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A grand new park

Grazing and garbage dumping gradually polluted Lachlan Swamps and ended it as a drinking water source. In 1874 a series of dams were built in the wake of large scale flooding, however this only led to increased pollution.

During the late 1870s people were lobbying the Councils of Woollahra and Paddington to use the Water Reserve as a public park when its water supply function ended in 1886. It was 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 Sydney Common site. The residual Sydney Common area to the east of Moore Park was chosen as the location for a grand vision of public recreation – a landscaped park, with access avenues, for the people.

The Centennial Celebrations Act of 1887 created Centennial Park and Queens Park, which signalled the end of Sydney Common. While Queens Park remained relatively undeveloped because of drainage problems, Centennial Park became the focus for the Centenary celebrations.

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 precedent set by Charles Moore in Moore Park was cited when Parkes proposed the creation of a suburb along the edge of the Park, through the sale of 100 acres of parkland along the boundary of the Park. The sale of land on the raised Hawkesbury sandstone ridge encircling the Park was intended for "elegant mansions with gardens and railings in front."

The intended subdivision did not proceed as designed, and several plans were prepared before a final boundary between the two parks was decided upon.

The Park was to have been designed in 1886 by J W Deering, District Surveyor of the Department of Lands, however it is attributed to engineer Frederick Augustus Franklin (an English civil engineer who had worked under Joseph Paxton on the relocated Crystal Palace at Sydenham in the 1850s). The Park’s construction was implemented by Charles Moore, then Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens (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).

Moore himself reputedly turned the first sod to announce the commencement of work on the park.

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.

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.

Disagreements arose between the Park’s major players over the routing of the Drive and over the character of the plantings. Franklin and Jones wished to retain the wild character of the indigenous vegetation, while Moore advocated the removal of the ‘wild vegetation’ in favour of a gardenesque appearance with large grassed areas.

Despite these hindrances, Moore was instrumental in turning the coastal scrubland into the beginnings of what was to become a great Victorian park and one now recognised for best practice in many areas.

The land was cleared and sculpted into an open, undulating expanse – to provide recreation in an idealised setting. Moore was responsible for the extensive planting of Moreton Bay Figs. Moore’s aesthetic preference for smooth and rounded landforms is evident throughout Centennial Park.

Old Grand Drive (the Moore Park section now known as Federation Way) was constructed in October 1887 as the main entrance to Centennial Park, and was intended to link the new Park with the city. A dwarf sandstone wall with iron palisade surrounds Centennial Park and defines the southern edge of Federation Way. The drive soon became the focal point of public circulation around Centennial Park.

The division of Grand Drive within Centennial Park into carriage, pedestrian and equestrian lanes reflected the influence of Joseph Paxton, Franklin’s mentor in England, upon his pupil’s design. The original layout of the drive was altered slightly under the direction of Joseph Maiden in 1896-7.

The new design made two of the entrance gates redundant including the original gate now ‘stranded’ on Martin Road. The new layout was intended to provide visitors better access to public transport. The nature of Grand Drive’s wide avenue with open spaces on either side has meant that it has been used for a number of processions and public celebrations.

Centennial Park’s main circular road, Grand Drive, was Sydney’s first public suburban drive.