When an early Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, decided, in December 1811, that he was going set aside some land close to the city of Sydney for grazing and watering stock, he inadvertently set in train a series of events that would lead to one of the great unban parks of the world.
That early decision, and the location he chose, a swampy paperbark forest have since become one of the much loved aspects of Sydney life. Centennial Parklands is not only one of Australia’s best known and loved Parklands, but one of its most historic.
The swampy bushland, now some 200 years on, boasts wetlands, ornamental lakes, pine and native forests, expanses of grass, playing fields, a golf course, and tennis and netball courts all spread over several square kilometres.
Today, the Parklands are home to over 15,000 trees, as well as around 124 species of native land and water birds, all of them roosting and cawing at home less than 5 kilometres from the Sydney CBD.
Taking a walk around the park on a warm autumn afternoon is one of the delights of Sydney life, bird watching, horse riding or just lazing away beside one of the lakes, it seems all of Sydney are out to enjoy themselves and the weather. You can still enjoy part of the world of Governor Macquarie with a visit to the southern part of the park where the ponds, known as Lachlan Swamps, named in his honour and were the chief water supply for Sydney from 1830 to 1880 now attract hundreds of native waterbirds. One of the most peaceful and historic areas of Centennial Park, the swamp is also home to a native paperbark forest and swamp vegetation.
The swamp gives an insight into what the area was like before the Parklands were developed. From that swampy and unappealing start, the park is now a much loved, vital part of Sydney.
The Governors decision, back in 1811, to target the area was made due to the poor sandy soil that only scrubby flora could survive on, it was also dotted with areas of swampland and sandstone ridges, making it unsuitable for farming and ideal for common land.
These roads that now criss cross through the park in a seemingly random pattern were mostly constructed along the lines of Aboriginal paths and tracks.
Grazing and garbage dumping gradually polluted Lachlan Swamps and ended it as a drinking water source and in 1866 the Sydney Common Improvement Bill was passed by the government, that Bill among other things, created Moore Park, an adjoining space to the public common that will eventually become Centennial Park.
The combined parks construction was implemented by Charles Moore, who at the time was also the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Charles Moore turned the first sod to begin work on the park. Things didn’t go as well as he had expected though, he enlisted hundreds of unemployed men to help him turn the swamp, scrub and rock into a grand park in the European style, with a vision of 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. Many of his plantings failed to survive and his successor, Joseph Maiden, turned to a mixture of native and European plantings.
On Australia Day, 26 January 1888, Centennial Park was officially opened by Sir Henry Parkes as part of the week-long centenary celebrations of European settlement in Australia.
Sir Henry, who loved a good turn of phrase, had this to say on the day about the park.
“In the course of the next few years (this park) will be converted into a place of beauty and joy forever. It will be yours and so long as the land shall last it will be for you, and it is a great obligation that rests upon you as free people to see that no power, no combination, invades your right in the enjoyment of this great boon. 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.”
Today the park holds a distinctive and special place in Australian history and culture, 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.