The sky is blue, the sun is warm, and the light is golden as I set off to follow this cycling route connection heritage sites in Parramatta.
The beautiful, slightly haunting, voice of a young busking woman fills Centenary Square. The golden winter light falling on Town Hall gives the 19th century building a sort of glow absent in the hard-refracted sunlight glinting off the new towers being built behind.
I circle St John’s Anglican Cathedral. This is the oldest church site in Australia in continuous use. It opened in April 1803. Services had been held in the district since December 1788 – at first in the open air, later in borrowed or cobbled together premises. The original St John’s was a convict-built brick and stone church – which, by the sounds of things, was pretty shoddy and took a long time to properly finish. The full story can be found here.
My next stop is St John’s Cemetery – the oldest surviving non-Aboriginal burial ground in Australia. It was established in 1790 and includes the graves over 50 people who arrived on the First Fleet and a variety of well-known early colonialists.
It’s here that I realise that my knowledge of the British move into Parramatta had been sketchy. I hadn’t appreciated how quickly they had established farms and settlements this far inland. Surely people had died earlier on Port Jackson – where had they been buried? Perhaps not in consecrated cemeteries? Or in cemeteries that have since been lost?
The first interment was James Magee, a child born of convict parents, laid to rest on 31 January 1790. Seventeen First Fleet convicts are buried here, including Thomas Eccles who died in 1814, aged 97. I sort of looked for these folks but couldn’t find them. The midday sun was now quite warm and the inscriptions on most stones are worn away and difficult to read.
There’s a cool newish project underway to capture and share more of the history of the cemetery and the people buried here – The St John’s Cemetery Project.
Even while failing to find them – knowing they are there – I find myself thinking, a bit, about their lives. How such a strange and unimaginable thing had happened to them that they would find themselves here. Most of the convicts were poor people, born to difficult conditions, in 18th century England. The likelihood that they would end up here was slim and yet here they are, buried in the land of the Burramattagal people under the Southern sky.
It’s the start of a feeling, that often comes whenever the idea of Australian colonial heritage is the subject – of an awareness of being in a space of significant human suffering. From the dispossessed traditional custodians, and the death, disease, humiliation, victimisation, and incarceration that accompanied their dispossession – and the continuing impacts to this day of the cruel arrival of Europeans into their land. But also, the trials and struggles of the convicts and their masters – to find themselves in a place they didn’t understand and removed from everyone they knew and loved by such a distance as to seem, essentially, unbridgeable. But, then, some convicts, and certainly many of their descendants, have flourished in ways they never could have at home.
It’s a vibe that lingers as I pedal off to the park.
Near the entry to Parramatta Park is the Monument to Lady Fitzroy. She was the wife of the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles Augustus Fitzroy, when she was killed in a carriage accident on this very spot on 7 December 1847. The memorial references the nearby oak tree – which was once the oak tree her carriage crashed into, but is now, the 2nd or 3rd oak tree to stand on the spot.
It’s a strange sort of memorial – in that year after year for the 131 years since the memorial was placed, in 1888, the oak tree has been tended, removed, replaced, and tended anew in the memory of someone long forgotten by anyone but those tending to the memorial, really.
Parramatta Park is lovely, and I feel bad for having visited so few times in my nearly 20 years living in Sydney – it’s like Centennial Park, in many ways, but smaller. There are open grassy areas, stands of trees, and undulating geography – here with Old Government House on the crest of the highest hill.
I slowly ride a loop of the park stopping to have a look at the remnants of the observatory, the bathhouse, and the memorial of the soldiers who went to the Boer War.
A long clearing – a combination of Salters Field and the Cattle Paddock – was the location where the first overland flight in Australia landed. Billy Hart, holder of Australia aviator license No 1 (issued 5 December 1911) flew to this location from Penrith on 4 November 1911 – unlicensed, it would seem. It took him 19 minutes to cover those 29 kilometres in his Bristol Box-kite aircraft. Today, the same stretch of grass is hosting three full-scale games of cricket and another playful family batting session.
People stand in the road peering intently at the trees. I follow their gaze and find an enormous colony of flying foxes hanging off every available perch along a 50 metre stretch of trees. They are nattering away and occasionally one unfurls their impressive wings and moves from one branch to another. It’s clear the size of the colony is damaging the trees.
I cross a bridge and ride out of the park circling the brand-new Bankwest Stadium – I like the playground and public basketball courts in its shadow. I am on my way to the Old Parramatta Gaol. It is an imposing, depressing, cold feeling, menacing sandstone block presence amid suburban housing. Even though the prison ceased operation in 2011 I think it would be weird to live in an apartment with a balcony which overlooks a big, old 19th-century gaol.
My sense of the layers of human anger and desperation which permeate this place is growing now. There’s a sort of piling on: the displaced Burramattagal people; the convicts toiling to make European food grow in Australian soil; the century and a half of inmates who served time in this gaol and the people whose lives they impacted in destructive ways; even the singular loss of Lady Fitzroy.
Now to add one final layer, well, several layers in one: So, it’s on to The Female Factory.
From 1821 to 1847 this was an institution for female convicts – those awaiting assignment, along with their children, as well as re-offenders, current and former convicts needing maternity or medical care, as well as destitute invalid women who had arrived in the colony as free immigrants – plus staff and administrators.
According to this website, an astonishing (almost unbelievable), 10% of Australians are descendent of convict women who passed through the Female Factory.
Lastly, and disturbingly recently, the Parramatta Girls Industrial School which operated from 1887 to 1983. This was not a school like I attended, no – more a juvenile reformatory facility where “students” were confined to the facility for set terms by the courts. Some 20,000 children passed through the facility – many, most, were Aboriginal and part of the stolen generations.
In recent years, an association of women who went through the school and their descendants – the Parragirls – have been quite active in telling their stories.