May 17, 2018 06:24:31
George St is thought to be the first walking track that came straight into Sydney Cove. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Sydney is rebuilding tram systems ripped out in the 1960s
Many of Sydney’s roads and side streets are based on the original tracks and pathways created by Aboriginal people before the First Fleet arrived in 1788, experts say.
Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at Sydney University, Jakelyn Troy, said Sydney was laid out along the routes Aboriginal people used to follow.
“A lot of the roads, major roads particularly, are originally Aboriginal tracks, and then there are the smaller pathways that also became our side streets,” Professor Troy said.
“Actually the way Sydney is laid out now, it’s mirroring and in fact using the boundaries and connecting thoroughfares that Aboriginal people used as well.
“We are living a very Aboriginal existence in Sydney by walking in the tracks of the people who were here and living in the spaces of the people who lived here until 1788 and for a long time beyond, and are indeed still here.”
Shane Connelly, who is originally from Perth, asked: Which Sydney roads were originally Aboriginal trackways? I’ve heard that Oxford Street and Old South Head Road, King Street in Newtown, and Parramatta Road were used in this way.
That was the question ABC News in Sydney was asked to investigate through Curious Sydney, our series that reports on stories based on your questions.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie wanted Old South Head Road [then South Head Road] built for access to a future lighthouse at South Head. (Supplied: State Library of NSW)
‘They’d end up all tangled in the bush’
Professor Troy says Sydney’s layout mirrors the boundaries and connecting thoroughfares that Aboriginal people used. (Supplied: Jakelin Troy)
When the new settlers arrived, Sydney Cove was a challenging place for them.
They had to negotiate heavily forested valley floors and shrubby woodlands on rugged slopes and hilltops.
It makes sense that they would follow already established paths and tracks Aboriginal people used for visiting family, collecting food or conducting ceremonies, Professor Troy said.
“These paths were important to the first people who came from outside Australia — the First Fleet and onwards — because those people used to walk through the bush wearing packs and full military outfits,” she said.
“If they didn’t do what Aboriginal people guided them to they’d end up all tangled up in the bush and having a very difficult time of it.”
What’s the evidence?
The State Library of NSW is often asked whether Aboriginal paths and tracks were the forerunners to Sydney Streets but there are no maps, drawings or settlers’ accounts that refer to Aboriginal tracks specifically.
A history of some main Sydney roads
George Street: “One of the first paths wandered down by white men led directly west to Parramatta and is now known as George Street,” Shannon Foster says.
Parramatta Road: One early map of Sydney shows the ‘route de Parramatta’, drawn by French naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur in 1802
King Street: A newspaper article from 1962 says the turn-off at ‘Newtown Rd’ (known as King St after 1877) was the original track which Lieutenant King and others used through to Cooks River and to Botany Bay
Enmore Road: It is said that Enmore Road, which branches off King St, Newtown, was an Aboriginal walking track, known as Josephson’s Track in the 1850s: City of Sydney
“It is thought that some of Sydney’s main thoroughfares, such as George Street, Oxford Street and King Street in Newtown, followed Aboriginal tracks that had served as trading routes between farmed grasslands or bountiful fishing areas,” the City of Sydney’s Barani website says.
Paul Irish, author of Hidden in plain view, The Aboriginal people of Coastal Sydney, said while the evidence was “pretty sparse”, “we can infer it in other ways because we know that there were networks of Aboriginal pathways around Sydney”.
“We know that often Aboriginal people were traversing the landscape using ridge lines and other areas or pathways to get between camp sites, to access resources or perhaps ceremonial places,” Dr Irish said.
“So some of the roads have followed similar pathways. Whether those relationships were direct, in the sense that Europeans deliberately chose that route because there was an existing path, is hard to document in the historical record but is quite likely in some cases.”
George Street figures largely in the minds of Aboriginal people, as it was so close to a source of vital fresh water near the coastline.
