New exhibition explores the history of Parramatta River

The River: Burramatta to Cockatoo is an exciting new exhibition at Old Government House exploring stories relating to the Parramatta River, from the significance of the area to the Dharug people to its role in feeding a starving colony and a campaign aiming to make its waters swimmable again.


The Parramatta River winds its way from its source just north of Parramatta, through the heart of Sydney, to the harbour at Cockatoo Island. For thousands of years, it has been a source of food, transport and recreation.

The new exhibition at Old Government House explores our connections to the river by focusing on its importance to the Dharug people, how it shaped the growth of the city that has grown along it, and how we can work together to revitalise the river and ensure its health for years to come.

Geologically, the Parramatta River is a drowned river valley that filled as the seas rose at the end of the last ice age some 25,000 years ago. It forms at the confluence of Darling Mills Creek and Toongabbie Creek, 1.5 kilometres from Old Government House.

Its mouth is 22 kilometres downstream, where Longnose Point and Manns Point stretch into the harbour. Along the way, the Parramatta River encompasses mudflats, mangroves, saltmarsh, cliffs, sandy beaches and rock platforms, all of which have been dramatically altered over the past 200 years by industry, pollution and development.

Parramatta River
Little Coogee was a popular swimming spot on the river near Parramatta Park as far back as the 1880s. Image c.1920, courtesy Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands Trust.

Old Government House has an intrinsic connection with the river. The house looks across to Government Farm, which was established to save the starving colony using the reliable fresh water and open grassy areas of its upper reaches. Governor Phillip planned the township of Parramatta along the river, with the landing place for boats a mile from the farm site. The river went on to play an important role in the expansion of the colony, providing water for the farms established on land grants and a natural transport route for the produce they grew.

One colonial house that will feature in the exhibition is The Vineyard, originally built by John Verge for Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur in the 1830s. Heavy losses in the 1840s depression forced Macarthur to sell the estate in 1848, and it was purchased by the Catholic Church and renamed Subiaco.

By the 1950s land in the Rydalmere area had been zoned for industrial use, and Subiaco was surrounded by factories. The house and remaining land were sold to the Rheem Corporation. Despite strong advocacy from the National Trust and other organisations, the building was demolished in 1961 to make way for a car park.

The National Trust was given a number of architectural pieces from the demolished structure, some of which will be on display in the exhibition, along with artworks reflecting the changing landscape of the site. The industrial zoning of the river in the Rydalmere and Silverwater area added pollutants to the river, making the once clear water unsafe for swimming or fishing.

Changes in land use also led to the encroachment of mangroves into new areas, outcompeting the saltmarsh that originally grew in many places. In the early years of settlement, river crossings for people and vehicles were urgently needed. The initial foot crossings were all at Parramatta where the water level was lowest. In the 1830s, river punts were set up for crossings, with the first at Bedlam Point where it connected the two halves of the Great North Road.

Passengers often had to assist with the punt’s operation, and there were problems with weather and broken cables. Today a punt still operates between Mortlake and Putney. It was established in 1928 by the Australian Gas Light Company to transport workers from their homes on the north side of the river to the gasworks at Mortlake, saving a long trip around via Gladesville or Parramatta prior to Ryde Bridge being built.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the National Trust joined with other organisations seeking rehabilitation of the river. They called for the clean-up of foreshore parks, a reduction of pollution entering the river and recreation activities along its banks.

Lake Parramatta
Lake Parramatta today. The heritage-listed reservoir and recreational area located on Hunts Creek opened for swimming in 2015 Image: City of Parramatta.

Today there is a renewed push by the Parramatta River Catchment Group to reinstate swimmable areas in the river, with four sites already operational and more to come. Visitors to the exhibition will be given the opportunity to lend their voice to this campaign, as well as exploring the lighter side of the river – the rowing contests, swimming and leisure pursuits that have helped connect generations of people to this vital waterway.


This exhibition has now finished. The River: Burramatta to Cockatoo ran from 4 March to 26 November 2023 at Old Government House in Parramatta. Learn more about Old Government House and see What’s On.


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