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Looking back at Harold Park

Reflections on a lively past as a new public space is opened.

Rugged rocks, watercourses and mussels

Before it was one of Sydney’s most popular sporting venues, Harold Park was largely rugged rocks, watercourses and mudflats.

The Gadigal and Wangal peoples of the Eora nation fished around Rozelle Bay and Blackwattle Bay. Here, they found plenty of food such as mussels, rock oysters and cockles.

Today, Dalgal Way crosses Johnston Creek and leads to the former Rozelle Tram Depot. Paying tribute to our First Nation Peoples, Dalgal Way recalls the local Aboriginal word for mussel.

The Allens of Glebe

Toxteth Park House, 1890. Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Solicitor George Allen, stepson of a convict, bought the largest part of the Glebe estate in 1828 after it was subdivided, calling it Toxteth Park.

The property was described as containing a “spacious garden”, “hundreds of the choicest fruit trees” and “forest-land capable of being converted into the most romantic pleasure-grounds”.

Johnstons and Orphan School creeks meet here, a place known to locals as Allen’s Glen, Allen’s Bush, and Frog Hollow.

The wetlands would eventually become the place where thousands gathered to watch trotting, a sport disapproved of by the devout Methodist George Allen.

As the local community grew, pressure to make the area available as public space intensified. The Public Works Department cleaned it up, reclaimed the land with material dredged from Rozelle Bay and created stormwater channels to divert creek and stormwater.

Pickpockets and tipsters

Forest Lodge Racing Club (later Harold Park Paceway), 1899. Credit: Album 22 - Photographs of the Allen Family, February 1899–October 1899, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

The area’s racing connection began in 1889 when the entrepreneurial Spencer brothers converted a portion of the estate into an athletics and pony racing track. They soon added trotting and bicycle races to the activities.

The cheap and entertaining repertoire was very appealing to people, especially the working classes.

But, after a bright beginning, Lillie Bridge soon became known as a “meeting place for the low riffraff of other suburbs”. Race-fixing was commonplace and pickpockets and tipsters roamed the grounds. A decade after opening, police shut it down.

Other racing incarnations followed, including the Forest Lodge Racing Club and Epping Racecourse, before Harold Park was born. In 1927, greyhound racing began at the site, and continued to alternate with trotting for decades.

The Red Hots and the ‘ribbon of light’

Finish of a race in front of the packed grandstand at Harold Park, February 1966. Credit: John A. Tanner, National Library of Australia.

The NSW Trotting Club inherited Epping Racecourse. It was renamed Harold Park Paceway in 1929, after the horse Childe Harold, a foundation sire for trotting in Australia.

The golden years of trotting followed in the 1950s and 1960s. Crowds in the tens of thousands poured through the gates and the Red Hots, Harold Park trots, became a catch-phrase for night racing. People loved the glamour and excitement of the ‘ribbon of light’.

The first Inter-Dominion Trotters Championship, held in 1952, drew 35,000 people and there were over 50,000 at the 1960 final.

Harold Park punters cheer on their favourites in the 3 images above. Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

The paceway’s star was not to shine forever. The heyday of the Red Hots slowly faded as television, clubs, the TAB and poker machines drew the crowds away.

After 120 years, the last race at Harold Park Paceway took place on 17 December 2010. It was the oldest continuously operating paceway track in NSW.

Rozelle Tram Depot

Rozelle Tram Depot flower garden. Credit: Sydney Tramway Museum.

The earliest steam trams to the area started in 1881. They were soon replaced by electric tramcars. In 1904, the Rozelle Tram Depot was built, servicing tram connections to Balmain, and later Leichhardt and Drummoyne.

With the Harold Park Paceway next door, then known as Epping Racecourse, the area was a hub of activity.

Rozelle Tram Depot. Credit: Sydney Tramway Museum.

As city transport demands grew, the depot expanded from housing 96 to 200 tramcars. It was the 2nd largest tram depot in NSW. At its peak in the 1920s, the depot employed 650 staff. Drivers, mechanics, conductors and cleaners helped service one of the largest and most sophisticated tram networks in the world.

Tram and crew leaving Rozelle Tram Depot. Credit: Sydney Tramway Museum.

The work was at times dangerous and a strong camaraderie developed among depot staff. The ‘toastrack’ T or O-class trams had no central aisle and required conductors to scale the outside of the tram balancing on a footboard to collect fares.

One former depot worker, Harry Batterham, recalls marching through Sydney’s streets behind the tramway band to honour tram staff who died at work.

Tram waiting to leave the Rozelle Tram Depot. Credit: Sydney Tramway Museum.

The increase in cars and expansion of the bus network signalled the end for Sydney’s trams, and after 54 years, the Rozelle Depot closed in 1958. Tram services ceased in 1961.

One of Sydney's last tramcars has pride of place in the renovated Rozelle Tramsheds alongside cafes, shops and a new community centre.

Aerial survey of the City of Sydney area showing Harold Park to the left, 1949. Credit: Historic Atlas of Sydney, City of Sydney Archives.

A new space linking parklands and people

Harold Park has continued to change and grow.

In developing the privately-owned site for residential and commercial use, Mirvac was required to dedicate 3.8 hectares for open public space.

The City of Sydney has built a new park that creates a continuous 20.6 hectare green corridor, linking to nearby parks and the Glebe foreshore.

It features a wildlife corridor and an extensive stormwater harvesting and treatment scheme. The system meets 80% of the irrigation needs of Harold Park, Jubilee Oval and the northern end of Federal Park.

It also has a custom-built playground for children to explore.

Harold Park today.

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