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Self-guided colonial history bike tour of Parramatta

Alia Parker's picture
Parramatta's Female Orphan School by Joseph Lycett, 1825 (State Library of Victoria)

This 19km bicycle route takes riders past some of the most significant sites of Australia's early colonial history. Starting at Westmead train station, this is a relatively easy and flat loop route to cycle. Cyclists may also start the loop ride at Parramatta Station, or Parramatta Ferry Terminal. If driving, you can park in Parramatta Park and begin there. This route utilises shared cycling and pedestrian paths, bike lanes and low-speed limit roads. As such, riders should be confident cycling on the road.

The bike route

Where: Parramatta, NSW
Distance: 19km
Difficulty: Easy
Surface: Sealed paths and road
Map: Click here to print a map
GPS: Click here to download or follow on Strava

The history

In April 1788, just four months after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, Captain Arthur Phillip led an expedition up the Parramatta River in search of farming land. The tiny colony was facing starvation with their crops failing to grow near the coast, and they desperately needed to find good soil.

The search was a success; the soil that lined the banks of the Parramatta River between modern day Parramatta Stadium and Parramatta Park was rich and convicts were quickly put to work clearing 70 acres of the area then known as Rose Hill to grow grain and graze dairy cows. The colony was saved, and the rest is, well, history.

These days, the region that saved the early British convict colony is called Parramatta after the land's indigenous custodians, the Barramattagal of the Darug nation. While this bike tour focuses on the early buildings of the colonial period, as you ride it is important to acknowledge that the region's history is much more ancient than these relatively 'modern' structures.

The Parramatta River was incredibly important to the Darug, both culturally and as a source of food and water, for more than 30,000 years. In 2002, archaeologists carried out excavations on the site of some demolished factories (now Parramatta's Meriton apartment block) in search of convict-era artefacts. However, what they found was much more significant – layer upon layer of aboriginal camp fires and tools. Indeed, more than 20,000 stone artefacts were unearthed, with carbon dating on the camp fires progressively stepping back in time each time a deeper layer was reached, which the bottom layer dated to 30,735 years, give or take 400 years. That's evidence of over 300 centuries of continuous occupation by a single culture. In that context, Australia's modern colonial history of just over two centuries is a mere blip in time, but it is a blip that transformed the country rapidly.

Old Government House Parramatta.Overlooking the new settlement, Arthur Phillip built a hut, laying the foundations for Government House, which was home to 10 of the colony's first governors – including names such as William Bligh and Lachlan Macquarie. Old Government House can still be seen standing proudly in the park, with a dairy dating back to 1817 nearby.

The colony began to thrive, and in 1796 a gaol was built across the river, followed by a Female Factory in 1818. The old gaol, built on the site of modern day Prince Alfred Square, is long since gone, being replaced by a new sandstone building in 1942. This new gaol, as well as the old Female Factory still stand, with the gaol being used as a correctional facility as late as 2011.

As far as Australia's colonial history is concerned, a lot of 'firsts' happened in Parramatta. In Parramatta Park you can still see the foundations of the country's first observatory; the first cross-country flight in New South Wales landed in Parramatta Park, with William Hart making his historic flight from Penrith to Parramatta in 1911.

Points of interest

1. The Female Factory

1 Fleet Street, Parramatta

The Female Factory (pictured at top) was built between 1818-1821 as a refuge and assignment depot for convict women, but it soon evolved into a prison and an orphanage. About two thirds of the 12,600 convict women sent to Australia are estimated to have passed through the Female Factory doors, with about one in seven Australians descended from these women. As such, it is Australia's most significant historical building linked to the incarceration and institutionalisation of women and children. Despite this, it has struggled to gain listing under the National Heritage Register, with the Australian government only announcing this year that it will be considered. Time is critical as the area is slated for major development. However, heritage protection or not, it sadly appears that this old complex will soon be surrounded by high-rise apartments. The Female Factory has had a few incarnations over the years, becoming a lunatic asylum in 1847, the Parramatta Girl's Home between 1887 and 1974, a detention centre and now part of the Cumberland Hospital.

2. Parramatta Gaol

125 O'Connell St, North Parramatta

Parramatta Gaol.

Parramatta Gaol is recognised as the longest serving gaol in the country. Now a state-listed heritage site, this convict-built gaol was used as a correctional facility as recently as 2011. The sandstone gaol before you opened in 1842 after almost six years of construction, with new additions made over the course of its 169-year active history. In 2015, the site was transferred to the protection of the Deerubbin Aboriginal Land Council. The gaol is currently not open to the public, although tours are run on special occasions. As significant as this gaol is, it was not the first gaol built in Parramatta. The original gaol was a log structure built in 1798 on the site of Prince Alfred Square (you'll cycle past this garden across from St Patrick's Cathedral). It burnt down a year later and was rebuilt in 1802, although none of the original structure remains.

