphasis on the Grand Drive.

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Turning swamp and rocky ground into a Victorian-era park…

Creating Centennial Park proved no easy task. Moore enlisted hundreds of unemployed men to turn swamp, scrub and rock into a grand park in the European tradition, with formal gardens, ponds, statues and grand avenues. He and his staff were hindered by winds, drought, floods, sandy soil, damage from straying livestock and vandalism.

The land was cleared and sculpted into an open, undulating expanse – to provide recreation in an idealised setting. Tree plantings were laid out in patterns to create wind breaks and avenues of trees, and Centennial Park’s main internal circular road, Grand Drive, when finished became Sydney’s first public suburban drive.

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Officially opened…

On Australia Day, 26 January 1888, Centennial Park was officially opened as part of the week-long centenary celebrations of European settlement in Australia. The ceremony included the planting of the first trees in what is now known as Cannon Triangle.

Surprisingly, the ceremonial site was a last minute choice – it was still rocky, lacking in soil and the surface unregulated – and the rocks had to be quickly blasted and good soil brought in to fill in the holes to prepare the site for the opening.

The tree planting ceremony took place after the official speeches which dedicated the Centennial Park to the people to the New South Wales in front of a reported ‘tens of thousands’ of people. The first tree was planted by Lady Carrington, wife of the Governor. Symbolically, it was a Cook’s pine – named after Captain Cook. In total, 13 trees were planted during the ceremony.

Sadly, poor soil and the exposed windy condition of the area has meant these trees have not survived.

During his key speech on the day, Sir Henry Parkes said about Centennial Park:

“It is emphatically the people’s park and you must always take as much interest in it as if by your own hands you had planted the flowers; and if you take this interest in it, and if you thus rise to the full appreciation of its great beauty, and your great privileges, the park will be one of the grandest adornments of this beautiful country”.

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The park develops…

Although officially open, Centennial Park was far from finished. More than 450 men worked over coming years on fencing, soil preparation, footpaths, asphalting roads and rock blasting to bring the Park to completion.

Joseph Maiden took over the administration of Centennial Park following Charles Moore’s retirement in 1896, and augmented the original character of the Park. He had his own stylistic ideas and put his own stamp on the Park. Maiden had been inspired by the Tiergarten in Berlin (designed in 1830s by Lenné) and was particularly influenced by facilities such as pavilions, kiosks and the provision of children’s playgrounds.

Maiden pioneered the experimentation with and use of Australian native plants, and also introduced a more “tropical” flavour to the Park’s design with plantings of palms. Some of Moore’s original exotic plantings proved unsuitable for the soils and climate within the Park so Maiden established a plant nursery to raise plants more suited to the site conditions.

William Forsyth was overseer of Centennial Park from 1892 to his death in 1911 and much of the successful horticultural development of the Park during the first decade of the Century has been attributed to his botanical knowledge and labours. One of Forsyth’s most significant contributions was the selection of paperbarks to serve several purposes: aesthetic, shade and windbreak.

Statues were also a key feature of any Victorian-era park, and it was no different in Centennial Park. 31 statues were standing in the Park at its peak.

Apart from the vegetation and park aesthetics, a great deal of work also went into the stormwater and drainage systems that feed into, and pass through Centennial Park. Swamps and dams were transformed into the ornamental ponds with islands that exist today. These ponds form the upper catchment of the Botany Wetlands. These water bodies, covering an area of approximately 26 hectares, provide an important habitat for water birds and aquatic wildlife and are a significant feature of the formal design of Centennial Park. They also play an important role in flood mitigation, acting as a retention basin.

Maiden encouraged the use of the Parklands for events, military reviews and public activities. The Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations were held in Centennial Park in 1897, while musical events were encouraged in Centennial Park with the building of a bandstand in 1900 and recitals were played there from 1901 onwards.

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Birthplace of the nation…

On 1 January 1901, 250,000 people gathered in Centennial Park to witness the proclamation of the Federal Constitution of Australia, uniting six formerly independent colonies as one Commonwealth of Australia. The people of Sydney celebrated Federation with a week of festivities.

A reception at the Domain for the Governor-General was followed by a military and official procession through the city to Centennial Park. The procession entered Centennial Park through Paddington Gates, elaborately decorated for the occasion. The high point of the festivities was the ceremony in what is now known as Federation Valley, chosen because its rising slopes afforded the whole crowd good views.

An enclosure with seating for 7,000 dignitaries and guests and 300 members of the press surrounded the pavilion.

As part of the ceremony, Queen Victoria’s official proclamation was read by Australia’s first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun,  and Federal ministers were then sworn in after a twenty-one gun salute.

The ceremonial pavilion was a temporary building constructed for the occasion from plaster of paris and it quickly deteriorated and was removed in 1903.

