Postcards from 100 years ago




Centennial Park

Centennial Park has a distinctive and special place in Australian history and culture. It was once a huge catchment of creeks, swamps, springs, sand dunes and ponds fed by ground water, and was traditionally home to the Gadi people. 

165 Centennial Park

165 Centennial Park nowIn 1811, Governor Lachlan Macquarie designated the area as the second Sydney Common and it was used for grazing, lime burning and timber clearing.

In 1825, convict labour was used to build a 3.5 km underground aqueduct, known as Busbys Bore, from the swamps to Hyde Park. This bore supplied Sydney’s main water supply from 1837 to 1859.

In 1888, Sir Henry Parkes dedicated Centennial Park as a public open space for the enjoyment of the people of NSW. Hundreds of unemployed men were enlisted to turn swamps, scrub and rock into a grand park in the Victorian tradition with formal gardens, ponds, statues and wide avenues for Sydneysiders to drive their carriages around to ‘take the air’.

266 Centennial ParkOn 1 January 1901, Centennial Park became the focus of the nation as the site of the inauguration of Australian Federation (this event is commemorated today by the Federation Pavilion).

More than 100 years later, Centennial Park remains a people’s park – a beautiful recreation area in the middle of Sydney’s densely populated eastern suburbs. It is also home to diverse flora and fauna and many significant tree plantings, including spectacular Port Jackson figs, Holm oaks and Norfolk Island pines dating back to the early 20th century.


265 Centennial ParkToday Centennial Park is a playground for adults and children of all ages and is one of the few inner city parks in the world to offer horse riding facilities. 

In the early 1800s the area on which Centennial Park is now situated was was a catchment area of creeks, swamps, springs, sand dunes and ponds fed by ground water. 419 Centennial Park

In 1825 John Busby, city surveyor and civil engineer, surveyed the swamp after Sydney’s original water supply, the Tank Stream, was found to be ‘foul and almost empty’. Busby reported that Lachlan Swamps’ water was "free from every taste and smell, and so soft as to be fit for every purpose".

Construction began in 1827 on an subterranean aqueduct to gravity feed water to the township of Sydney. The 3.5 kilometre aqueduct was bored using convict labour from Hyde Park, under Oxford Street and across to the Lachlan Reserve. Completed in 1837 this aqueduct is now known as Busby’s Bore, one of Sydney’s most important pieces of early industrial development.

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. 

Pollution worsened considerably in 1874 after a spate of large floods, and even though seven new dams were built to resolve the problems, they continued.

Between 1867 to 1869 the park was laid out and planted with grass and trees. The Park is named after Charles Moore, Mayor of Sydney during this period. 

By the end of the 1800s Moore Park was Sydney’s most popular sporting and entertainment precinct. It had a cricket ground, sporting stadium, golf course, racecourse, agricultural society showground and sporting fields.

A zoological garden was created in the 1880s in a corner of Moore Park. This was Sydney's first zoo and included a circular bear pit and an elephant house. It remained there until it was transferred to Taronga Park in 1916. The site is now used for the Sydney Boys and Girls High Schools.

Grazing and garbage dumping gradually polluted the swamps. The pollution worsened in 1874 after dams were constructed in the wake of large scale flooding. When Centennial Park was opened in 1888, these dams were remodelled into the ornamental lakes now known as the park’s ponds.

Local agitation to retain Lachlan Reserve as a recreational reserve began in the 1870s.

By 1887 almost 65 per cent of Sydney’s population lived within a five mile radius of the Lachlan Swamps and a new vision for the area was born. 

The Governor, Lord Carrington, and Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, proposed turning the reserve, which had now become an eyesore, into a grand public park that would also be the focus for the centenary of European settlement celebrations on 26 January 1888. Such a park would transform the area into a place of serenity and beauty. 

As finances were restricted, it was decided that revenue for the project could be raised through the sale of housing land surrounding the Park. The proposal to convert the Lachlan Swamps into a park was accepted in parliament on 18 July 1887.

A panoramic photograph taken in 1887 shows a deforested landscape in the course of being turned into the park, evidence of quarrying, works sheds, a cottage, and workmen undertaking various cutting and filling activities.2 Up until this point the area, except for the works associated with damming the ponds, was said still to be ‘in its pristine state’ with thick scrub and sand hills.

After Centennial and Queens Parks were created under the Centennial Celebrations Act 1887, the site was handed over to Sir Charles Moore, Director of the Botanic Gardens (1848 to 1896). Moore himself reputedly turned the first sod to announce the commencement of work on the park. 

Moore, who trained at two of the world’s great parks – Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens, London – was given the task of developing Centennial Park, and made good use of his English parks’ experience on his new project. 

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. 

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. 

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

When Australia Day, 26 January 1888, arrived Centennial Park's opening ceremony included the planting of the first trees in what is now known as Cannons 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. 

Although officially open, Centennial Park was far from finished. 

More than 450 men worked determinedly on fencing, soil preparation, footpaths, asphalting roads and rock blasting to bring the Park to completion. After a couple of months they were able to concentrate their efforts on transforming swamps and dams into the ornamental ponds with islands that exist today. 

The 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. Ten of the eleven interconnected ponds in Centennial Park, and a single pond in Moore Park, are fed by stormwater run-off from the surrounding catchment area. 

Only one pond, Lily Pond, is fed by a natural artesian spring in Lachlan Swamp.




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