Bounded by Chalmers Street, Cleveland Street and Central Railway, Surry Hills, Prince Alfred Park played a major part in Sydney’s early history.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans this area contained a tributary of Blackwattle Creek. It was known as Cleveland Paddocks after Cleveland House, built in the 1820’s and still standing at the corner of Bedford and Buckingham Streets.  Cleveland House is reputed to be Sydney’s oldest house.  Designed and probably built by Francis Greenway, the first Colonial Government appointed architect.  It was built for Daniel Cooper, a former convict and major influence in the economy of the early Colony of New South Wales.

The first incursion into the paddock was the railway, which was begun in 1850 and opened in 1855. The station was located near St Paul’s Square to the west of the park. In 1856 more land was excised for Cleveland Street Public School, established that year in a prefabricated iron building.

The remaining area of Cleveland Paddocks was gazetted as a public reserve on 22 December 1865, although it was described in 1869 by Jules Joubert, a member of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, as ‘a quagmire with a filthy drain running across it – a plague spot’. Nevertheless in 1868 it was named after Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, then visiting Sydney. Prince Alfred survived an assassination attempt at Clontarf Picnic Grounds and the embarrassed colonial authorities rushed to make amends by naming local features after the Prince, including this park and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown. The first Agricultural Society show was held here in 1869.

The original park layout was undertaken by a notable nineteenth century architect, Benjamin Backhouse, whose innovative plan was a major step in the development of park design in late 19th century Australia.  It was the first park to be laid out in connection with a major Exhibition and predated the Garden Palace in the Sydney Domain, built for the first International Exhibition in 1879, and the world-heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne (1880).

On 30 August 1870 the Intercolonial Exhibition of General Industries and Arts opened in Sydney. Held at the Exhibition Building at Prince Alfred Park, it was a preparatory display for the International Exhibition the following year in London. The NSW Agricultural Society organised the Exhibition to mark the centenary of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay inviting all Australian states and New Zealand to submit a display. Held over several days, the Exhibition attracted more than 37,000 people. The displays were extensive, including machinery, fine arts, manufactured goods and items sent from the other Australian colonies and overseas.

It was once the pride and joy of the City Council. It was used for the annual Agricultural Show and performed a major public function as a venue for important events, various exhibitions and public gatherings. It housed the War Memorial Museum from 1925 until it moved to Canberra in 1936. It was Sydney Skating Rink for many decades.  By the 1940s there were suggestions that it be used as an indoor swimming pool, but when this option proved too difficult it was demolished in 1954, making way for the new indoor swimming pool.

A number of the design elements from the 1870 plan of the park still exist on the site today including Moreton Bay fig trees arranged as an informal row along the boundaries. The central avenue of London Planes and Brush Box probably dates from the inter-war period, as do the Washington Palms and Canary Island Date Palms.

Join us at the museum on Saturday, 1st June at 2:00 pm when Stuart Read will tell us about the other great building, the Garden Palace in the Sydney Domain, built for the first International Exhibition in 1879


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