Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Parramatta and District Historical Society, 100 Years Old. Looking back to its beginnings.

Hambledon Cottage, home to PDHS
Parramatta Heritage Centre
On 4 December 2013 the Parramatta and District Historical Society (PDHS) will celebrate its Centenary. It is the second oldest historical society in NSW preceded only by the Royal Australian Historical Society founded in 1901.

The Society was formed at a public meeting on 4 December 1913 following several years of agitation by prominent members of the community. Its formation could be considered overdue recognition of the unique position Parramatta and district occupied within Australian history. Parramatta was 125 years old when the PDHS was created, still quite young in historical terms, but having achieved a great deal worth preserving and recording.

An awareness for the need to preserve monuments and collect historical items relating to Parramatta began around 1888, the centenary of Parramatta’s foundation. Towards the end of the 19th century citizens of Parramatta began expressing a need for a museum to be built to commemorate the achievements of Parramatta and to provide an attraction for visitors to the area. In a letter to the editor of the Cumberland Argus, James Purser felt the “town would be deserving of such an institution being the oldest in Australia”[1]

The impetus to create a  society or museum responsible for preserving Parramatta’s monuments and records began gathering momentum in 1911, the year Parramatta Municipal Council celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Alderman Hill suggested a museum be built to commemorate the Council’s Jubilee. The idea of some sort of commemorative hall was well received by the Jubilee Organising Committee and plans were laid to build a museum next to the Town Hall. The foundation stone for what was to become know as the Jubilee Hall was laid on 27 November 1911 by a voiceless Mayor Jago, who signaled with three taps of the trowel on the foundation stone that the stone was well and truly set.[2]

However, what was yet to be set was the intended use of the hall and its exact position. Considerable debate raged among Alderman with letters to the Cumberland Argus debating whether the ratepayers of Parramatta should bear the cost of a museum or if there was in fact enough material to place in museum. Eventually, instead of a museum a "supper hall" was completed in July 1913 on the northern side of Parramatta Town Hall, which Council felt would best serve the interests of the Council and residents.[3]

While the debate over the Jubilee Hall progressed, another proposal was raised in a meeting of the Parramatta Progress Association on the 3 July 1912. Mr. J. H. Murray, one of the brothers of the Murray Brothers shopping emporium raised the proposal to establish a local history association. Murray pointed out that “there were a number of ancient landmarks - Old government House, the Observatory and others - which should be preserved in the interests of future generations.”[4] The Cumberland Argus was also enthusiastically behind the proposal by Murray stating, “it was only fitting that some steps should be taken to form a committee or association for collecting as much authentic information of the early doings up to date…” and suggesting that the Parramatta Progress Association be given the task of erecting and completing a building to store all manner of relics.[5]

William Freame, a long term Parramatta Historian, waited patiently before adding his thoughts to the discussion. In a letter to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913, Freame noted how surprised he was that so little had been done to preserve Parramatta’s memorials and perpetuate its history. His arguments for preserving Parramatta’s heritage have a familiar ring;

Look where I may, I see signs of vandalism, and the hand of the spoiler at work. And there were those, who would have turned its beautiful oak avenues into a highway for wood and brick carts, because of the stray coin or two they might have brought with them;  And yet there has been so much that might have been done to preserve 'Old Parramatta,' and it has not been done. I remember the scores of old photographs and the several valuable engravings the late Mr. John Taylor possessed; where are they now?

Interestingly, even though Freame supported Murray’s proposal he doubted whether a historical society would be a success as “there are very few persons in this district really qualified to determine intricate facts in history.” [6]

With Parramatta’s 125th anniversary fast approaching support for a historical society grew rapidly among key members of society. In a Cumberland Argus newspaper article entitled “Old Parramatta. Glimpses at the Past by Word and Picture. Taken from the Records for the Argus”, Frank Walker President of the Historical Society of NSW wrote;

Enough has been said to justify all the ceremony that is intended to mark the 125th anniversary of the foundation of one of our oldest and most historic towns. The prominent place she retains in our history— the intimate association she had with our first Governor — the stirring record contained in her century and a quarter of existence — and, lastly, the beautiful situation and surroundings of Parramatta,  all combine in forming one of the most interesting and unique pages of Australian history.[7]

The article was probably enough to rouse and galvanise supporters into presenting a petition to Mayor Collett requesting he preside over a public meeting for the purpose of establishing a local Historical Society. The meeting was held on 4 December 1913. Following a stirring and encouraging address by Frank Walker[8], the Hon. B. B. O'Conor, M.L.C., moved the first resolution, "That this meeting is of opinion that the time has arrived when a Historical Society should be formed in Parramatta, to be known as the Parramatta Historical Society." This was seconded by the Rev. T. O'Reilly, and supported by Mr. Frank Walker. Messrs. W. Freame and J. Arundel, carried.”
The Rev. S. M. Johnstone, M.A., moved the second motion, which was seconded by Mr. W. L. Atkins, "That a provisional committee, as follows, be appointed to draw up rules and regulations"[9]
In January 1914 the provisional committee met to draw up the constitution which was adopted by the newly formed Parramatta Historical Society on the 12 March 1914. Elected as the Society’s first president was the Mayor of Parramatta, Alderman J. H. Graham.

First President of the PDHS, Alderman. J. H. Graham

Today the Society's objectives are: to encourage the study of history and heritage of both Parramatta district and Australia; To acquire and preserve for the use of the Society any books, manuscripts, newspapers, prints, pictures, slides, costumes, relics and all such objects and materials having a bearing on Parramatta and Australian history; To arrange relevant guest speakers, tours, displays and exhibitions relating to the history of Parramatta and Australia; To publish and circulate journals, periodicals and books relating to the history of Parramatta and Australia.

The Society, staffed entirely by volunteers, has operated the Colonial Georgian cottage, Hambledon Cottage, as a house museum for almost 50 years since it was officially opened on February 26, 1966 by Major-General Sir Denzel Macarthur-Onslow.

Peter Arfanis, Archivist, Parramatta Council, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2013


[1] A Suggestion. (1905, April 8). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 11.
[2] The Jubilee Hall. (1911, November 29). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 2.
[3] The Museum. (1911, October 7). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 6.
[4] Parramatta Progress Association. (1912, July 6). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 12.
[5] History, and Parramatta. (1912, August 10). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 12.
[6] History for Parramatta. (1912, September 18). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 3.
[7] Old Parramatta. (1913, November 1). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 13.
[8] The Historical Society. (1913, December 13). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), p. 16.
[9] Parramatta Historical Society. (1913, December 6). The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 - 1950), The members of the provisional committee were  — Alderman Collett, Mr. T. R. Moxham, Aldermen Jago, Hill and Thomas, Dr. Bowman, Dr. Brown, Rev. T. O'Reilly, Messrs. H. Mason, W. L. Atkins, B.A., R. H. Mathews, W. Freame, D. J. Thomas (T.K.S.), J. Arundel, J. Button, H. B. Cowper and the mover.

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