Another Sunday, another adventure
The sky is blue and the sun is warm. It is a perfect Sunday for a Sydney adventure. I’ve decided to go for a heritage bicycle ride in Parramatta.
I ride to Redfern Station and get the train to Parramatta. After I get my bearings, I ride to the beginning of the heritage route in Centenary Square.
Here, a busker plays her guitar and sings. She has a beautiful, slightly haunting, voice that fills the space. A golden winter light falls on Town Hall. The 19th century building has a soft glow absent in the hard-refracted light glinting off the new towers being built behind.
My first stops are St John’s Anglican Cathedral and St John’s Cemetery
I circle St John’s Anglican Cathedral. This is the oldest church site in continuous use in Australia. Early colonists began holding services in Parramatta from December 1788. At first they met in the open air, later in borrowed or cobbled together premises. Then the original St John’s opened in 1803. It was a convict-built brick and stone church. By the sounds of things, it 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 at this point in my bicycle ride in Parramatta that I realise my knowledge of early settlements had been a bit weak.
The expansion of the colony from Sydney Harbour to Parramatta had happened much more quickly than I’d imagined. The church consecrated this cemetery only two years after the First Fleet had arrived. James Magee, a child born of convict parents, was the first person interred here. He was laid to rest on 31 January 1790. Seventeen First Fleet convicts are buried here, including Thomas Eccles who died in 1814, aged 97.
I look for these folks’ graves, sort of, but can’t find them. I’m getting hot in the midday sun. And lunch is calling. Also the elements have worn away the inscriptions on many stones; I find them difficult to read.
A poster near the entrance to the cemetery tells me that there’s a newish project underway to capture and share more of the history of the place and the people buried here – The St John’s Cemetery Project.
As I head for my next stop I find myself thinking about the lives of those buried here. Such a strange and unimaginable thing had happened to them. Most of the convicts were poor people, born to difficult conditions, in 18th century England. The likelihood that they would ever leave England at all was slim. Hell, the likelihood that they would have left the counties in which they were born was pretty remote. And yet, here they are, buried in the land of the Burramattagal people under the Southern sky.
This is promising to be an interesting but emotionally challenging day
It’s the start of a feeling.
I am aware of being in a space of significant human suffering. The shadows of the dispossessed traditional custodians hang over the land. The centuries long impacts of colonisation on the original Australians are ever present: death, disease, humiliation, victimisation, and incarceration. But so too, are the trials and struggles of the convicts and their masters. They found themselves in a place they didn’t understand. Their roles in the colonising system left them separated from everyone they knew and loved by such a distance as to seem, essentially, unbridgeable. But, of course, some convicts, and certainly many of their descendants, have flourished in ways they never could have at home.
It’s a vibe that colours my bicycle ride in Parramatta I pedal off to one of the grand parks of Sydney.
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. Groundskeepers have tended to oak trees – including removing and replacing some – for 131 years. One generation of park staff after another have maintained a memorial to the memory of someone long forgotten by everyone except those who tend her 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.
Once a landing strip, now a cricket pitch – or four
An aviation pioneer, Billy Hart, completed the first ever overland flight in Australia when he landed his plane here in the Parramatta Park in 1911. His landing strip – a combination of the areas known as Salters Field and the Cattle Paddock – is hosting three full-scale games of cricket and another playful family batting session today. Hart, who held Australia aviator license No 1 flew to this location from Penrith on 4 November 1911. It took him 19 minutes to cover those 29 kilometres in his Bristol Box-kite aircraft.
As I pedal on, I soon notice people standing 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.
Out of the park and off to the Gaol
My bicycle ride in Parramatta continues as I ride out of the park and circle Sydney’s latest sports venue – the brand-new Bankwest Stadium – and continue on my way to the Old Parramatta Gaol.
The Gaol is an imposing, depressing, cold feeling, menacing sandstone block presence amid suburban housing. 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.
My next stop was, from 1821 to 1847, 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, and 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. The courts sentenced “students” to serve set terms in the facility. 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.
Please watch this.
It’s all been good to see. I have enjoyed a fine bicycle ride in Parramatta on this beautiful Sydney day but the stories behind my destinations have taken a toll. There are many more sights to see on the Heritage Ride but they can wait.
I roll back into the park, have a quick look at the Old Government House, sit in the sun for a bit with my Thermos of tea, and the ride back to the station to catch a train home.