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17 Apr 2019

A ‘point’ in history

Most Sydney folk have heard of the headland called Mrs Macquarie’s Point, that beautiful promontory which looks out over bustling harbourside vistas including the Harbour Bridge and Fort Denison and surrounded by the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and Domain. However few people know about its long and interesting history.

Royal botanic garden domain harbour bridge
Modern day view of the Sydney Harbour from Mrs Macquarie's Point. Photo: Destination NSW

The Eora Nation

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the location of the areas around the point were used for hunting and gathering of food. It  was also used by the Cadigal peoples for various important cultural ceremonies including the ‘Dog Dance’ and ‘Kangaroo Dance’, which were performed as a form of supplication to:

“impart the young men with the power over hunting dogs and the power to kill Kangaroos”.

In 1795 David Collins, the Judge Advocate of Sydney, recorded the ‘Man Making’ or manhood initiation ceremony:

Between the ages of eight and sixteen….the males receive the qualifications which are given to them by losing one of the front teeth.

On the 25 of January 1795 we found that the natives were assembling in numbers for the purpose of performing this ceremony. Several youths well known among us, never having submitted to the operation, were now to be made men. Pe-mul-wuy, and many strangers, came in. It was not until the 2 of February that the party was complete.

In the evening that day the people from Cam-mer-ray arrived, among whom were those who were to perform the operation, all of whom appeared to have been impatiently expected by the other natives. The place selected for this extraordinary exhibition was at the head of Farm Cove, where a space had been for some days prepared by clearing it of grass, stumps etc.; it was of an oval figure, the dimensions of it 27 feet by 18, and was named Yoo-lahng.” 
(Langton “They Made a Solitude and Called it Peace”, 22)

Aboriginal Dog Dance at Maquaries Chair.png
A series of drawings depicts a ceremony by an Indigenous community, and is speculated to have been drawn in the area circa 1798 by Thomas Watling.

Cadigal Country

Ceremonies continued to be conducted around the area of Woolloomooloo and the headland for another few decades.

The point has had several different names in the early days of the colony. As early as 1790-1792 the area was named after the name used by the Cadigal and variations of Yurong, Yuron, Urong or Yourong were used; the spelling varying between individual authors.

The meaning of this name has since become lost, but has been variously applied to the watercourse which used to run from the edge of what is now Cooke & Philip Park to Woolloomooloo Bay, to the eastern shore of Farm Cove, and since the mid-19 century, to the entire precinct of the outer Domain on which Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is located.

Unfortunately, much of what we now know about the culture of the traditional custodians of this land comes to us from the accounts made by European settlers. 

Unfortunately, much of what we now know about the culture and traditions of the traditional custodians of this land comes to us from the accounts made by European settlers
Initiation ceremonies are believed to have taken place in the area circa 1798 by Thomas Watling.

Early European settlement

Around 1800, small parcels of land in what is now the Garden and outer Domain had been leased to various private parties for farming and milling. These properties were deemed ‘illegal’ and were later ‘resumed’ (for the use of the Government) by Governor Bligh by 1807.

The owner of ‘Lot No. 1’, which was closest to the headland, was a John Anson, a free settler and carpenter who established a “…fine fruit and kitchen garden…”  and whose name subsequently leant itself to the headland as ‘Point Anson’ for a short time, paralleling the older ‘Yurong Point’.

By 1807 there were already carriage roads running through the opposite Bennelong Point and along Farm Cove. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney in 1810 he almost immediately began expanding the network of roads and carriageways in the colony which had been begun by Bligh and earlier governors.

By C Cartwright  From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.jpg
A plan of the Governors Demesne land surveyed in the year 1816, By C. Cartwright.
From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales

A popular vantage point 

This construction expanded into the Anson/Yurong precinct between 1813 and 1817, with the majority of the work being completed by June 1816.

The project was undertaken, under the Governor’s direction, to create an ease of access for Elizabeth Macquarie from Old Government House (now the Museum of Sydney) to the Point itself.

There is no remaining evidence of the original road, other than a culvert (now called the Macquarie Culvert) over which the road ran.

The construction project included the carving of a bench in a granite outcropping at the point for Mrs Macquarie who enjoyed taking the sun there and watching the harbour views and traffic.

Sydney in all its glory p. 2c. 1817 BY EDWARD CHARLES CLOSE
Sydney in all its glory circa 1817. By Edward Charles Close via the State Library of NSW.

Mrs Macquarie's Chair

The entire headland terminating at Mrs Macquarie's Chair (also erroneously called Lady Macquarie's Chair) was from this point known as Mrs. Macquarie's Point, superseding all previous names and persists in popular usage to this day.

Just above the seat is carved the following inscription:

it thus recorded that the road, round the inside of the Government Domain called, Mrs. Macquarie’s Road, so named by the Governor on account of her having originally, planned it, Measuring 3 miles and 377 yards, was finally completed on the 13th day of June 1816.”

mrs macquaries road and chair
Mrs Macquarie's Chair was finished on 13 June 1816.

