Many Potts Point locals pass by or through the Domain every day.
This 34-hectare green oasis in the heart of Sydney is a popular spot for exercise, recreation, entertainment and leisure. But it’s also been an important part of our city’s heritage since before the arrival of the First Fleet.
How the Domain came to be
In July 1788, the colony’s earliest days, Governor Arthur Phillip established a small corn farm on the site of the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens. Further up the valley, he set aside an open area for the Governor’s Demesne (a demesne or domain was the land kept by the lord of the manor for his exclusive use under the feudal systems of Europe). Although the land had been earmarked for the Crown, in the years that followed, it was given over to private leaseholds and farming. When, in 1807, Governor Bligh cancelled the private farm grants and resumed the land as the Governor’s Domain, it was one of the many triggers for the Rum Rebellion.
In 1810 the southern portion of The Domain was set aside for a public park. An 1816 survey of the Governor’s Demesne shows the grounds of the Domain were much more extensive than they are today, taking in the Royal Botanic Gardens as well as both Bennelong and Potts Points. The area occupied by the current Domain was known as the Outer Domain. Over time, land resumed for the Royal Botanic Gardens, naval fuel tanks in 1942, and, more recently, for ramps for freeway and traffic tunnels, have significantly reduced the Domain’s original size.
By 1817, the Domain was entirely enclosed by sandstone walls, and several gates regulated the horse-drawn traffic that traversed the carriage roads around Bennelong Point and Farm Cove. Native trees were cleared to create an open grassy expanse, and in 1831 Governor Darling formally invited public use of the Domain.
A rich Aboriginal history
Aboriginal people fished and camped in the Domain both before and after the arrival of Europeans. In the early 19th century, they camped in bark gunyahs (huts) and rock shelters in the bushland of the Outer Domain, with records indicating they also made use of a timber hut there in the 1840s. In 1846, a group of Aboriginal people camped near Centipede Rock at Woolloomooloo (near the Art Gallery of NSW today).
Accounts from that time say they ‘roamed about the city during the day, and … often gave exhibitions of boomerang-throwing from Hyde Park.’ While there are no reports of Aboriginal people living in the Domain after the 1850s, we know that there were Aboriginal settlements in Rushcutters Bay, Double Bay and Rose Bay at that time, so it’s likely Aboriginal people were still using the Domain then too.
A place for culture
In the early days of the colony, the Domain was earmarked as an ideal site for cultural buildings. Over the years, it has accrued many buildings of artistic and public significance. Governor Macquarie’s stables, built in 1821, were converted into the Conservatorium of Music in 1915. Throughout the 19th century, they were joined by the Government House, the Hyde Park Barracks, the Sydney Mint, Sydney Hospital, Parliament House, the State Library of NSW and the Art Gallery of NSW. One of Sydney’s most iconic outdoor artworks, Almost Once by Brett Whiteley (known colloquially as the Big Matchsticks), has graced the Domain since 1991. The area’s reputation as a cultural enclave is still strong today, with a major expansion of the Art Gallery in late 2022, doubling its size and adding a public art garden.
Sydney’s premier cricket ground
The Domain has a sporting history, too. Cricket, played in Hyde Park since the early 1800s, moved to the Domain in the 1850s. The second Intercolonial Cricket Match between NSW and Victoria was the first match to be held there in 1857, and it soon became a popular spot for major competitive sporting events. This was despite the fact that the Domain was not highly regarded as a cricket ground. It was an uneven, rough paddock, still open to the public as a park and also used to graze cattle. Cow pats often had to be picked up before a match could begin, and the cricketers had to contend with members of the public insistent on using the Domain as a park. Nevertheless, cricket continued to be played there for 14 years.
The Domain remains popular with sportspeople today, hosting scores of joggers and soccer and touch football players every lunchtime on the playing fields above the Domain Parking Station.
Free speech and politics
The Domain also has a significant heritage as the focal point of free speech and political dissent in Sydney dating back to the 19th century. In 1878, following a riot in Hyde Park, a Baptist pastor called Daniel Allen spoke in the Domain on Irish Home Rule. This was the birth of Speakers Corner in the northeastern area of the Domain. Speakers Corner played host to Soapbox Sundays when crowds would gather to hear people talk on any subject they wished, with much heckling from audience members with opposing views. While Speakers Corner no longer attracts the throngs it did in the 20th century, the City of Sydney continues to host a series of speakers on the Soapbox on Sunday afternoons.
The Domain has also been an important site for political dissent over the years, with anti-conscription rallies attracting more than 100,000 people in 1916 and communists and fascists facing off in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1932, 200,000 people protested the sacking of NSW Premier Jack Lang in the Domain. Political protest in the Domain reached its height in the 1960s with large anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. In the 1980s, the Domain played host to Palm Sunday peace marches.
The people’s place
Since the 1850s, the Domain has been known as a place for the people. Large crowds gathered there in the 19th century to watch balloon ascents, parades, and revues and host family picnics and weddings. In 1916 it was the site of the ANZAC Buffet. Conceived by four women and run entirely by volunteers, the buffet became the place where returning soldiers were welcomed home and reunited with their families. And in 1919, 200,000 people gathered in the Domain to join the Official Peace Celebrations marking the end of the First World War.
In March 1927, the Domain was the site of the first gathering in Australia of more than 1 million people when crowds massed to welcome King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to our shores.
In more recent years, the Domain has played host to concerts, festivals and performances, as well as charity events. Carols in the Domain, the Sydney Festival Trio and concerts by acts like Midnight Oil and Grace Jones continue to draw in the crowds. In addition, each year major events like Run2Cure and the Mother’s Day Classic are held in the Domain to support important causes. Next up on the calendar for the Domain is WorldPride. Both the opening concert and closing party of the global festival promoting awareness of LGBTIQ+ issues will be held at the Domain in late February and early March 2023.
The Domain today
In a mark of its unquestionable significance, the Domain was heritage listed in 1999. As a treasured green space in the heart of our cosmopolitan city, the Domain remains an integral part of Sydney’s cultural, social and physical fabric today.