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The past as a palimpsest: An express history of Sydney’s Central Railway Station

From a tin shed to the largest station in the Southern Hemisphere, Central has a long, winding history.

Sydney is a palimpsest — a city whose foundations have been continually built upon, and whose past edifices are commonly covered over with new, modern faces of cement, sandstone, and brick. In every corner of our city there is an indelible facet of history, yet many of Sydney’s streetscapes look very different from 10 years ago.

No location or site in Sydney better exemplifies the fragmented and multilayered nature of our city than Central Station. Now the largest train station in the Southern Hemisphere, the station has undergone significant transformations to its façade since it was first built in 1850 in Haymarket, where it still resides. The land upon which Central stands is Gadigal Land and was a meeting place for Sydney’s Aboriginal peoples for tens of thousands of years prior to colonisation. During the 19th-century, the site rapidly became a cemetery for the European colony, which operated on the south-eastern side of the current Central Station until 1901, when the land was taken over to make the Grand Concourse. Over the years, the original role of Central’s land as a culturally significant location for the Gadigal people has been decimated by colonisation; instead, it now functions as a gathering place for both the city of Sydney and Australia’s population more broadly. 

Despite the apparent banality of Central Station for many of us, the question remains: how have sites like it — sites that we commonly take for granted or even feel indifferent to today —  shaped our present home? 

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Eora is the name given to the nation which the Gadigal people belong to. However, according to scholars Dennis Foley and Peter Read in their work What the Colonists Never Knew (2020), there is actually no such thing as the Eora Nation; rather, Eora is a European construct that combines the different Aboriginal groups of the Parramatta River catchment. There is archaeological evidence of a pre-colonial Gadigal open campsite on what is now Broadway, a kilometre west of Central Station, right next to the University of Sydney. Foley and Read also note in their book that the area around Central “was once a mature angophora forest…it was another funeral forest…where all the bones of the dead were deposited after cremation.” This perspective grants us a rich insight into the land’s history pre-1788. Sadly, there remains little commemoration of this history amongst the Eurocentric plaques and statues around Central, highlighting the omissions in what is remembered of Sydney’s history. 

Following European invasion, Prince Alfred Park next to Central Station was a campsite for Aboriginal peoples during the early 19th-century. Also known as the Cleveland Paddocks, this site was home to a large component of Sydney’s Aboriginal population as they fled their land around Sydney Cove due to the violence and dispossession engendered by European colonisation. This is a reality we must remember when examining any element of Sydney’s history. The Cleveland Paddocks were used by many of Sydney’s Aboriginal peoples as a campsite until the mid-1850s with the commencement of Central Railway Station’s construction. This construction transformed Sydney from a city of disparate settlements to one of connectedness, and has become a major part of the Sydney experience since. 

Since it was built on its current site between Haymarket and Surry Hills in 1855, Central Railway Station has been a ‘central’ hub for travellers despite transformations to its design. By the 1850s, the ramifications of the Industrial Revolution were being keenly felt in Australia. Importantly, the railway line was a major industrial development that not only accelerated the urbanisation of metropolitan areas but made it easier for people to travel and move goods between rural and regional Australia. The railway system was also a major employment source for both the working and middle-class populations, furthering migration to the Sydney metro area. Thus, the construction of a central railway station was viewed as a necessity to not only aid in this metropolitan development but also as a means of heightening Sydney’s importance as a major trading hub. It’s all in the name. 

It seems strange to imagine today, but in the mid-1850s, Central consisted of one wooden platform in a corrugated iron shed. Though additional railway sheds were added to the site in 1856, it became clear by the early 1870s that the station was unsuitable to meet the demands of the colony’s rapidly growing population, which had expanded by over thirty-five thousand in just two years between 1870 and 1872. To meet the growing population demand, a second terminal, as exhibited in Figure 1, was subsequently built at Central Station in 1874.  

Figure 1: A view of Central Station’s second terminal, c. 1879. This image is taken from the eastern side of the station, which was known as the ‘Departure Side.’ This terminal was added to meet the changing needs of the city as its population rapidly grew throughout the 1870s.

However, by the 1890s this addition still could not cater to the city’s ever-growing number of inhabitants. Throughout the year 1899 alone, the station’s mere two terminals were catering to twenty-five million passengers. Subsequently, a 15-platform station was approved for construction in 1900, using the latest industrial technologies of steel framing and concrete to build the site. Today, this design is known as the Grand Concourse. This edifice’s ‘grandness,’ as realised in Figure 2, highlights the effort behind the station’s construction, hence suggesting its ‘central’ importance to Sydney at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Figure 2: The interior of the Grand Concourse, c. 1906. In this source, we can realise the ‘grandness’ of the station’s architecture. We can thus infer its importance to Sydney in the early 1900s.

Around 1901, several buildings were destroyed to accommodate the Grand Concourse, emphasising the nature of Central’s history as a palimpsest. For example, the original site of the Sydney Female Refuge was cleared for the railway building’s creation. The refuge was established in 1848 to provide shelter and support to both women escaping prositution and unmarried pregnant women, or, as Sydney’s Empire magazine expounded in 1860, for the “reformation and benefit of [society’s] fellow-creatures.” The refuge’s demolition to make way for the railway station’s expansion was keenly felt by the hundreds of women who had used its services. Thankfully, however, the refuge was relocated to another site in St Peters, where it continued to provide support for women until 1925. Thus, change has been a constant feature of the land on which Central Station stands. Indeed, the Grand Concourse is undergoing an extensive renovation right now, set to open in mid-2022. 

Central has not just been a meeting place for the living. On the land bound by Elizabeth, Pitt, and Devonshire streets — now the Southern side of the Grand Concourse — stood the Devonshire Street Cemetery. According to historian Elise Edmonds, curator of the 2019 State Library of NSW’s ‘Dead Central’ exhibition which explored the history of this cemetery: 

“[The Devonshire Street] cemetery opened in 1820, but the city’s major burial ground filled up quickly in the decades following, only to become overgrown and abandoned. In January 1901, when the state government announced its intention to clear the cemetery, well over 30,000 bodies were buried there.” (State Library NSW website, 2019). 

Indeed, Figure 3 demonstrates the extent of the ‘over 30,000’ deceased people buried on the site of Central, with contemporary Sydneysiders continuing to discover the remains of the entombed. For example, during the construction of the Sydney Metro rail line in the mid-2010s, builders found human remains and 19th-century burial structures, such as brick vaults and crypts, when excavating around platform thirteen. They had to stop unearthing these areas so they could be archaeologically inspected, with Sydney’s multilevel history exposed to the world.  

Figure 3: An image of the Devonshire Street cemetery, c. 1885. Here, we can see the extent of the numbers of those buried on the site of Central Station, enhancing our viewpoint as to what constitutes a gathering place.

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Next time you hop on a train at Central Station, take a moment to pause and consider the pockets of past people and places that have existed around you. When we open our eyes to the possibility of probing Sydney’s more unknown histories, we quickly realise that the places we commonly take for granted, like Central, can be rich sites of discovery. Ultimately, to better comprehend our city’s past is to better comprehend our place within Sydney, and how we may represent it as our home in the future.