NSW State Abattoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW

In September 1993, then-NSW Premier John Fahey famously jumped for joy as Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Sydney would host the 2000 Olympic Games. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he must have been feeling mighty grateful for 660 hectares of land which for the previous five years had been a burden on the state.

Saturday night grand prix circuit. Thanks, reader Kenny!

Saturday night grand prix circuit, 1966. Thanks, reader Kenny Goodman!

By 1988, Homebush Bay had long been associated with industry – the State Brickworks, the state abattoir and an armaments depot had all been located on the land since 1915. To the north, at Rhodes, chemical companies and paint factories had spilled toxic waste into the bay for just as long, turning the area into a dead zone not that far off from neighbouring Rookwood Necropolis.

The state’s abattoir had been originally located at Glebe Island, and had by 1902 been deemed too toxic for its proximity to the city. In 1906, an act of parliament authorised the construction of a new State Abattoir at Homebush.

Homebush had been named for a farm, ‘Home Bush’, established in 1794 by free settler Thomas Laycock in the area, then known as Liberty Plains. The farm was later sold to D’Arcy Wentworth, NSW Government surgeon, in 1808. Wentworth acquired even more surrounding land, and set up a private racetrack beside Parramatta Road. In 1841 the track was expanded and made public, and served as Sydney’s centre for horseracing until the opening of Randwick Racecourse in 1860.

The Wentworth Estate had fallen into disuse by 1906. A plan to subdivide and sell off parcels of the land had failed, the esteemed Home Bush House had become derelict, and the racetrack was long since abandoned. The choice of Homebush for the abattoir’s site made sense, as Thomas Playfair had established saleyards at Homebush in 1882, and the area was serviced by an efficient goods rail line.

The abattoir complex opened in April 1915, yet stock was not processed at the site for another year due to poor planning and bungled construction. These mistakes meant that the site was undergoing maintenance and upgrades for the remainder of its time as an abattoir. Tanneries, cold storage facilities and butchers sprung up around the Homebush area. Many remain.

In the 1940s, the State decided to decentralise slaughterhouses, and many country abattoirs were set up in the wake of the decision. Despite this, the Homebush facilities were upgraded in 1965 to handle meat export demands. In 1979, the facilities were again assessed, and found to be at the end of their economic life. In 1984, surplus land on the site was marked for use as an Advanced Technology Park (now known as the Australia Centre). The economic viability of the abattoir continued to decline until its closure in 1988, coinciding with bicentennial celebrations and a statewide spirit of reclamation and renewal.

Sydney’s bid for the 2000 games began in 1991 under then-NSW Premier Nick Greiner. The abattoir site, wholly owned by the NSW Government, was earmarked as a possible site for an Olympic park. The Moore Park showground facility was insufficient for the scale of the Olympic Games, and was by that point proving barely adequate for just the city’s showground needs.

When the Games were awarded to Sydney in 1993, full-scale redevelopment of the Homebush Bay area began, including efforts to rehabilitate and rejuvenate land poisoned by years of industrial abuse. Industrial ruins and empty roads suddenly found themselves once again at the centre of attention. Said filmmaker Susan Murphy in her 1999 article ‘Under Rookwood’ in the Journal of Australian Studies:

“Homebush Bay was several kinds of Vanishing Kingdoms in one: there was the Private Road that extended Underwood Road in a series of right-angle bends all the way around the mangrove swamps, to terminate in a series of decaying wharves. The roadway was known to petrolheads as `Brickie’, after the Sydney Brickworks site it wound past, and was used for Saturday night races, wheelies, lovers’ Lane. By daylight, it was a favourite place for driving lessons, nervous kangaroo-hopping cars executing three-point turns at the final dead-end.

Now it’s changed. Toxic soils are capped and the Olympic complex of stadia, showground halls, athlete villages is rising, shining, audacious, with Philip Cox parabolas and monumental walkways and rolled-in plantings. Surrounding this are two un-park-like `parks’ — Bicentennial Park with its federationesque follies scattered throughout the mangrove and banksia, and an industrial park, equally full of manicured grass that nobody uses.”

Susan is correct. Bicentennial Park, created in 1988, was previously a rubbish tip. It feels like the whole Homebush/Flemington area has been cursed to repeat history over and over. Before it was chosen by Laycock, it was known as ‘The Flats’, dry land sitting beside Parramatta River. Then, when it was chosen for the site of Wentworth’s estate, Laycock’s own mansion had been sitting derelict. When the time came for the NSW Government to buy Wentworth’s unwanted estate, it had long since fallen by the wayside – a decaying relic of another era sitting in the gutter of Parramatta Road. The abattoir was doomed from the start by poor planning, ensuring its place in the legacy of disuse experienced by the area. Even now, the Olympic Park has a strange feeling about it. Walking around, you get the sense there should be more people there, that there’s something just a bit off.

The bay itself was infused with blood and offal from the abattoirs, silt from the brickworks and all manner of poisons and Smylex from the chemical plants at Rhodes. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a triumph or a deep tragedy that this remediation work still continues today, particularly at Rhodes. Fishing and swimming is still prohibited in the Bay, and there’s still a heavy chemical odour. The extent of the damage to the sealife is so severe that even as far away as Sydney Harbour, commercial fishing restrictions are in place and the NSW Government recommends that no fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge should be eaten.

The Olympic site was completed on time and of course played host to the ‘best Olympics ever’, but the site’s bloody past wasn’t forgotten. The Abattoir Administration Precinct still sits amongst the neo-CBD that is the Olympic Park, and it’s quite a jarring site. Nearby are a series of bittersweet memorials to the millions of animals that were slaughtered during the abattoir’s history – former feeding troughs converted into artistic coffins, animal footprints set in cement. The abattoir’s private train station, disembarking point for those animals after being shuttled in from the country to their death, was converted rather morbidly into the Olympic Park station, disembarking point for millions of revelers hoping to witness Olympic glory, unaware of the site’s former glory.

