History & heritage
Armory, colonial, geological and industrial history at Sydney Olympic Park.
The Military Magazine
The need for a gunpowder magazine outside of the city of Sydney was identified in 1832. There were two existing magazines at the time, one in Fort Phillip, which was in town and at capacity, and Goat Island, also at capacity. These magazines stored military ammunition and ‘merchant’s powder’, explosives imported for civil purposes.
Public concern about storing such large explosives so close to the city came to a head in the 1860s and 70s. In May 1875 the Government appointed a Board to consider the removal of the Goat Island magazine. Among its recommendations were ‘That a separate and distinct magazine for merchant's gunpowder…be established on the right bank of the Parramatta River...’ Construction of the magazine at Newington did not eventuate until 1897, by which time it was designated purely for military purposes.
Its establishment saw major modifications to the natural environment, including the reclamation of mudflats and wetlands and a small island just off the shoreline. Stone sea walls were constructed along nearly the entire foreshore of the Parramatta River, and mudflats were filled in to create more land for farms, docks, and a wharf.
Naval Armament Depot
In 1921 management of Newington magazine was transferred from the Commonwealth Military Forces (later known as the Australian Army) to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). This allowed transfer of high explosive ammunition from the Naval Armament Depot at Spectacle Island.
The Newington magazine, or depot, was then expanded eastwards into land previously part of the State Abattoir precinct, today known as the Narawang Wetlands. This expansion almost doubled the depot’s area. Further wartime expansion occurred between 1941 and 1944, allowing for the construction of a US Navy magazine (operated independently by the US Navy), as well as storehouses and laboratories for the RAN.
By 1950 the depot reverted to a size appropriate to an expected period of peace, and 11 years later Prime Minister Robert Menzies instructed that all high explosives were to be relocated.
By this time the site covered some 259 hectares. Landfilling had been occurring around the site since the early 20th century and several areas operated as waste tips or dumping sites.
In December 1992 the Department of Defence were directed to immediately commence planning for the closure of Newington depot. This directive was based on a timetable that assumed Sydney would be successful in its bid for the 2000 Olympic Games.
The closure coincided with growing concern for public safety, the preparation for the Sydney 2000 Olympic bid and the formal recognition of the site as a heritage item.
The Navy vacated the southern portion of the site in 1996, with ownership transferred to the State Government (Olympic Coordination Authority) for the development of the Athlete’s Village and the suburb of Newington.
Today known as Newington Armory, the site forms part of the evolving parklands of Sydney Olympic Park.
Homebush Bay has a rich colonial history, home to a handful of families who left their mark on the infant Colony. A scouting party had recorded ‘The Flats’, the extensive tidal wetlands at Homebush Bay, within 10 days of the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia.
From 1788 to 1831, blocks ranging from 100 to 10,000 acres were given out from the great divvying up of land belonging to the Wann-gal. Thomas Laycock, the first recipient of a land grant in the Bay area, acquired 40 hectares in 1794 and a further 40 hectares in 1795. By 1803, Laycock’s estate totalled 318 hectares and was named ‘Home Bush’.
The estates located in Homebush during the late eighteenth century were generally used for agricultural purposes. By the early 1800s, most of the land came under the ownership of two families: the Blaxlands and Wentworths.
In 1807, John Blaxland acquired 520 hectares. Naming the estate Newington after his family seat in Kent, Blaxland established a series of salt pans on the banks of the Parramatta River, as well as a tweed mill, limekiln, and flourmill. Newington House was completed in 1832.
In 1843, Blaxland mortgaged the property to the Australian Trust Company, after which the estate changed hands many times. The establishment of Newington College in July 1863 occurred after the property was leased to the Methodist Church.
Home Bush Estate
D’Arcy Wentworth was granted 370 hectares, including Thomas Laycock’s estate, in 1810. In 1811, he established a horse stud and subsequently became one of the most noted breeders in the colony. In 1819, he acquired more land, his estate now comprising 394 hectares. It was at this time that he constructed Homebush House.