3. St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery

502 Church Street, North Parramatta

This is the oldest Catholic cemetery in Australia with graves dating back to 1822, although the land was not officially granted until 1836. There are a number of convict graves here as well as the graves of children from the orphanage. There are at least 130 orphan children buried here from the early settlement. Many of the people buried here were of Irish descent and from the fringes of society, including deceased from the Female Factory. Australia's oldest mortuary, built 1844, sits near the centre of the cemetery. The graveyard was closed to new burials in 1972.

4. St Patrick's Cathedral

1 Marist Place, Parramatta

St Patricks Cathedral Parramatta.

St Patrick's Parish is considered to be the 'cradle of Catholicism in Australia'. The first Catholic mass in Parramatta was given in 1803, but it was not until 1827 that a church was built with £109.60s in funds raised by local farmers, most of which were former convicts. The church standing before you today has changed somewhat over the years. By 1854 the original church had been rebuilt. The tower and spire were added in the 1880s. The parish eventually outgrew this church and it was enlarged; the tower and spire were left intact, while the body of the church was demolished, the stones cut in half, and rebuilt to look very similar to the first, although larger. Sadly, this church was destroyed by fire in 1996, with only the stone structure remaining. However, after years of fund raising, the church was restored with a larger, modern cathedral attached. It makes for quite a unique sight from inside. Now known as St Patrick's Cathedral, it is the base for the Catholic church in the diocese of Parramatta, which extends from Rydalmere to Blackheath.

5. Parramatta Heritage Centre

346A Church Street Parramatta

There is a lot more history to Parramatta than contained in this bike tour, so you may like to pop into the Parramatta Heritage Centre to learn a little more. It's open every day except Good Friday and Christmas Day. Opening hours are between 9am to 5pm every day, or between 10am and 4pm on public holidays.

6. Lennox Bridge

Crossing Parramatta River on Church St

This sandstone arch bridge is the third oldest surviving masonry bridge in NSW after Wisemans Ferry (1829-30) and Lennox Bridge in Glenbrook (1833). Built by convicts between 1836 to 1839 under the supervision of David Lennox, who held the wonderful position of being the first Colonial Superintendent of Bridges, the bridge continues to carry traffic across one of Parramatta's main streets today. The Lennox Bridge is the third bridge to have been built on this site, with a wooden footbridge (the earliest documented crossing of the Parramatta River) built in the early settlement before being swept away by a flood in 1795. A second bridge – Gaol Bridge – was built on stone piers with timber railings between 1802 and 1804.

Lennox Bridge, Parramatta around 1836-39The Lennox Bridge has been renovated a few times over its history, firstly in 1885 when the upstream wall was removed and pushed out to widen the bridge, with the present railing built at the same time; then in 1901, it was strengthened internally to carry the weight of the Castle Hill Tramway (yes, public transport was once quite advanced in Sydney!); a cantilevered pedestrian way was added to the side of the bridge in 1912, then removed in 1934 to again widen the bridge at which time the curved western-face of the bridge was straightened. Most recently, and controversially due to its heritage value, two pedestrian and cycleway tunnels were cut into each side of the bridge in 2012. You'll ride through one now on your way up the Parramatta River. Interestingly, the archeological excavations that took place during the works unearthed the sandstone pier and timber grinders of the second bridge.

7. Female Orphan School

Corner James Ruse Drive and Victoria Road, Rydalmere

The Female Orphan School standing tall on the hill above the Parramatta River would have been an imposing sight to the young girls arriving here by boat, and also to a number of Aboriginal children who were sent here. Not all the children sent here were orphans, and in the case of the European children, it was often because their parents or parent was impoverished and unable to care for them. Construction here started in 1813 and after some delays – which Reverend Samuel Marsden blamed on drunken and disorderly workers – the school opened in 1818. It is the oldest three-storey building in Australia. Records show there were 60 girls living here in 1821, jumping to 170 by 1834. All children were required to leave by the time they were 13-years-old, at which point they were sent out into the world being able to “read the Bible, write tolerably well and correctly, and work the simple rules of Arithmetic, as well as be competent to make Gowns, Shirts, etc. and perform other domestic duties”. Many of the girls went on to become servants in wealthy households, while some with families were allowed home. Promising girls went on to become teachers at the school. In 1850, the school was enlarged to also accommodate boys and became the Protestant Orphan School. It was closed in 1886 and reopened two years later as a psychiatric hospital, which operated until 1980. You can visit the Margaret Whitlam Galleries here and see a modest representation of the building's history at the Information Centre.

8. Hambledon Cottage

63 Hassall Street, Parramatta

Hambledon Cottage was built by John Macarthur in 1824 as a second house on his Elizabeth Farm Estate. The Colonial Georgian-style cottage was named after the township of Hambledon in Hampshire, England. You can visit this cottage, which has been re-created with c1800 period furnishing, from Thursday to Sunday between 11am and 4pm.

9. Elizabeth Farm

70 Alice Street, Rosehill

Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta

Built by John and Elizabeth Macarthur in 1793, Elizabeth Farm is Australia's oldest building. Restored with an 1830s garden – containing the country's oldest European olive tree – the farm now operates as a hands-on museum that gives visitors a taste of early colonial life, and even a traditional devonshire tea on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It may be hard to picture it now, but this farm is the birthplace of the Australian wool industry. Macarthur, an agricultural pioneer, has had his name ingrained in modern Australia, with streets and regions named in his honour. Macarthur arrived in Australia in 1790 as a lieutenant and was appointed to the key role of commandant of Parramatta. In 1794, he was granted 100 acres of land at Rose Hill, which he developed into Elizabeth Farm.