New traditions

The inaugural Anniversary (or Foundation Day, as it was first known) Regatta on Sydney Harbour took place on 26 January 1837 to commemorate the landing of the First Fleet.

As can be seen from the depiction on the rather colourful painting, the event is painted ‘larger-than-life’, exaggerating the size and splendour of Mrs Macquarie's Chair and the headland.

The event continues to this day as the Australia Day Regatta and is acknowledged as the oldest continuously-conducted annual sailing regatta in the world.

The Regatta Sydney Jan 26, 1848.jpg
The Regatta Sydney Jan 26, 1848 by Oswald Walter Brierly. Pencil and white pastel. ANMM Collection

A popular vantage point 

By 1831, Charles Fraser, the then Superintendent of the Garden, had widened the former single-carriageways along the Point to accommodate two carriages thus allowing two separate lanes of traffic.

The influx of visitors, both local and from the burgeoning maritime trade, grew exponentially from this point. Sadly, the growing popularity of the Garden and Domain and appreciation of their breathtaking location and views sped the often forcible ousting of the few remaining First Peoples and brought an end to their traditional cultural gatherings and continued presence in the area.

John Black Henderson() - Picnic at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, 1855.jpg
Picnic at Mrs Macquarie's Chair circa 1855 by John Black Henderson.

The little fort

The headland has also had strategic value in the defence of Sydney Harbour. The first example of its military use was  a response to the fears of foreign invasion during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Mrs Macquarie's Point was equipped with a ‘masked battery’ of eight artillery pieces in 1856.  

These were arranged above and behind Mrs Macquarie's Chair. The battery was composed of a rammed earth and concrete defilade (wall) fitted with embrasures.

It was commonly referred to as “the little fort”, usually in association with Mrs Macquarie’s Point. By 1870, the concern over foreign invasion had all but dissipated and the guns were removed.

An archaeological excavation and subsequent report was undertaken in 1989 on the Masked Battery, after which it was promptly buried again to preserve the site.

Little Fort - Mrs Macquaries Pt - HMS Liverpool - Garden Island - 1870.jpg
Little Fort at Mrs Macquarie's Point. HMS Liverpool facing Garden Island circa 1870.

Military Presence

Mrs. Macquarie's Point continued to host an intermittent military presence with military exercises, specifically mock amphibious landings, being conducted by New South Wales colonial forces in May 1867 and later in April 1881.

Mrs. Macquarie's Point has also had its fair share of local legends. In 1916, the then Director of the Garden, Joseph Henry Maiden wrote in his notes for a centenary history of the Garden:

For many years rumours were afloat that there was buried treasure in the Domain, near Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, close to where the small fort was, facing Garden Island.

One rumour was that the money was the proceeds of a bank robbery in the year 1825, and this was traced to an old convict who had been told by another, and so on. The ground was opened out at least once viz; - In August 1893, under the direction of Mr. W. Camphin, Superintendent of Detectives, but without result, and subsequent application to reopen the ground have been refused.

B3-002117, engraving, British practicing naval action at Mrs Macquaries Point
This engraving depicts British troops practising naval action at Mrs Macquarie's Point.

A gathering place

In November 1900, all the area from the Point to Fleet Steps was filled with people who had come to witness and celebrate the arrival of Lord Houpeton, the first Governor General of Australia who was to officiate at the formal ceremonies in the coming year for the declaration of Federation.

Crowds in the Domain for the arrival of Lord Hopetoun in Decemeber 1900
Crowds in the Domain for the arrival of Lord Hopetoun in December 1900.

In 1908 similar crowds also gathered together to watch the spectacle of the American ‘Great White Fleet’, during its globetrotting mission of friendly visits to numerous countries around the world showing the US flag.

Spectators viewing the 'Great White Fleet' in Sydney Harbour via NSW State Archives. 

Peace in the Domain

One of the largest gatherings of people that ever assembled in the Domain occurred at the end of the First World War on 19 July during the peace celebrations that engulfed Sydney.

These lasted into the night with literally thousands of people crowding the foreshore and Mrs Macquarie's Point to watch the searchlight displays and the gaily illuminated flotilla of warships crowding the Harbour and Farm Cove.

The Peace Celebrations of 1919. At the time this was the largest crowd of people to ever gather in The Domain.
The Peace Celebrations of 1919. At the time this was the largest crowd of people to ever gather in The Domain.

Sydney Heritage

Throughout the 20th and 21st century, the Point has been and continues to be the popular vantage point for celebrations, sporting and cultural events and other special occasions such as the New Years Eve fireworks, boat races or the arrival of large ships like the Queen Mary 2, the US aircraft carrier ‘Nimitz’ and many other notable vessels.

nye sydney mrs macquaries point
Mrs Macquarie's Point continues to be a gathering spot for events such as New Years Eve.

Mrs Macquarie's Point

The Point has a wealth of heritage and cultural significance to Australia and it will continue to be a focal point for the public and visitors for observing Sydney Harbour and the many cultural and historic events that occur in and around it into the future. 

Learn more about the historical events that have taken place in The Domain: Sydney's Stage.

Category: Events, History
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