Archaeological and Early Contact History

Areas close to where the suburb of Newtown was established, especially along Shea’s Creek and swamp and the Cooks River, show evidence of Aboriginal people’s presence. The bed of Shea’s Creek, excavated to create Alexandra Canal in 1896, has revealed traces of prior Aboriginal presence in the area. A stone axe was also located in a site close to the Cooks River near Riverside Park. Middens have been located along Cooks River too, as further evidence of occupation.[1]

Silicrete, a stone often used to flake tools, was found in Camperdown cemetery and Newtown when excavations took place in the 1980. This suggests, that it may have been used by Aboriginal people pre-invasion and after. Archaeologist Val Attenbrow, notes that it is not clear whether this stone was exposed or used, but the existence of pieces in the cemetery suggests it is at least possible.[2] Roadways and paths  Anita Heiss and Terri McCormack have stated that King Street in Newtown followed Aboriginal tracks, which were trading routes between farmed grasslands and fishing areas.[3] A newspaper article from 1962 also argues that King St was an Aboriginal pathway, used by early explorers, but gives few other details.[4]


Enmore Road, 1887
1887 Sands Directory Map, City of Sydney Archives

Other City of Sydney web sources have argued that Enmore Road, which branches off King St, Newtown was an Aboriginal walking track, known as Josephson’s Track in the 1850s.[5] Mary Salmon, has stated that the turn off at ‘Newtown Rd’ (known as King St after 1877)[6] was the original track which Lt King and others had sought a way through to Cooks River and to Botany Bay.[7]Some written support for this is found in the journal of John Hunter, who organised a survey of Botany Bay in 1789:


“Towards the end of September, two boats with provisions, tents, &c. were got ready, and dispatched round, under the care of Mr. Keltie, the master of the Sirius, by whom, and Mr. Blackburn, the master of the Supply, I was assisted in my work at Botany-Bay. A few gentlemen of the settlement having signified a wish to accompany me, the party resolved to walk over and meet the boats there; this route being now well known, and the path well trodden, it was not an unpleasant walk. We joined the boats about noon, and found our tents pitched….[8]

The route from Port Jackson to Botany Bay later developed into a cart track and became the major route to the Cooks River. Kangaroo Grounds, Bulanaming & land maintenance Aboriginal people (Cadigal or Gadigal) created extensive grasslands through land management techniques in the area around Newtown.  Kangaroo Grass was a major species of these grasslands.


Kangeroo Grass, Camperdown Cemetery, Photographer Mervyn Bishop, Marrickville Library and History Services, 002512

Watkin Tench, a marine of the First Fleet, who travelled inland on expeditions and recorded his experiences in the early days of the colony areas, commented on its presence near Newtown.[9]Areas of Marrickville were reputedly known as the ‘Kangaroo Grounds’ as so many of kangaroos were observed by colonists gathering there.[10] The area nearby, now known as Petersham was also known as Bulanaming. Tench mentions an area, a narrow strip called the ‘Kangaroo Ground’ between Port Jackson and Botany Bay, which appears on his map where the inner west would be.[11] It was an area he crossed as part of a party sent by Phillip to take prisoners in response to the spearing and killing of McIntyre, the government gamekeeper.


McIntyre, who was later speared by the renowned warrior Pemulwuy, had undertaken a five day expedition in March 1788, heading inland from Sydney. He killed a kangaroo, which he shared and ate with the Aboriginal people of the area. Karskens has interpreted this to mean that he was in the area of the Kangaroo Grounds around Petersham.[12]


Image courtesy of the Dixson Library, State Library of NSW, digital order number: a928468

Such grassy areas were maintained by Aboriginal people at least partly to encourage kangaroos to visit. It also made it easier for hunters to spear wallabies and kangaroos who came to feed on young grass shoots, as they could target them where they were known to gather to feed and find water. Some remnant kangaroo grass species have survived within the Camperdown Cemetery grounds.


The surveyor, Thomas Mitchell, reported that by 1827 burning to reduce undergrowth and increase grasslands seemed to happening less around Sydney and that a thick understorey of plants had grown. His comments suggest some of the difficulties that Aboriginal people had in maintaining country, pathways and food sources as they had before invasion [13]. Fishing and food James Backhouse, a Quaker and early traveller around the colony, wrote of some Aboriginal people he encountered fishing in the Cooks River, while he was heading towards Botany Bay in 1835. He described the construction of a canoe (perhaps from hearsay, as it is not clear if he observed this). It was recorded as being shaped from a large sheet of bark in a fire, stretched apart with sticks, and folded at the ends. He acknowledged their skill and success in fishing:

“We walked to the Cooks River….and fell in with a party of Blacks, who were fishing…the man and his wife were seated on their knees in the canoe, in which they had a fire, on a flat stone. The man propelled the canoe by means of a paddle, that he applied first on one side and then on the other. He used a spear in fishing, made of a long stick, with four, long, wooden prongs, attached to it by means of string and Grass tree Gum. This he brought slowly, almost into contact with the fish, before striking. While fishing, he kept up a noise like the blowing of a Porpoise, and accompanied it by showers of saliva, that disturbed the surface of the water, like small rain. He seldom failed in transfixing his finny prey. Another man who stood on a log that extended into the river, was equally successful, by a similar process.”[14]

A couple of years after this Backhouse reported on the level of conflict between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people in ‘remote parts of the colony’.[15] He also mentioned that several South Coast Aboriginal people were visiting the town (central Sydney), and commented on their drinking of alcohol.[16] These South Coast people might have arrived in Sydney by coming up a route close to what is now the Princess Highway and South King St. Alternatively, they may have come to Sydney by boat.

Burrawang palms, another food source are known to have grown around Cooks River. The seeds were


Newtown Bridge, 2009, City of Sydney Archives, 056173

used for food after being carefully prepared to reduce poisonous content.[17]

The stream where Newtown Bridge now is likely to have been a fresh water supply for local Aboriginal people too.

Not long after Backhouse’s visit to NSW, Alexander Brodie Spark, a merchant and landowner at Tempe, further down the Cooks River, recorded in his 1836 diary that all of his assigned servants (convicts) had been absent for the day, and one them said that he had been watching a “Corroboray among the blacks”.[18] Unfortunately no other details are given by Spark, who seemed dubious about any of the reasons provided by staff for their absences!

Karskens notes that until the 1850s at least, Aboriginal people were living on land to the South of what is now Newtown, at Botany Bay and on the Cooks River. Aboriginal people were still using the swamps to access fish, birds and other resources until at least the 1820s when land grants occurred.[19] It is quite possible that they continued to use these resources of country there until industrialisation and suburbanisation intensified. Sometimes, even though land was granted, it was not always used intensively immediately, or wasn’t fenced, so people could probably still access it.

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