10. Experiment Farm

9 Ruse Street, Harris Park

The cottage at Experiment Farm marks the site of the first land-grant in Australia, in which Governor Arthur Phillip handed over 30 acres to former convict James Ruse in 1789. Ruse set about farming the land as an 'experiment in self-sufficiency', which showed that a new settler could feed and shelter his family with little government assistance. It is believed the Indian-style bungalow here was built by 1835. Guided tours are available on Wednesday through to Sunday between 10.30am and 3pm.

11. Lancer Barracks

2 Smith Street, Parramatta

Built under Governor Macquarie's orders between 1818 and 1820, Lancer Barracks is the oldest continuously used military barracks on mainland Australia. Designed to accommodate about 100 officers and men, British regiments were stationed here in the early colony. It is believed some of the men stationed here would have served under Wellington during the Napoleonic wars. Lancer Barracks and the attached museum can be visited on Sundays.

12. St John's Cathedral

195 Church Street, Parramatta

St John's Cathedral, Parramatta.St Johns was declared an Anglican parish by Governor King in 1802, making this site the longest continuous place of worship in Australia's colonial history. Parramatta's first church – fashioned from two slab huts – initially stood on the corner of George and Marsden Streets prior to construction of the first purpose-built church beginning at this site in 1799. Two twin towers were added to the church in 1818. These towers are the only part of the original church remaining today. As the church fell into disrepair, it was demolished and rebuilt between the towers in 1855. The church was then expanded in 1882. There are some notable items in this church, including the Thwaites and Reed clock in the northern tower, which was one of five public clocks gifted from England in 1821; the pipe organ transported from England in 1862, a Geneva Bible dating back to 1599 and a font gifted by the Maori people on account of Marsden's seven missionary trips to New Zealand.

13. St John's Cemetery

1 O'Connell Street, Parramatta

St John's is the first European cemetery in Australia and as such, a number of significant people are buried here. It was established on what was then the outskirts of Parramatta as a graveyard for all denominations. James Magee, child of a convict, was the first to be buried in the cemetery in an unmarked grave on 31 January 1790. The cemetery also has the country's oldest marked gravestone, that belonging to Henry Dodd, the superintendent of convicts at Government Farm, who died on 28 January 1791. Here you will also find the grave of the ever influential Reverend Samuel Marsden, and many whose names remain as suburbs, such as D'Arcy Wentworth of Wentworthville, John Harris of Harris Park, some of the Blaxland family, Mary Kelly of Kellyville, Mary Pymble of Pymble and John Thorn of Thornleigh. Also here are seventeen marked graves of those who arrived on the First Fleet.

The Dairy Cottage, Parramatta Park.

14. The Dairy Cottage

Parramatta Park

This important building was build between 1798 and 1805 by ex-convict turned cattle man, George Slater. When Slater was posted as overseer of cattle in Hobart in 1815, his 30 acre land grant, including his cottage, were absorbed into the Governor Macquarie's domain and the cottage was enlarged and turned into a dairy. It is the oldest example of a work-a-day building in Australia.

15. Old Government House

Parramatta Park

Old Government House is Australia's oldest surviving public building and a UNESCO heritage-listed site. This building was the 'country' residence for 10 of the colony's governors for a period of 70 years. Transformed from a hut built on this site by Arthur Phillip in the first years of the settlement, the central part of the building seen today was completed by Governor John Hunter in 1799. Significant extensions were made under in 1815 the watch of Governor and Lady Macquarie, who resided here between 1810 and 1821 and are said to have preferred the clean air and space of rural Parramatta to the dirty and dangerous streets of Old Sydney Town. Old Government House has been restored, with the interior furnishings and decorations to resembling what the house would have looked like under Mrs Macquarie's care in 1821. Interestingly, there is evidence of Aboriginal history in Old Government House, with shells from nearby middens used to strengthen the building's mortar. Throughout Parramatta Park, numerous trees also display evidence of both stripped bark and the indigenous land-management practice of burning old bushland to encourage fresh growth. Guided tours of Old Government House are available Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am – 4pm (last admission 3.30pm). There is also a restaurant here – Lachlan's Restaurant – open for lunch seven days a week, and for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.


Images from top: 1. The Female Orphan School in 1825 by Joseph Lycett. Source: State Library. 2. Map of the bicycle route. 3. Old Government House, Parramatta Park. 3. Parramatta Gaol by Adam.J.W.C. via Commons. 4. St Patrick's Cathedral by sv1ambo via Commons. 5. Lennox Bridge on the Parramatta River c1936-39. Source: Parramatta Heritage Centre. 6. St John's Cathedral by Sardaka via Commons. 7. The Dairy Cottage. Source: Discover Parramatta.

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