In the 1960s, higher education, once the province of a fortunate few, became a rite of passage for many young Australians. But with growing interest, Sydney’s two existing universities rapidly became overwhelmed by enrolments, and creating a third university became paramount. Just where to put it, however, became the subject of great public debate.
Various sites were discussed, including the King’s School site in Parramatta – which would be known as ‘Parramatta University’. The Royal North Shore Hospital also expressed interest in a hosting a university because of what it saw as the inevitable establishment of a Faculty of Medicine.
Eventually, however, 135 acres was set aside in the-then North Ryde Greenbelt, home to poultry farms, orchards and even a firework factory on the corner of Waterloo and Balaclava Roads.
Macquarie’s founding Architect Planner, Walter ‘Wally’ Abraham, surveyed the site in 1964. In his report, he wrote poetically that he found “poultry farms; bare sun-crippled hardwood fences and small forests of tomato stakes; the rise and fall of Waterloo Road into a hazy distance; the slow plod of bowed back and short sleeves behind an iron plough and a white thick limbed horse; and everywhere distance, distance, distance.”
The quiet rural retreat was home to Italian immigrant market gardeners, including the Nati family who produced vegetables and flowers there for almost 20 years. Like other market gardeners, they used fibres from New Zealand flax leaves to tie bundles of flowers and vegetables, and flax plants grown originally by the Natis have been retained in plantings adjoining the central courtyard.
Olive trees and Persimmon trees found around the campus are another part of the legacy left by market gardeners, while other ornamental trees on campus including Pencil Pines, Phoenix Palms and Camphor Laurels date from the time of the second World War.
Another link with the thriving rural community and its ingenuity remains – the stone barn, also known as the ‘Ruin of Mars Creek’, which lies behind the Lighthouse Theatre W11A. It was built during the second World War by local farmer Mr Richetti for his nephew, who had recently arrived from Italy. Later in the War it was found that Richetti’s nephew had been using the barn to operate a still, which was hidden in a hole excavated at the back of the building. The moonshine he produced was consumed by American sailors who would travel from the city to buy it.
When the illicit still was discovered by the authorities, Richetti was fined 500 pounds and his nephew sent to jail for three years. Richetti sold the barn and the land on which it stood, which was later used by the Pietrobon family to grow peaches and carnations, and built another house nearby; it was one of the first to be demolished to make way for the University.
While the dirt roads and paddocks are long gone, and the University grounds almost unrecognisable as a rural hamlet, some of the market gardening families, like the Quadrios, still retain their connection with the site, with their grandchildren studying at Macquarie, and adding their own chapter to the Macquarie story.