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The People’s Park

By Cassie Hamer on January 15, 2013 in Other

Picture: Museum of Australian Democracy

It’s celebration time for Centennial Park this month, marking its 125th birthday on January 26. To pay tribute The Beast is taking a brief look back at the events, people and scandals that have made the Park one of Sydney’s most important public spaces.

Today, it’s the green heart of Sydney’s east – 189 hectares, teaming with flora and fauna – but in the late 1870s, Centennial Park was little more than a swampy wasteland. Known as Lachlan Swamps, the site had served for more than 20 years as Sydney’s main water supply, until industry, grazing and garbage dumping made the water undrinkable.

Spotting an opportunity for redevelopment, local residents started lobbying for the transformation of the swamp into a public park. The city needed an extra ‘air lung’, they argued, as it had become overcrowded (Sydney’s population was 120,000!). Coincidentally, the NSW Government was looking for ways of commemorating 100 years of European settlement in Australia and seized on the park concept as an appropriate memorial. With laws passed in 1887 to officially create Centennial Park, a team of 400 unemployed men started work on transforming the scrubby swamp into a grand, European-style park.

On Australia Day, January 26, 1888, 40,000 people descended on Centennial Park to observe the official opening ceremony. Dignitaries planted 13 pine trees, with the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, declaring: “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.”

While supposedly “the people’s park”, early regulations seemed designed to prevent anyone from freely enjoying it. The long list of banned activities included playing games, climbing trees, walking on the grass, and the use of prams – because of the wheel marks left in the grass – inconceivable today! Gatherings of more than 19 people were also outlawed.

Since then, regulations have relaxed and Centennial Park has hosted numerous large-scale celebrations, the most notable being the birth of Federation. On January 1, 1901, between 60,000 and 100,000-plus spectators (a historically debated figure) witnessed the official proclamation of the Federal Constitution, uniting the six independent colonies into a single Australian Commonwealth.

It has been said the story of Centennial Park is the story of the nation. Apart from being the setting for key celebrations in Australia’s history, it has also survived droughts and floods and contributed to both world wars, with the military using it for drilling exercises, parades and engineering exercises.

These days, the Centennial Parklands (including Queens Park and Moore Park) are home to 15,000 trees, 11 statues (including one of only two life-size Charles Dickens statues in the world), 142 bird species, and numerous other animal species. Apart from being a haven for birdwatchers, it has also proved a happy hunting ground for celebrity spotters, forming the backdrop to countless television shows and commercials.

It has also featured on the silver screen. Key scenes from the blockbuster Australian film ‘Phar Lap’ were filmed on the trotting track and last year Hollywood came calling, with a jazz-age Long Island mansion being recreated in the Park’s Federation Valley for Baz Luhrman’s film version of ‘The Great Gatsby’.

At times there’ve been real-life events in Centennial Park that have read like a Hollywood script. In 1986, police whistle-blower Sallie-Anne Huckstepp was strangled and her body dumped in Busby’s Pond. The former prostitute had infamously made damaging accusations in the media against corrupt cop Roger Rogerson and organised crime figure Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith. Smith was later acquitted of the murder, which remains unsolved.

Apart from the famous and the infamous, the Park’s most regular visitors are the thousands of walkers, joggers, cyclists, horse-riders, footballers, cricketers and picnickers who, on a daily basis, realise the vision outlined by Henry Parkes 125 years ago of creating the definitive “people’s park”.

For more information about the Centennial Parklands birthday celebrations, go to