In 1825, a racetrack was developed on the estate, and between 1841 and 1860 the track was used as the headquarters of the Australian Jockey Club. D’Arcy died in 1827 and left his property to his son Charles Wentworth. By 1881, the estate consisted of 440 hectares. In 1883, Fitzwilliam Wentworth, Charles’ son, registered a residential subdivision to be called Wentworth Estate.
From 1879 parts of the Newington and Home Bush estates were gradually purchased or resumed by the Crown.
Newington Estate was purchased by the Government in September 1897 to build an Asylum for Aged Women.
The first buildings, which housed 300 patients, were established in 1886. By 1890 there were 450 patients at Newington, by which time the facility was categorised as a state asylum for dependent adults with infirmity or illness of ‘incurable character’.
Additional buildings and structures were added to the facility over the years. In 1918 a large timber building was erected for the treatment of venereal disease. In 1931 a large Nurses Home was built, and further men's wards were constructed in the 40s.
In 1960 it was proposed that the facility should be closed and the site sold to industry, but this was met with strong public opposition. After a series of negotiations, the Government decided to transfer the property to the Department of Prisons.
The geological history of Sydney Olympic Park is presented here as a timeline, which captures the events that have shaped the area over the past several hundred million years.
250 to 210 million years ago
At this time the Australian landmass formed part of the Gondwana supercontinent, which was located closer to the south pole. Dinosaurs were yet to dominate the earth and the Sydney area was located within a depositional basin.
The oldest rocks at Sydney Olympic Park were laid down by rivers several hundreds of millions of years ago in the early to mid-Triassic Period. Viewable from the current day Brickpit, the site also contains Hawkesbury Sandstone outcrops. These record the deposition of massive sheets of sand and gravel from large river systems which once flowed across the Sydney Basin.
The Ashfield Shale overlying the Sandstone records both a change in river flow direction and depositional style in the mid-Triassic Period, when southeast flowing rivers deposited fine-grained sands and muds in a river delta. Twenty metres thick, the Shale is comprised of finely layered sediments which contain the occasional fossilised leaf, fish, shell, or insect.
60 million years ago
The break-up of Gondwana was not complete until some 40 to 60 million years ago, during the early Tertiary Period. Meanwhile, the formation of Australia took millions of years. Throughout the continental rifting and drifting, sedimentary rocks of the Sydney Basin were raised, tilted, and then eroded by the elements. The Tasman Sea flooded into the rift between Australia and New Zealand, while the sedimentary rocks of the Sydney region were shaped into a landscape characterised by bedrock valleys. Around Homebush Bay, weathered Ashfield Shale produced a subdued landform characterised by a low undulating topography and moderately fertile soils.
20,000 years ago
The Quaternary Period, and Pleistocene Epoch in particular (c.1.8 million to 10,000 years ago), was a time of frequent and rapid sea level change. During the most recent Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago, sea level in south-eastern Australia is thought to have been around 120m lower than today. The area around Sydney Olympic Park would have been located near the headwaters of the Parramatta River and characterised by a series of small streams.
6,000 years ago
The warming of the earth and melting of the continental ice caps following the last Ice Age saw sea levels rise and stabilise around their present position. In southeastern Australia the sea flooded across the continental shelf and into ancient bedrock valleys. In the largest valleys, drowned river type estuaries were created, of which Sydney Harbour is an example.
River environments gave way to estuarine environments, upon which a diversity of ecosystems developed: seagrass beds, mangrove forests, saltwater-freshwater wetlands and casuarina woodlands.
Homebush Bay formed within the catchments of Haslams and Powells Creeks, surrounded by tidal mud flats built from fine-grained sediments washed into the estuary. Over time, the mangrove forests would grow into the deeper water of the bay. Saltmarsh and casuarina forest followed.
