Past/Lives Flashback #8: Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW
Original article: NSW State Abattoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I last visited this place. The blood-soaked history of Sydney Olympic Park is perhaps the most heavily researched article on Past/Lives, yet all that knowledge is quick to fall away when you’re actually standing on site, inhabiting the space where it all went down. The post-Easter Show cleanup only serves to strip back the gaudy decorations designed to distract from the past, leaving today’s visitors with one of two visions: the glorious Olympics, or the violent abattoirs.
Apart from the hubbub surrounding the Easter Show, change visits the Olympic zone about as often as I do (read: not much). The stadium seems to have settled on ANZ as its name for the time being, just as the arena’s heart still belongs to Allphones. During my refresher course on the ins and outs of the Olympic era of the site’s history, I laughed when I learned the arena’s actual name is the ‘Sydney Super Dome’. For the first time ever, Allphones sounds comparatively low-key.
So since change is such a stranger here, it’s going to be more beneficial to take a look at some of the landmarks around the Olympic site that betray its brutal past. We didn’t touch on too many last time, with the Abattoir Heritage Precinct being the natural focus. First up is Olympic Park station, the last stop of the train line which delivers thousands of Easter Show-goers to the park each year…
…just as it delivered hundreds of thousands of animals to their deaths each year for decades, some as recently as 25 years ago. Granted, it isn’t the exact same station (although if it was, abattoir workers would have enjoyed the most stylish station in Sydney), but its location is approximate to the original. A complete train line (with stations opening from 1915) served the abattoir and the nearby brickworks, with country trains deviating from the existing rail network at Lidcombe and Flemington to deposit country animals to the abattoir. Employees could catch their own trains from a small platform at the end of Pippita Street, Lidcombe.
As the abattoir declined, the need for employees did so as well, and in 1984 the abattoir line was closed, with the facility itself closing in 1988. The entire Homebush Salesyard Loop, on which the Olympic Park line is based, was closed in 1991. In 1996, the Pippita Street station became the last of the abattoir stations to be demolished, and interestingly, the street itself was absorbed into the huge Dairy Farmers site nearby (now, why do you think that’s there?). The brand-spanking-new Olympic Park loop line opened in 1998, with most of the Homebush Salesyard Loop repurposed to be a part of it.
Now, since that was a little…dry, let’s get wet.
The Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre was the first part of Olympic Park to be constructed following the closure of the abattoir, unless you count Bicentennial Park, which opened in 1988. The Aquatic Centre opened in 1994, with the rest of the park completed by 1996. As such, the Aquatic Centre is the ‘middle child’ of the Olympic Park, with a design sensibility halfway between Bicentennial Park and the stadiums that followed. It’s a strange beast, and one made even stranger by my near-absolute certainty that when it first opened, its entrance was in fact this:
Sometime in 1995, I attended a birthday party at the exciting new Aquatic Centre, which was rumoured on the playground to have a whirlpool and slides. I don’t remember any slides, but I do have a distinct memory of our posse leaving behind a rubber WWF wrestler toy, tossed high up in those bushes on the left in a fit of excitement…while we were hanging around the entrance. Does the Iron Sheik still reside in those bushes today, subsisting on a diet of ants, rainwater and the occasional small bird? Nearly 20 years later, I still wasn’t game enough to climb up and find out. But I did go in for a closer look…
The appearance of those bolt marks, where the original entry sign was probably attached, seems to validate my memory of this being the main entrance. The doors underneath now serve as an emergency exit. If anyone can shed some light on this mystery, drop a line in the comments below. My theory is that when the Aquatic Centre opened, the entrance was here because it faced away from the abattoir site (and at the time, a huge construction site), but when the rest of the park was completed, the entrance was moved around to the opposite end of the facility, a spot which pretty much faces the Abattoir Heritage Precinct (and everything else, in keeping with the Olympic spirit of inclusion and togetherness). Today’s entrance looks a lot more ‘Olympic’ anyway, so it was probably a change for the best. Still…
Our last stop is just down the road from the Aquatic Centre. Back in the 70s and 80s, Swire (then Woodmasons Cold Storage) would have been one of the places to store the freshly processed animal carcasses on ice before being shipped to the nearby butcheries and markets. For a cold storage facility (and for Dairy Farmers), this was the perfect location…when the abattoir was there. How it’s still able to do business is a stone cold mystery, but I guess that’s why they’re no longer Woodmasons.
