History of Victoria Park

Designed in the picturesque style by Charles Moore, director of the Botanic Gardens, this park was proclaimed in 1870.

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Victoria Park is located at the junction of City Road and Parramatta Road, adjacent to the University of Sydney.

Both roads began as walking tracks in the 1790s, leading from Sydney to Botany Bay and Parramatta. This was the site of some of the earliest land grants in the colony in 1789 when 1,000 acres was reserved to provide farmlands and pasture to support church, government and school officials. Early names for the area included the Kangaroo Grounds and Parakeet Hill.

The area became known as Grose Farm after a 1792 land grant to Lieutenant Governor Francis Grose. For some years Grose Farm was used as a military camp and later a model farm to employ convicts ‘in the processes of English husbandry’.

In 1853 the site was earmarked for the use of the proposed University of Sydney and 126 acres was granted in 1855 for the university and 4 affiliated colleges.

An historic drawing of people in a parkland with a big air balloon and building in the background.
Balloon ascent from Victoria Park, 1871Image: NSW State Library, ‘Illustrated Sydney News’, 21 January 1871

University entrance avenue

In 1865 an area at the corner of City Road and Parramatta Road was added to the university to provide a formal entrance. 

The entrance avenue through the park was planted with fig trees and entrance gates installed, flanked by the Gardener’s Lodge (which still survives) and the mirror-image Messenger’s Lodge (demolished in 1940).

The lodges and gate piers were probably designed in the late 1880s by Colonial Architect James Barnet to match the neo-Gothic style of the university.

Gradually road access to the university grounds switched to the Parramatta Road entrance opposite Derwent Road, and a new gatehouse was built there in 1898. The avenue through Victoria Park was formally reduced to a right of way in 1930, and for the next 60 years the vista was eroded by new planting in the park and a wall on the university boundary.

In the 1990s South Sydney City Council restored the avenue as a pedestrian path with a bridge over the lake. In 2002 the university completed work to reinstate the vista through its grounds. In 2007 the original entrance gates, which had been moved to Eastern Avenue near the Carslaw Building, were reinstated at the City Road end of the old entrance avenue.

Lake Northam

Before the arrival of European settlers in 1788 this area was a heavily-treed, sheltered area with temperate rainforest vegetation. A spring drained through to the swamp at the head of Blackwattle Bay. Stormwater ran into what was known as the Horse Pond, where livestock were brought to drink and bathe.

A racecourse was built on the current site of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1825, and in 1860 the main Sydney horse market moved from Haymarket to a 7-acre site nearby.

A bridge was built over the pond as part of the university entrance avenue and the channel to Blackwattle Bay was partly closed, causing the pond to increase in size.

Extensive remodelling of the park in the 1930s included draining and cleaning the lake and building a rock wall around the shores and islands to halt erosion. In 1955 the lake was reduced in size and the bridge demolished.

A representational bronze sculpture of the yacht Barrenjoey was installed on the island in the centre of the lake to commemorate the gold medal for yachting won by Bill Northam, an alderman on Sydney City Council, at the 1964 Olympic Games. At the same time the lake was renamed in his honour. In the 1990s the lake was enlarged and the bridge reinstated as part of the restoration of the university entrance avenue vista.

Bowling club

In the 1890s lawn bowls became popular and soon most suburbs had a bowling club on council-owned land. Victoria Park Bowling Club was established in 1892 with 1 green. The clubhouse had a veranda and was gabled.

Later an additional bowling green and car park were added. In the 1960s the clubhouse was replaced by a modern building incorporating a restaurant, which dominated the City Road section of the park.

With the decline of participation in lawn bowls the clubhouse and greens were removed in 1998, although the parking area remains.

Swimming pool

Following World War 2 a number of factors combined to increase demand for in-ground public swimming pools in Sydney.

In 1944 learning to swim became compulsory for primary school children in NSW, and the numbers participating grew from 8,000 in 1940 to 30,000 in 1955. In 1947 the NSW Government published Standards for Modern Swimming Pools. In 1951 the Official Year Book of NSW listed provision of recreational facilities for the first time as a function of local government. It specifically mentioned swimming pools as a necessary community facility.

As a result there was a boom in the construction of in-ground public swimming pools in Sydney, with 25 built between 1953 and 1967. The first in 1953 was Victoria Park Swimming Pool which was named in honour of King George VI who died the previous year. Originally it consisted of a main pool, wading pool, and male and female changing rooms. Later a children’s playground and kiosk were added. The swimming pool is used by many local schools on a regular basis.

Concerts, celebrations and protests

Victoria Park has had many informal uses apart from its specific sports facilities. It is an important recreational space for residents of Glebe and Chippendale, as well as the university community. Theatrical performances and concerts have been held on the grassy slopes in the Park’s southern section.

For many years Victoria Park has hosted the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair Day each February. In 2000 the southern part of the park was the site of an Aboriginal Tent Embassy to highlight indigenous issues during the Sydney Olympics. Yabun, an annual festival held on 26 January, showcasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, has been held at Victoria Park since 2002.

Totem pole

The Totem Pole is a significant example of Canada’s indigenous cultural heritage. It was a gift from the Canadian Government in 1964 and is 1 of only 4 in Australia.

Further reading

Environmental Partnership Pty Ltd, ‘Victoria Park: draft plan of management’, 1992

Helen Proudfoot, ‘Victoria Park, Chippendale: history and conservation plan’, 1990

Alex Roberts, ‘The Most Modern Pools in Sydney: the development of suburban public swimming pools and their culture in the 1950s and 1960s’, MA Honours thesis, Sydney University, 2001

‘The Governor Bourke. An Ancient Hostelry. Early days in Camperdown’, “Evening News”, 12 June 1912