“George Street was the first street or walking trail that came straight into the water into Sydney Cove, it also had a fresh water tank stream at the end of it,” Shannon Foster, a D’harawal woman from the University of Technology Sydney, said.
“So around about where King Street is now, and where Pitt and George Street come almost their closest onto King Street, is right where that fresh water tank stream would be.”
Sydney not built on a grid
A pen and ink drawing of Sydney Cove seen from the Rocks circa 1793 shows few paths. (Supplied: State Library of NSW)
While Adelaide and Melbourne were carefully planned on grids, Sydney was more haphazard, “largely following either ground contours or Aboriginal tracks”, according to the Dictionary of Sydney.
Early attempts to plan roads were chaotic, despite their vital importance to the economy and public order in the small convict colony.
In 1788 Governor Phillip instructed the surveyor-general, Augustus Alt, to draft a plan for Sydney’s streets: “The principal streets are placed so as to admit a free circulation of air, and are 200 feet wide …”
But Sydney’s CBD continued to grow organically until 1810 when Lachlan Macquarie arrived and attended to the state of the roads.
“So you have this entangled web of these Aboriginal pathways that have just made this chaotic city today,” Ms Foster said.
“I think it’s a lovely reminder when you’re stuck in wicked traffic: OK I can handle this, these are the paths my ancestors took.”
Governor Macquarie pushed ahead with key roads like Parramatta Road and South Head Road (now Old South Head Road) for access to better food sources and security.
Caring for country
Shannon Foster is a D’harawal Saltwater knowledge keeper, artist and educator. (ABC News: Sue Daniel)
The original paths were cared for by hand or by burning back the scrub to allow access to food sources or encourage regrowth to attract kangaroos for a hunt.
“They were about a metre wide so two people could walk along them, they were maintained using fire and usually on a daily basis with tiny little spot fires that would be stamped out as you go along,” Ms Foster said.
“They then became very quickly walking trails for many people, trails with horses, then horses and carts, then vehicles.”
In 1802 Parramatta Road was sometimes used for transporting food and other goods to Sydney Town. (Supplied: National Library of Australia)
Oxford Street or the ‘Maroo’
Historians have studied the origins of Oxford Street, which runs from the CBD to Bondi Junction in the eastern suburbs, then connects to Old South Head Road, known once as South Head Road.
“By the mid 1790s, a rough walking track had been established between Sydney Cove and the South Head,” Clive Faro’s book Street Scene: A history of Oxford Street says.
“In all probability this track (often referred to locally as the Maroo) followed existing paths which had been long established by the Aborigines. Captain Hunter’s Map of the settlement in 1791 showed just such a track.”
“It was an Aboriginal pathway that went down from that ridge of Oxford Street to Rushcutters Bay — that Europeans continued to discuss and refer to as an Aboriginal track or Maroo [their pronunciation of the Aboriginal word for a pathway],” Dr Irish said.
“Europeans continued to do that, but so did Aboriginal people who were the descendants of those who had made the original track.”
The track was recognised as a vital link to the signal station and a planned lighthouse at South Head, so the road was built by 1811 using convict and military labour.
And today Oxford Street remains a major thoroughfare in Sydney’s east.
Johnston’s Family Hotel in Oxford Street in 1875. (Supplied: State Library of NSW)
Who asked the question?
Curious Sydney’s Shane Connelly has lived in other cities in Australia as well as Perth and noticed that most of them have a grid-like pattern of streets.
“I did read somewhere that those roads, [King Street, Oxford Street, Old South Head] were trackways,” he said.
“Aboriginal people used to follow the top of the ridge because of the sandstone nature of the country side that you could be trapped in a little valley and it would be a much longer walk.”
Shane thinks there should be more public information and recognition about how the roads were formed.
Another similar Curious question came from James Nugent, who asked: Is it true that George Street was built on an Aboriginal track next to the Tank Stream and is therefore one of the oldest streets in the world?
Many thanks to City of Sydney, State Library of NSW and the Dictionary of Sydney for their help with this story.