We all love to hate Parramatta Road. With its traffic jams, car horns and unshifting smog, just invoking its name is enough to give anyone a headache. The 23-kilometre motorway has famously been dubbed Sydney’s “varicose vein”, an ugly cluster of activity that flares to breaking point at peak hour. Cars swerve, drivers curse out open windows, crowds of impatient commuters push their way onto already packed buses, making the simple act of getting home more like a contact sport. But, there is no denying that this chaotic stretch of road holds a special place in our hearts. Like many Sydneysiders, Parramatta Road has been a recurring motif in our lives. We remember childhood music lessons as we pass through Leichhardt on the 413. We remember our first summer jobs at Kidstuff as we pull up at a stop in Camperdown. We remember learning to drive as we lurch over another pot-hole. It’s time we give Parramatta Road a second chance. Let us look beyond the traffic and the smog for a moment to reconsider just a small piece of its much larger “hidden” history.
The Parramatta Road that we now traverse most mornings was built over a trading path that was used by the Gadigal, Wanagl, and Wallumettagal peoples of the Eora Nation and the Burramattagal people of the Darug Nation. Following the low lying ridges of the area, this path was instrumental in trading resources and also communication between these groups. Yet, little remembrance of the Aboriginal origins of Parramatta Road are present today, highlighting the Eurocentric ways we remember our history.
Parramatta Road was officially opened in 1811, but its history as a colonial “road” really began shortly after British invasion in 1788. Parramatta Road began as a three metre wide track that was carved by convicts between 1789 and 1791 to link the settlements of Sydney Town and Parramatta. This track was later widened in 1794 to make way for carriages. Many reports from the early 19th-century indicate that the road was often unkept and in constant need of repair. Nevertheless, for the early Sydney colony, the road was a vital means of opening the supply chain between Sydney Town and the inland Parramatta settlement. In this way, the road was the first road in Australia to connect two cities; although hard to imagine today, Sydney Town and Parramatta were once two distinct areas.
We can get a glimpse of the early life of Parramatta Road from the words of early coloniser, Harriet Blaxland, who in 1807 wrote:
“My earliest memory of the colony commenced with a journey of 15 miles from Sydney to Parramatta. The road — a cart track only the width of the wheels, the wild natural forest almost closing overhead, still and silent as it was — can never be forgotten.”
It is true that these early days of Parramatta Road will “never be forgotten”; remnants of these early colonial days can still be found just around the corner from Sydney University. If you happen to have an hour off between classes, head over to the University Hall building on the corner of Parramatta Road and Glebe Point Road. Here, you can find the remnant of an original “Boundary Stone” that marked the boundary of early Sydney Town, probably put in during the 1820s under Governor Macquaire. It seems amazing to think just how many individuals have travelled past this remnant of Sydney’s colonial history; Parramatta Road is indeed a physical coalescence of history and the present.
All along Parramatta Road we can find instances of this melding between past and present. One such site is Battle Bridge, a sandstone historical site that has been built over, literally, by the modern day — in other words, concrete. The name “Battle Bridge” itself holds clues as to the history of the Parramatta Road area. According to the Ashfield Historical Society’s Felicity Barry in the Society’s publication, Along Parramatta Road, a “plausible explanation [to this name] appears to be that boxing matches were held in this area.” Located on the border of Summer Hill and Lewisham (just underneath the Taverners Hill light rail station), Battle Bridge has acted as a bridge to cross Long Cove Creek, what is now Hawthorne Canal, since the early 1800s.
In the first half of the 19th-century, the bridge was built out of timber and sticks, following much of the colonial city’s architecture. However, by 1865, the section of the Parramatta Road at Taverner’s Hill was in “notoriously bad [condition]” and “needed ballasting and metalling,” as the Department of Public Works scathingly noted. Thus, in 1873, the bridge relinquished its timber frame in turn for a sandstone one, a necessity for a bridge that possessed “holes through which a man might easily disappear,” as one brave traveller noted in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. Between 1922 and 1923, Battle Bridge was widened with steel-beam and brick to accommodate for the advent of the motorcar. Unfortunately, modern-day concrete ensued and the original bridge remains hidden in view to the many commuters who charge down the hill on the 461X. Yet, if you look closely, you can still see the original wall of the bridge next to the footpath on Parramatta Road, signifying that history is still, for the moment, present.
The Peek Frean Factory Building
While many today know this site as the Ashfield Bunnings or the indicator that one must “turn off onto that street that gets me off Parramatta Road,” the bright Bunnings-coloured clock tower has a rich history that stems beyond the hardware conglomerate. Built in 1936, the distinctive clock tower was originally constructed to house the Australian wing of Peek Frean & Company, a British biscuit business. The factory was initially housed in what is now Sydney University’s Faculty of Nursing on Mallet Street. Yet, in 1935, the owners of Peek Frean endeavoured to expand their biscuit bounty, purchasing a large plot of land on the intersection of Frederick Street and Parramatta Road. Construction for the factory was rapid and laborious, with the purchased land having to be levelled before construction could begin.
The factory opened in 1937, with the clock tower added in 1943. Peek Frean & Company operated the biscuit factory, or what became known as the Vita-Wheat building, on this site from 1937 until 1975 when the company was taken over by Arnotts. The latter continued to make their biscuits products here until 1993. Bunnings have operated on this site since 2001. Like many sites — or sights — along Parramatta Road, the Peek Frean factory building reminds us that history is everyone along this strip of shops, car dealerships, and bus routes. Perhaps next time you venture to Bunnings, see if you can smell the wisps of Vita-Wheats amongst the hammers and magnetic hooks.
The Olympia Milk Bar
Today, 190 Parramatta Road in Stanmore is just another vacant shop. The windows are plastered with newspaper, the old swing sign is cracked and fading. But, for over fifty years, this shop served as the infamous Olympia Milk Bar. The Olympia first opened in 1939 next door to the Olympia De Luxe Theatre. Through wide concertina doors, film-goers would spill from the cinema into the milk bar, jostling amicably for space at the bench. Here, they would sip milkshakes and unwrap colourful chocolates, still lost in a Hollywood fantasy beneath the gold lights that sparkled from the art-deco mirrors on the wall. In the 1960’s, the cinema transformed into a skating rink and The Olympia was filled with a new, but equally enthusiastic, clientele. By the 1980’s, when the skate rink had changed again into Stanmore Twin Cinemas, milk bars had already begun to lose their initial novelty. The steady stream of customers that The Olympia once enjoyed dwindled. Eventually, the lights were switched off. Dust settled on the shelves. The bright posters of Streets Ice-Cream and Cadbury’s Chocolate faded. In 2017, the shop was closed, and for the first time in sixty years, is now for sale.
Of course, we could go on. After all, Parramatta Road is 23 kilometres! There’s the abundant array of weird — or “specialty” — stores, iconic watering holes, and of course the infamous Staccas, which has a whole “hidden” history of its own. Perhaps we’ll save it for our next article. Parramatta Road and its secrets remind us that, when we look beyond the stained windows of our morning 413 or past the grittiness of the road’s concrete skin, a hidden world where past and present coalesce is all around us.