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Lawn Bowls—A Thing of the Past?

Under a former suburban RSL bowling green lies Australian history.

On 23 September 2017 , approximately 100 members of the public got ‘underneath the turf’ to find out about Parramatta’s convict past, as archaeology went public at the Parramatta RSL Club.

GML archaeologists shared how people used to live, work and play in Parramatta.

What’s happening?

Parramatta RSL Club (the club) is working with builders Paynter Dixon to undertake the redevelopment on Macquarie Street, the site of the club’s former bowling green. The club opened in 1958 and the land it occupies was formerly part of Parramatta Park.

GML is investigating the historical archaeology as part of the redevelopment, studying the material remains of previous occupants and past uses.

View down George Street, Parramatta, towards Old Government House. (Source: National Library of Australia)

View down George Street, Parramatta, towards Old Government House. (Source: National Library of Australia)

A Different Tenure

Over thousands of years, the western reaches of the Parramatta River belonged to the Burramattagal people of the Darug. It was the heart of their life and culture. Colonisation changed their relationships to Country irrecoverably and Australian history is characterised by the long and continuing story of Aboriginal people campaigning for the recognition of their rights as citizens and interests in land. They have demonstrated forbearance and spirit.

Crops in Sydney had failed to feed the fledgling colony and, having found fertile ground, Governor Phillip established Rose Hill at Parramatta in 1790. Watered by the Parramatta River, with a Governor’s residence nearby, he planned the streets of the Rose Hill township and formalised Darug Country with neat allotments.

Huts with fireplaces and brick chimneys were designed to house 10 convicts. Each was built of wattle branches woven together and plastered with clay. Often they were cramped with 12 or 14 men to a hut.

Convicts were encouraged to cultivate the land and be self-sufficient as the settlement struggled to avoid starvation.

In 1815, Governor Macquarie demolished the huts. Convicts were moved to a barracks at the other end of Macquarie Street (now Arthur Phillip High School). Macquarie’s civic realm was formalised with the Government Domain and private gardens.

Did you say there was a zoo in downtown Parramatta? A zoological garden was established in the Domain as public pleasure grounds in the late nineteenth century. The park was landscaped for a wide variety of water birds. Deer, emus, kangaroos and a monkey were among the animals exhibited.

In 1951, the animals were transferred to Taronga Zoo. Their cages were left empty until the land was dedicated as a war memorial, and construction of the current RSL commenced.

1844 Map of the Town of Parramatta, surveyed by W. Meadows Brownrigg. The current Parramatta RSL site is shown outlined in red. (Source: State Library of NSW with GML overlay)

1844 Map of the Town of Parramatta, surveyed by W. Meadows Brownrigg. The current Parramatta RSL site is shown outlined in red. (Source: State Library of NSW with GML overlay)

Old Rubbish?

So far, GML has found:

  • –   remains of three 1790s convict huts and allotments and postholes;
  • –   an old creek which ran through the site;
  • –   rubbish pits and a cesspit (toilet); and
  • –   loads of artefacts.
Archaeologists excavating a cesspit, a disused toilet, which was filled with rubble and artefacts when Macquarie remodelled the park. (Source: GML)

Archaeologists excavating a cesspit, a disused toilet, which was filled with rubble and artefacts when Macquarie remodelled the park. (Source: GML)

Smoking and Other Stuff

Artefacts include:

  • –   early locally made and imported earthenware pottery;
  • –   Chinese export and shell-edged ware from Britain;
  • –   clay smoking pipes with evidence of frequent repair; and
  • –   a couple of well-worn coins dated to 1799.

The artefacts provide archaeologists with evidence relating to convicts’ daily lives in the early days of the colony—the types of dishes they ate off, and the ways they spent their free time.

What an insight this material evidence provides us with. We can understand how the local pottery industry developed. How settlers were using local clays and other resources. Why did people bring some of this stuff all the way to Australia with them, or get it here through export, at great cost? Archaeologists lie awake at night thinking about these questions.

Examples of the artefacts uncovered so far. (Source: GML)

Examples of the artefacts uncovered so far. (Source: GML)

Examples of the locally made pottery, made and used by the convict occupants of early Parramatta. (Source: GML)

Examples of the locally made pottery, made and used by the convict occupants of early Parramatta. (Source: GML)

Did I hear you ask, what happened to that zoo? Well you’re in for a treat. Some fragmentary evidence of the zoo has been revealed, including the shale paths visitors would have strolled along while watching the water birds in the nearby pond (although the archaeology suggests this may have been more like a swamp!).

Open for a Day

The site’s open day was a great success, with approximately 100 members of the public taking a tour and speaking with the archaeologist’s.

Post updated on 4 October 2017.