20 years ago
Two hundred years of European occupation in the Sydney Olympic Park area transformed it from a wetland to a wasteland. By the late 1980s many of the low-lying areas near the Parramatta River estuary were either reclaimed or infilled with waste.
Rejuvenation of the Sydney Olympic Park area commenced in the late 1980s with a remediation strategy that took over 10 years to implement. The clean-up consolidated the widely distributed waste into four main containment mounds and seven other consolidated waste areas. Tidal flows to estuarine wetlands were restored and the health of the surrounding ecosystems improved.
Remnant natural ecosystems, remediated landscapes and waste containment mounds have been integrated into the parklands of Sydney Olympic Park.
Industry was introduced into the Homebush Bay area in the early 19th century, with severe consequences for an environment that had long provided food and habitat for Aboriginal people, fauna and abundant birdlife.
The following industries were established in the area:
- State Abattoirs
- State Brickworks
- Chemical Industry
State Abattoirs: 1907–1988
At the beginning of the 1900s, concerns that the public abattoir at Glebe Island was endangering the public’s health were heightened following the outbreak of plague in Sydney. In 1906 a Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended the establishment of a new State Abattoir at Homebush. Construction began in 1910 and comprised the erection of 44 slaughterhouses and a range of supporting infrastructure.
Officially opened in 1913, by 1923 the Homebush Abattoir was the biggest of its kind in the Commonwealth and employed up to 1600 men. It had a killing capacity of 18,000 to 20,000 sheep, 1,500 cattle, 2,000 pigs and 1,300 calves per day. By-products included tallow, dripping, fertiliser, and oil, all of which were sold at profit.
Following the Second World War, the State opted to decentralise slaughterhouses and several new abattoirs were established in country areas. A modernisation program of the Abattoir took place between 1965 and 1976, but in 1979 a site assessment found the facilities to be near the end of their life and all renovation ceased. The economic viability of the Abattoir declined until it closed in June 1988.
State Brickworks: 1910–1988
In 1910 the building of a brickworks was proposed to supply the Department of Public Works. In 1911, 9.5 hectares of land was resumed from the State Abattoir for this purpose. By 1925, the site comprised 23.5 hectares.
By 1927 the Brickworks showed a declining profit margin, and from 1930 an increasing deficit. This coincided with a drop in production output, leading to the site’s closure in 1940. In 1942 it was taken over by the Naval Armament Depot for use as a munitions store.
After the war ended, the Government passed an act to enable the re-establishment of the Brickworks at Homebush Bay. In the post-war period, a building boom increased the demand for bricks, with production reaching its peak in 1969.
The brickworks ceased trading as a government enterprise in June 1988, although sandstone was still removed under royalties until 1992. Following the cessation of quarrying, the Brickpit developed into a freshwater wetland, and later into a water storage and frog habitat upon the discovery of the Green and Golden Bell Frog.
Chemical industry in the Homebush Bay area
In 1928 Timbrol, one of the first chemical factories in the Rhodes peninsula, commenced the manufacture of timber preservatives from coal tar oil. In 1955, Union Carbide purchased the Timbrol factory and commenced the production of pesticides, including DDT. Dioxins were produced as an unwanted byproduct. Nearby, the ICI facility commenced making paint, pigment, resins, and phthalates in the 1940s.
Petroleum and Chemical Corporation Australia Ltd (PACCAL) operated in the Homebush Bay area from 1953 to 1974. They produced town gas for AGL and other petroleum products, solvents and tar-bituminous products. A by-product of the manufacturing process was tar sludge, generated at the rate of three tonnes per day and was contained in three ponds located adjacent to the Parramatta River.
By 1974, PACCAL had significant trouble finding off-site disposal tips for its accumulating tar sludge. Combined with its impending prosecution for breaches to the Clean Air Act and the discovery of natural gas in South Australia, its operations ceased later that year.