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.
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.