Supported by a Create NSW Arts and Cultural Grant
The parsonage has now been gone for longer than it stood on the crown of Parramatta’s southern ridge. A dreary, late twentieth-century block of flats, associated carpark, and a set of traffic lights are the impressive building’s aesthetically displeasing replacements, making its absence from the modern Parramatta cityscape all the more depressing.
Yet, despite having been ‘improved off the face of the earth,’ the significance of the old parsonage is undeniable. As the official residence of the Principal Chaplain, St. John’s Parsonage was the principal seat of religious power in the colony. Thus, in its day, the parsonage was equally as important as Old Government House, Parramatta, a fact clearly articulated by the quintessentially Georgian symmetry of the town design, with the Church represented on one hill and the State on the other. Not only was the parsonage the edifice from which the Principal Chaplain wielded this considerable power and lived so much of his ‘strenuous life,’ though, it was also a place of significance to the Māori who regularly stayed there throughout Samuel Marsden’s time at the parsonage. Had the building survived to this day, it could have been a space for education and reflection on the marked difference between Marsden’s attitudes and policies toward the Māori and Australia’s First Peoples.
If these things were not enough, the parsonage had the honour of being the convict-turned-Colonial Architect Francis Greenway’s ‘first significant work in the colony’ and, as such, the ‘distinction of being the first complete house by a professional architect in Australia.’ Had the parsonage remained, Greenway’s hand in the project would have invisibly tethered the parsonage-house to others associated with the ‘Father of Australian Architecture’ to varying degrees, which are now rightly considered and treated as significant sites, including the World Heritage Listed sites of Old Government House, Parramatta and Hyde Park Barracks in Cadi (Sydney), the National Heritage Listed sites of the Parramatta Female Factory and First Government House in Cadi (Sydney), the State Heritage Listed Supreme Court of New South Wales, present-day Sydney Conservatorium of Music, St. James’s Church, Cadi (Sydney), Cadman’s Cottage at Tallawoladah (The Rocks) in Cadigal Country, and St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Liverpool in Dharug and Dharawal Country, as well as other heritage gems such as the Windsor Court House and St. Matthew’s Church, also at Windsor in Dharug and Darkinjung Country.
From its time as a private Victorian mansion, we gain insight into the projects of two of the noted ‘earliest real estate agents’ and developers, Mills and Pile, and understand how the property continued to be appreciated and utilised by locals as a ‘beauty spot’ and function space for the broader community.
Its scholastic use, too, meant it would have been part of the built heritage of Tara Anglican School for Girls, the place where the great Julian Ashton once taught painting, and the future ‘million dollar mermaid’ Annette Kellermann studied as a young girl prior to blazing a trail to Hollywood. We can only fancy that, had it remained, the parsonage may have even been absorbed back into Tara for some purpose at some stage over the years, and the schoolgirls’ oral tradition of The Cedars’ ghost could have been revived in situ.
Sadly, we have lost far more than the individual heritage site, St. John’s Parsonage: for, with the toppling of that triumvir, the Georgian town plan of Parramatta, which was every bit as worthy of conservation, was also destroyed. The relationship between a number of key colonial buildings, and what this visually communicated regarding the administration of power in the penal colony, was rendered invisible.
All of which makes abundantly clear just how much we have irrevocably lost and serves as a cautionary tale for what we may yet lose. But while we ‘read’ the colonial townscape in Parramatta’s modern cityscape with a Campbellian eye, only to find a crucial page missing from that history, telling the story of St. John’s Parsonage here at least ensures that this lost heritage site’s place in Parramatta’s history, Aboriginal history, Māori history, the colony’s history, and the nation’s religious, social and architectural history cannot be so easily erased by our ‘suicidal policy of obliterating our ancient landmarks.’
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Michaela Ann Cameron, “Lost Landmark: St. John’s Parsonage, Parramatta,” St. John’s Online, (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/about/the-parsonage/lost-landmark/conclusion/, accessed [insert current date].
 For the “strenuous life” reference, see “Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3.
 Alasdair McGregor, A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway, (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2014), ch. 12.
 For the “improved off the face of the earth” and “suicidal policy…etc,” quotations see Frank Walker, “St. John’s Parsonage. To the Editor of the Herald,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Thursday 31 December 1908, p. 11; see also Frank Walker, “The Cedars. Protest from the Historical Society,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 6 January 1909, p. 2.