Colonial History 1788-1840
In April 1788, just months after the first convict ships had landed at Sydney Cove, Governor Phillip and a small group of naval men made their way by boat to the head of the Port Jackson Harbour.
They were in search of a reliable source of fresh water and agricultural land which they could cultivate more easily than the rough soils of Sydney Cove. On 24 April they found themselves at a place where the sea met a freshwater stream running over a flat space of large broad stones. This place, initially named Rose Hill now forms the river bank of the city of Parramatta; Australia’s second European settlement.
Between 1788 and 1840 this section of river was of great importance for the feeding of the Sydney region. Australia’s agricultural and farming industries were born in the Parramatta district and the services to support them sprang up along these riverbanks.
Here John MacArthur and his wife Elizabeth started the Australian Sheep industry. Their house ‘Elizabeth Farm’ built in 1793 is still standing, as is ‘Experiment Farm’, the house where James Ruse grew the colony’s earliest commercial crops.
Unlike Sydney where geography dictated the layout of the town Governor Phillip carefully planned the grid of streets running beside the riverbank along the lines of those he had seen in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro. George Street was the central spine of the town and on the hillside at the end of the street we can still find Australia’s oldest surviving building, ‘Old Government House’ built in 1799.
Over the ensuing years the riverbank was the heart of the township. A place where industry, commerce and agriculture all met for trade and exchange. Under Governor Lachlan Macquarie the number of public buildings were expanded and convict men and women were put to work on roads, farms and buildings. In 1821 a large new building for Australia’s female convicts was opened in North Parramatta. Commonly referred to as the ‘Female Factory’ this was later turned into an asylum and, as the government acquired the adjoining land, it went on to become Australia’s largest asylum.
Parramatta was also the home of the Reverend Samuel Marsden who oversaw the building of Australia’s first government gaol and mill. He gave sermons from the pulpit of St John’s Cathedral which was built in 1803 and still stands at the western end of Parramatta Square. Perhaps less well known is ‘Rangihou’ a small riverbank park which commemorates a seminary building Marsden erected nearby for his Maori guests. The parishioners of the Wesleyan church also opened their doors to visiting Pacific islanders in the mid-nineteenth century and the Tongan ministers David a Kata and Barnabas Ahongalu were invited to speak at the church on Macquarie Street.
Post Colonial 1840 – 1930
The winding up of convict transportation in the 1840s saw Parramatta expand as a hub for the surrounding agricultural industries. Primary among these were the orange, lemon and apple growers who ferried their goods to the Sydney markets and the sheep and cattle farmers serviced by the steam-driven mills and tanneries that lined the banks of the Parramatta River.
The clarification of the land grant system at this time also saw new commercial buildings sprout up along Church Street, and in 1860 the extension of the rail line to Parramatta saw businesses expand further south and eventually became the new civic and cultural heart of the town.
By the 1870s visitors were likening the town to those in England, highlighting the old cottages and pleasant gardens. But this period also saw the first real growth in the population since the end of the convict system. A change in part caused by the breaking up of old colonial grants into new affordable subdivisions. The arrival of gas and electricity in the 1880s freed business from wind and steam driven technologies, allowing them to develop new sites for their businesses and by 1900 two new industrial suburbs stood out. These were Camellia on the low flat area of land to the east of Parramatta and Clyde, at the intersection of the western and southern rail lines. Here the Clyde Engineering Works made the locomotives and rolling stock which moved Australia’s industry, Brunton’s Flour Mills and Sandown meatworks processed the produce of New South Wales farmers and the Wunderlich factory made roof tiles for the Federation housing boom.
Twentieth Century 1930 – present
In the wake of the Great Depression many of those who remained unemployed were given a fresh start under the State Government ‘Homes for the Unemployed Trust’. In Parramatta, its activities centred around Granville where people were provided with either new houses or land and building materials at a low cost.
At the same time the first flats were built in the streets around the central part of the town signifying its movement from an agricultural township to a new city. Equally important was the arrival of the first large chain stores heralded by the arrival of Grace Brothers on the corner of Argyll and Church streets in 1933.
The outbreak of the Second World War and the demand for industrial goods for the war effort resulted in new factories springing up or expanding across the Parramatta district. These included Le Tourneau’s machinery works in Rydalmere, Wunderlich sheeting works in Rosehill and Howard Auto Cultivators in Northmead who made components for the Australian designed Evelyn Owen machine gun.
After the war the newly formed New South Wales State Housing Commission purchased and built new houses on old subdivided estates in Ermington, Rydalmere and Toongabbie as well as in Parramatta itself. This period also saw a rapid growth in the suburbs of Epping and by 1939 building approvals soared in the suburbs of Wentworthville, Toongabbie and along the Windsor Road. The end of the war introduced an influx of people from Europe under the new migrant scheme and many of these made their way to the newly built suburbs around Parramatta.
By the 1960s it was clear that the centre of Sydney’s population was shifting westwards and that Parramatta’s role as a second hub for industry and commerce was increasing in importance. One of the most significant events at this time was the establishment of a Regional Office of the Housing Commission in Parramatta in 1957. This was soon followed by more government offices and regional centres of the larger corporations.
Parramatta is now preparing itself for its next great challenge as it transitions to become Australia’s next great city and embraces the new wave of smart city technologies.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of Parramatta our Research Library (next to the river at 346a Church street) has hundreds of reference books and documents. We also provide free access to public computers and databases and have a great quiet space where you are welcome to do your reading and research.
We are open 10 am to 5 pm Mon-Sat except on public holidays. You can also search books in our catalogue using the main library database … if you see the letters ‘LS’ in front of the number it is held here at the Heritage Centre.