Centennial Park, on the fringes of the eastern suburbs of Sydney, was officially opened on 26 January 1888. The park came into being due to the vision and passion of Sir Henry Parkes, who was not only ‘the father of Federation’ but the Premier and Colonial Secretary of NSW at various times between 1872 and 1891.
Parkes was elected as NSW Premier in early 1887 at the ripe old age of 71, and by the middle of the year passed legislation to create a public park as a way to commemorate the centenary of European settlement in Australia.
The decision to dedicate the park – and to get it ready with a seven month lead time – was no mean feat given the factional and fractious climate of NSW politics in the late nineteenth century.
The site of Centennial Park was on the former Sydney Common, which had been established by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1811 to discourage people from letting loose their livestock and other animals in the city’s streets and public parks. By the mid 1830s, the former Common was known as the Lachlan Swamps, and was an essential part of the infrastructure to supply Sydney with fresh water.
In early 1887, this water supply was cut off – by this time it was horribly polluted – and in June the same year, the Centenary Celebrations Act was passed, which paved the way for the creation of Centennial Park.
Covering some 213 hectares, it is the largest public park in the Southern Hemisphere. It was established at a time when the romantic ideal abounded that the natural environment was integral to the moral uplift of urban dwellers (i.e. working class people). To this end, the natural features of the former coastal swamp were landscaped to appear like an English public park, with a grand central drive lined with statuary depicting important nineteenth century persons; ornamental lakes; and fancy perimeter fencing and gates.
The park’s designer, Charles Moore from the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Head Gardener, James Jones, had just seven months to get the park ready for the centennial celebrations. Happily for them – and the large workforce of otherwise unemployed men – the park opened on time. But the park was not complete, and works to landscape it continued for the remainder of the nineteenth century.
Parkes, a noted aesthete and taste maker, played a leading role in designing the layout of Centennial Park, including choosing statutory and other ornamental features. He regularly travelled through the park in horse and carriage with his ever expanding family (11 children and three wives!) to check on its progress. His original intention for the park, to have a range of buildings within the park perimeter, including a museum, art gallery and a mausoleum to house famous dead people of NSW, was never realised. Although disappointed, he later became reconciled to the loss of his vision, and embraced Centennial Park as the ‘People’s Park’.
Henry Parkes died in 1896 around five years shy of Federation, the official ceremony of which was held in Centennial Park in January 1901. His statue was erected in the park just a few months after his demise.