See you next time, when we’ll attempt to go for a drive…
NSW State Brickworks/Brickpit Ring Walk – Homebush, NSW
In a time when building a house meant plenty of brick, mortar and asbestos as opposed to 100% pure cladding, a housing boom meant it was time to get digging. The State Brickworks at Homebush was established by the NSW Government in 1911 to (publicly) provide for the demand for public housing and (privately) to shatter the stranglehold private owners had on the brickmaking industry, because no one makes money without the NSW Government getting a piece of the action. This greedy plan backfired at the onset of the Great Depression, when demand plummeted and the site started operating at a major loss. Ironically, it was sold to a private firm in 1936, and closed soon after.
Of course, the history of bricks in Sydney reaches back much further than Homebush. Brickfield Hill (near Haymarket) owes its name to its brickmaking past, and the St Peters brickyards are still in plain view – I just haven’t been there yet. The Homebush site was adjacent to the State Abattoirs, presumably to maintain the ambience, but more likely because the ground was rich in necessary brick ingredients. The Homebush Brickworks had also served to replace the troublesome State-run sand lime brickmaking operation at Botany, which had in 1914 fallen victim to a labourer strike, and never recovered.
After World War II, during which the site had been used as an ammunitions depot by the Navy, the NSW Government sensed an opportunity to make money, and reopened the Brickpit just in time for the second housing boom. If the first boom was a Newcastle, this one was somewhere between a San Francisco and an Indonesia. Chances are that at some point during your life in Sydney, you’ve stayed in a house built with bricks from Homebush. The site even had its own train station for workers to use, which opened in 1939.
It should be mentioned that during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Brickworks was known by a different name to young hoons and petrolheads looking to blow off some steam on a Friday or Saturday night. ‘Brickies’ was a hot destination for drag racers setting off from the Big Chiefs (Beefy’s) burger joint on Parramatta Road, tearing off up Underwood Road in their Monaros towards Brickies Hill. This circuit can be seen in the 1977 film FJ Holden, which will be a major part of this blog sooner than later. The onset of development put a stop to this, but a subtle, if bizarre, homage to that era has been paid through the naming of certain streets around Hill Road, once the drag strip finish line: Nuvolari Place, named for Italian racing legend Tazio Nuvolari, and Monza Drive, after the endurance race of the same name. Sydney also hosted its first V8 Supercar event at the Olympic Park in 2009, echoing the days of weekend supercar stardom in less developed decades. Residents could still nostalgically enjoy extreme noise pollution and rowdy behaviour, but at least this time it was corporately sponsored.
From an industrial standpoint, they might as well have been making gold bricks at the ‘works for the next three decades…and then the 80s happened. The boom died down, the money dried up, and the Brickworks, which had for the most part of the 20th century poisoned the surrounding land and Homebush Bay, was clumped in the same basket as the increasingly irrelevant State Abattoirs and the volatile Rhodes industrial area – it had to go, but before it did, the crew of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (or perhaps The Conqueror 2, just give it a few years) chose the toxic site as a filming location. In 1988, the Brickworks were closed for good. Like the rest of the State-owned Homebush industrial zone, it was included in plans to reshape the area into the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 1992. The Brickpit was to become the tennis centre.
And so it would have gone, had not a funny, completely unexpected thing happened. The green and golden bell frog was nearing extinction by 1992. Once abundant in Sydney, numbers had fallen so low that a special breeding program was established at Taronga Zoo in the hope that the frog could be saved. As preliminary work was being done, 300 of the small frogs were discovered living in the quarry. Several times since, colonies of the undeniably appealing frog have turned up at proposed development sites, halting work, ruining plans, and causing PR-illiterate development bigwigs to shit a…well, you know. The frogs are no longer critically endangered, but they still have a long way to go.
As the rest of industrial Homebush was transformed for the Olympics, the Brickpit itself followed suit, undergoing heavy remediation. It’s now an environmental feature of the Olympic Park, and features the wonderful Ring Walk, a walkway suspended above the former Brickworks site complete with a giant pond filled with what can only be described as Smylex. Those frogs must be mighty happy.
It’s funny…we spent the better part of last century digging this place up and sending it off all over the city for our homes, but the frogs cut out the red tape and came to the place itself, making it their home in less than a decade. We didn’t start building units here until years later. Am I saying a frog could run Mirvac or Lend Lease?
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.
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!