In January 1788 the First Fleet arrived into Sydney from the UK. It brought with it Australia’s first European, mostly convict, settlers who came ashore here at Macquarie Place, now a little further back from the harbour than it was in 1788, due to land reclamation in the intervening years. It was from here that these early settlers set out to explore and settle Australia so it was rather fitting that distances of places from Sydney be measured from here.
This rather ornate Greek revival style obelisk (Georgian rather than Egyptian) records, in blackened lettering (a technique commonly used on tombstones and monuments in the Georgian period) the distances of various places along the colony’s earliest roads which started from here, the geographic and symbolic centre of the colony of New South Wales and the main town square for Sydney itself.
The Macquarie Obelisk, named after Governor Macquarie like the small park, was designed by Frances Greenway, New South Wales Government Architect and a convict transported for forgery. It was built in 1818 by stonemason, Edward Cureton, assisted by convict labour.
The obelisk’s inscriptions record the extent of the road network in 1818. It is interesting to note the inclusion of Parramatta and Liverpool at 15.5 and 20 miles distance respectively. Both these are now suburbs of Sydney but in 1818 they would have been a days trip from Macquarie Place. Equally interesting is that in 1818 the colony of New South Wales appeared on maps as covering two thirds of the continent (basically everything excluding today’s Western Australia – then New Holland) though it was actually only penetrated by road to a distance of 137 miles – albeit a hundred miles further than when Macquarie became Governor in 1809.
Alas, at least for him, this simple obelisk marked the beginning of the downfall of Governor Macquarie.
His Majesty’s Government in London, aware of Macquarie’s plans for a city of grand Georgian buildings, made it known that it was not amused at the Governor’s ‘extravagance’ in erecting this obelisk in what it saw as a penal colony – a mere dumping ground for petty and not so petty criminals and somewhere no-one would want to go of their own free will. Governor Macquarie indignantly defended the expense of the monument as a “little unadorned Obelisk…rendered at a trifling expense, somewhat ornamental to the Town” which in his view did not “merit any censure.”
In the end this difference of opinion lead the demise of Governor Macquarie though he did have to tender his resignation three times before it was accepted by his masters in London.
In 1954 Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, recalling this place as the point from which settlers embarked on their exploration of Australia, marked Macquarie Place as the beginning of the Remembrance Driveway, a road linking Sydney and the capital, Canberra – not by an inscription on the obelisk but rather by the planting of two (now massive) plane trees in the park.
Address: Macquarie Place