Starting Centennial Park - 1886

Tomorrow marks the 128th anniversary of the ‘first shovel in the ground’ that created Centennial Park!

On 19 July 1886 work began on creating what was to become the largest urban park in the southern hemisphere. This was an immensely challenging project – turning an area of land that was swamp, scrub and rocky outcrop into a Victorian-era parklands.

So where did the idea of the Park begin?

During the late 1870s people were lobbying the Councils of Woollahra and Paddington to use the Water Reserve at Lachlan Swamps 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.

Behind the scenes, though, there was a mix of bold vision, politics, personal ambition and pragmatic idealism. The best summary of this period comes from the Dictionary of Sydney, from which the following is taken:

For some time before the colony’s [New South Wales] 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.

Lord Carrington (ML)

Lord Carrington (photo courtesy of Mitchell Library)

In November 1886, Frederick Augustus Franklin – an English civil engineer and municipal politician, 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.’

Franklin found Parkes to be an enthusiastic promoter. After his landslide electoral victory as Premier of New South Wales in February 1887, Parkes was keen to ’emphatically and grandly’ mark the ‘greater epoch in Australian history’ – the centenary. He had a special interest in parks and 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 idea of a ‘people’s park’ found general favour and the scheme went ahead, albeit without Franklin, who was ostracised by his political masters.

The Centennial Celebration Act passed smoothly through Parliament during the first half of 1887, making provision for the park. But Parkes’ vision of a State House within its grounds provoked debate and never eventuated (read the story about the State House proposal here).

Work on Centennial Park began on 19 July 1887.

So there we are. It was a long road, yet at the same time a short road to get political consensus, action and funding to celebrate the centenary of the colony with the creation of Centennial Park.

What is not covered by this story is the amazing physical effort that went into creating something out of nothing within 18 months. Consider for a moment the tools and machinery that may have been available back in 1886. Nothing like what we have today.

Here are a series of amazing photos from the time that show what the land upon which Centennial Park is built looked like at the outset of this project. It was an incredible transformation!

Surveyors looking across the future Centennial Park (ML)

Surveyors looking across the future Centennial Park (photo courtesy of Mitchell Library)

Working on creating Centennial Park (NLA)

Working on creating Centennial Park (photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

Rocky outcrop (ML)

Part of the land was rocky outcrop (photo courtesy of Mitchell Library)

Men working on the Park's creation (ML)

Men working on the Park’s creation (photo courtesy of Mitchell Library)

Centennial Park - circa 1891 (NLA)

This is how Centennial Park looked around two years later – note the columns that are still in place today (photo courtesy of National Library of Australia)


Think you know Centennial Park? Think again! Buy Centennial Park A History for more great stories from the past.



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