Even before the Olympics, the site had been used as Sydney’s new home of the Sydney Royal Easter Show since 1998, replacing the ageing Moore Park site. It is ghoulish to imagine the cute, cuddly animals of the Easter Show being patted and fed by happy families on the site of so much slaughter. Other events held at the site, such as the V8 Supercars, do little to distract you from the park’s purpose as an Olympic vessel, and it’s not hard to imagine that before long, the nemesis of neglect will return to the site.

The Park’s information centre, once the abattoir’s gatehouse, has no information about the site’s history to speak of. The cheerful man behind the counter was happy to inform me that ‘there is nothing at all in here about the abattoir. There is nothing about the abattoir in this Park apart from these buildings. We have no photos or records here, we have nothing. There is no possible way I can help you, but you might want to try online.’ Thanks, I’ll do that.

The reason you’ve been assaulted with this wall of text straight up is because I feel that the images of the Abattoir Administration Precinct should stand alone, in silence. The presence of the buildings in the heart of the Olympic Park is jarring, unnatural, and forces the weight of that sour history upon you. I thought I’d do the same for you. There are some sites around Sydney, like Luna Park or the George Street entertainment strip, that are just unpleasant to be in. I’m sorry to say this is one of them.

Update: I revisit the Olympic Park site one year later and make some interesting discoveries!

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14 responses

  1. Robert Parsonage | Reply

    Micheal, I found your article very interesting. I am currently putting together an autobiography and as much of my life from an early age was spent in the meat industry and at Homebush, to be able to put accurate dates to events I am describing is very handy.

    1. Hi Robert, I was at school with a Robert Parsonage and it may well be you – I remember your family had an enormous involvement with the meat industry?? I hope my memory is accurate??
      Some years after you left your comment I have discovered this site and your note. I am currently deep into research about the early Pastoral Institutions of Australian and that has led to research about saleyards and abattoirs – the main thrust of my research is the Institutions and the Stock & Station agents, saleyards and this has led to Homebush.
      I hope we may be able to swap some of the work we have each completed??
      Kind regards
      I look forward to hearing from you
      Kind regards
      Michael Le Couteur

      1. Robert Parsonage

        Hi Micheal,
        You are correct, I am the Robert Parsonage you were at Knox with.
        The work I was doing at the time of my comment was a chapter on my life in the meat business in which Homebush played an important and lengthy part.
        My story was on a personal basis and the article was helpful in providing accurate dates for my story.

  2. Excellent reading….yes, a shame how people forget.

  3. I agree with the two previous commentators – this is a very useful collection of information and skillfully put together. History is important and we should all do what we can to ensure the facts are available for succeeding generations.
    Kind regards
    Michael Le Couteur

  4. Ross Larkin (tiny) | Reply

    Someone should write a book on the people that worked there as here was a lot of hard men worked there and a lot of story’s to be told it was a good part of learning about real people that made sydney today.

  5. Christine Pritchard | Reply

    Thank you for the information about Home bush Abbattoir. My father Jack Barber worked there in the Late 1960s until the 1960’s with the electricians. I was wondering if there may be any photos of that time please.Also any photos of when the steam engine 3809 powered the abbotwoir. Thank you .

  6. Christine Pritchard | Reply

    Thank you so very informative.My father Jack Barber worked in the electricians shop from early 1960s until 1960’s. His friend Don Hoban also worked there with him.I was hoping there may be some photos of that time and hopefully someone may remember Jack Barber.I did my nurses training at St Josephs Auburn and we had our first aid training at the Abbotwoir. Thank you.

  7. I served a apprenticeship as electrician at Homebush at the same time as Jack(Jackie) Barber (always happy)and Donny Hoben. Don I believe a keel member of Avoca Surf club. Died at a young age of Melanoma. If my memories are of any use I would be pleased to share them.
    The men of the time were hard men but had a sense of honour that is rare today.
    Many names, Frank Breedon,Brian Ramsay,Jimmy Lenz,Ray Harley,Stan Rodgers,Jack Fowler,Freddy Smidtch,Jack Burchell, come to mind all employed in the electricians shop. With many others.

    1. Do you remember a ozwald Mitchell?(mick Mitchell) He worked in the sheep slaughter house & worked at homebush from the age of 15 years old & until they closed down & he retired.

      1. Sorry Glen I never had the pleasure of meeting your relatives there were hundreds if not thousands of slaughterman in those days so I guess that’s not surprisingl.

  8. Robert did you ever write that book? Where can you purchase one?

  9. Very interesting article robert as my grandfather started working at the abattoirs from the age of 15 years old & he worked there everyday of his life till the abattoirs closed down & he was old enough to retire by then. I remember many different stories growing up as a kid from my grandfather about how he would cut the throats of around 1000 plus sheap a day & seen many a cuts on the flesh part of his palm too when they wanted time off to take a holiday. My grandfather name was ozwald Mitchell known as mick Mitchell to everyone that knew him & my uncle (his son) steven Mitchell also worked in the slaughter house section just before it was closed down where the cattle got a bolt gun to the head & hung up on a hook to bleed out while 1 bloke worked up the top & 1 bloke work on the lower section of the cow before it would move along too the next set of men too do their job next in line. My uncle took me there once when i was a young boy & im almost 40 years old now & i can still remember that horrible day i visited that place where my grandfather & uncle had worked. I never seen where the sheep where killed & cut up & packed etc thank goodness.

  10. Mr.D.Conrad.Adams. | Reply

    what good memories from my child hood in the year 2001 .

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