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The park continues to evolve…

The Centenary Park Sale Bill was passed in 1904 creating a number of residential subdivisions along the border of Centennial Park. A protective covenant was placed on the land to exclude the building of terrace housing, wooden buildings or any commercial buildings. These covenants were implemented to provide a “suitable environment” and “appropriate vistas” for the new Park.

The nature of the roads within Centennial Park was transformed in 1905 with the introduction of the motor car. The growing use by motor vehicles required roads with rounded and deeply set stone kerbs. During these early years, many of the statues that adorned the Park were damaged due to being hit by motor vehicles. Some of the statues had to be relocated further from the road edge to save them from destruction!

By 1912 the nursery at Centennial Park was producing 150,000 plants per year. They were used in flowerbeds and shrubberies, with ornamental plantings placed around the northern shores of the main lakes and along the central roadways. The plantings became a focus for the Park and were popular with recreational visitors.

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And people continued to gather here for many reasons…

Gatherings were organised in the Parklands to mark the death of both Queen Victoria in 1901 and King Edward VII in 1910. Thanksgiving services and peace celebrations were held to mark the end of the Great War during 1918-9.

150,000 people celebrating the sesquicentenary celebrations (150 years of European settlement in Australia) on 31 January 1938 attended a naval and military review in the Parklands.

The impact of World War II meant that from 1940-1942 the military occupied areas of Centennial Park and adjacent Moore Park. In the south section of Centennial Park and Moore Park the military constructed a series of buildings. These included air-raid shelters and housing for personnel.

Centennial Parklands was used by the military for drilling exercises, military reviews, parades and engineering exercises during both World Wars. The Military engineers used the ponds to test the construction of temporary bridges and the army practiced their drills around Grand Drive.

Nearly 3000 people attended the Jubilee of Federation celebrations in 1951. A celebration was held in 1954 when Queen Elizabeth visited Centennial Park.

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Threats and protests…

Since World War 2 Centennial Park has been the focus of a number of public protests, many of which involved the issue of passive and active recreation, and private versus public use.

The increased use of the Park by various sporting bodies in the 1950s resulted in demands for the construction of a sporting stadium and sporting facilities. This brought a public outcry, particularly from the residents of Randwick, Woollahra, and Paddington.

Throughout the 1960s there were several more proposals for sporting facilities in the Parklands. Community opposition demanded that land not be taken from public use for the leisure of the minority. In 1964, their voices were heard and the Premier finally rejected the proposal to develop a sporting complex on parkland property.

In 1972, as part of the Green Bans Movement across Sydney, a green ban was placed on Centennial Park. A proposal has been made to build a massive sporting complex at Moore Park, extending into Centennial Park, as part of a tentative bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. The proposal covered 40 hectares of land, equivalent to 30 per cent of the entire Centennial Parklands.

Protests about this threat were led publicly by the likes of Nobel award winning author Patrick White, Neville Wran (who went on to become NSW Premier), high profile environmentalist Vince Serventy and countless other high profile people. Protesters very early had the support of Jack Mundey and the union movement. Mundey would later recall that the Chief-of-Staff of the Sydney Morning Herald said that the two issues that generated the most letters to the paper in 1972 were the Centennial Park proposal and the proposed removal of fig trees in the Domain.

As a result of the Green Bans and threats to places such as Centennial Park, the future government led by Neville Wran introduced heritage and environmental protection policies to the NSW Parliament, and Wran moved the administration for Centennial Park to his own Department.

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Establishing its own destiny…

Centennial Park, Botanic Gardens and Government Domains were transferred to the administration of the NSW Premier’s Department in 1980, and Centennial Park was given its own administration.

In 1982 John Mortimer was appointed the first Director of Centennial Park and the Centennial Park Trust was established in 1983 with the first members appointed a year later.

The Trust was later vested with lands in Moore Park, and the organisation changed its name to the current Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust.

   >> Interested? Read more.

Celebrating Federation…

The plaster pavilion from the Federation Ceremony in 1901 deteriorated rapidly and was removed from the Park in 1903. In 1904 the Commonwealth Stone which had been housed in the pavilion was placed on a sandstone pedestal surrounded by an iron picket fence.

It remained there until the new Federation Pavilion was opened as part of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1988. The current Pavilion is circular, representing unity, strength and a united cultural identity of the federated nation. Like the Park in which it sits, the Federation Pavilion is living heritage part of the daily recreational landscape of thousands of Australians.

In 2001 Centennial Park hosted celebrations relating to the centenary of Federation. A grand parade of 8,000 people including performing artists, marching bands, sports people, seniors, youth, dance groups and Indigenous and ethnic groups started at Circular Quay and travelled through the streets of Sydney to Centennial Park. The parade was followed by a Federation ceremony attended by the Prime Minister, the Governor-General and all State Premiers.

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And what about today?

Centennial Park is still a ‘green jewel’ of the city – an essential space for the health and wellbeing of the community, and important habitat for birds and animals.

Instead of telling you about it…let’s show you: