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Old Sydney Town

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Theme park in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Old Sydney Town was an Australian open-air museum and theme park which operated from 1975 until 2003 in Somersby on the New South Wales Central Coast. Once a living tribute to the early years of Sydney’s colonial settlement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was complete with historical reenactments and authentic construction methods. The site is now used as a location for film and television production. It borders the Australian Reptile Park.

Robert Hughes, author of The Fatal Shore called the site “the only theme park in the world devoted to punishment and repression.”

During its lifetime, the park had 6 million visitors.[1]



Old Sydney Town was initially developed by architect Frank Fox after he was inspired by a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, in the United States[2]. While Fox had originally set out to create an Australian Disney Land, his experience at Williamsburg and the terrain of his Somersby site inspired him to recreate Sydney Cove in 1810.

Fox and his family spent four years researching the pre-Macquarie period for the site[3]. Initial preparations saw the site’s creek dammed to create a makeshift Sydney Cove.[4]

Robert Irving, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) headed up the site’s permanent four person research team, and assigned his 1972 first year architecture cohort with designing and erecting the site’s first buildings as a mandatory component of their studies.[5]Students had to pay for their accomodation and were required to stay on the site for two weeks of practical work without compensation. The UNSW Student Union Council condemned the Faculty of Architecture for it’s use of unpaid labour for a commercial enterprise[6].

Initial plans were for development of the site’s 80 planned structures to continue into the park’s operation,[7] with historically accurate construction techniques becoming part of the attraction.[8] At Old Sydney Town’s peak, it employed a range of specialised tradespeople like a thatcher, blacksmith and shipwright, to help the maintain the site’s authenticity. It was also home to the only mechanical shingle maker in Australia.

Two boats were converted to be period replicas for the site; one of the first Brig built in Sydney, the Perseverance and the HMS Lady Nelson (1798)[9].

The Australian Government announced it would purchase a 25.5% equity in Old Sydney Town on 22nd April, 1974. They joined Frank R. Fox’s Developments and Bank of New South Wales (Westpac) as investors in the attraction. Frank Stewart, Minister for Tourism and Recreation, stated the venture would be “a focal point for recreation and learning about Australia’s past”.[10]


The park began admission on the 27th of November 1974, before being officially opened on 26 January 1975, by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.[11][12].

Upon entry visitors would walk through a tunnel that would ‘transport’ them back to the past. In addition to the site’s colonial buildings, staff members were dressed in period-accurate costumes and depicted of soldiers, convicts, teachers, villagers, shop attendants and town criers. Several staff were assigned the roles of colonial figures like Samuel Marsden[13], Lt. William Dawes[14] and Elizabeth Rafferty.[15]

Activities included historical re-enactments like convicts being flogged and thrown in the stocks, pistol duels and a convict rebellion. People were invited to partake in feeding farm animal, bullock rides, and interactive classrooms. Visitors could purchase handmade goods from the tinsmith, leathermaker, potter and the candlestickmaker[16]. On occaision Bush dances would be held in the site’s wool shed. The park’s program was particularly popular amongst families and schools.

In November 1975, the Federal Government approved a $200,000 loan to the site to allow it’s operations to continue until after the December Federal Election. This increased the Government’s loans to the park to $1.9 million. The Whitlam Government expressed concern for the project’s management and stated it was “grossly undercapitalised”. While Whitlam had earlier sought to invest $3.5m into the site over 3 years, expanding the government’s equity share to nearly 75%, negotiations faltered and Fox Developments had withdrawn from the restructuring agreement.[17].

A review of the Government’s financial stake in the site by the newly elected Fraser government in March 1976, opted to ask the NSW Wran state government to take over the Government’s investment in the project.[18] None of the currently investing parties were willing to give the park more funds and admissions were unable to generate enough income to cover the site’s debts. The Government suspected the site would never be sufficiently profitable to make a return on loans and the best continued approach would be a trust or foundation arrangement. The NSW Government took over the federal government’s ownership share shortly after and purchased Frank R Fox’s Developments 49% shareholding in the site, increasing their stake to 75%. [19]

The NSW Firearms and Dangerous Weapons Act Regulations was amended in 1977 to allow entertainment officers of Old Sydney Town to possess replica pistols.[20]

In 1983, the NSW Government approved an emergency interim funding grant to prevent the closure of the site. The cash-strapped park was faced with having to immediately fire 27 maintenance and repair staff to reduce operating costs.[21]

In 1984, the NSW Government advertised the opportunity to lease the site in hopes of developing the site’s unused land into an entertainment park and tourist accommodation[22]. During a bid to lease out the site in 1986, the NSW Government revealed the site had bled $6 million over the previous 10 years, at a rate of up to $800,000 a year[23].

An agreement was finally reached with Warwick Amusements, a subsidiary of Warwick Hotels and Resorts, in 1987 for an 80-year lease. The company would take over operations of Old Sydney Town and outlined a three-phase plan for the site that included a renovation of old Sydney Town, an 18-hole golf course, a theme park and a low-rise international hotel[24].

In 1994, The Eastern Seaboard Fires destroyed the site’s wheel making and carriage workshop. Mike Hendrickson, who operated the workshop, said the biggest losses were his tools and a prized horse-drawn double-decker bus they had been rebuilding.[25] The vehicle had been the last of it’s kind. The site remained closed for a week after the fires but no other major damage was reported.

In 1998, NSW’s Work Safety Authority fined the site $35,000 after three workers suffered burns and lacerations in a cannon firing accident.[26] No written safety instructions were given to the actors and they only had two days to learn the firing procedure[27].

Warwick Amusement purchased the site for $2.6 million from the NSW Government in 2000 [28]. State MP Arthur Chesterfield-Evans opposed the privatisation and accused Warwick Amusements of running down the site to reduce the sales price[29]. Chesterfield-Evans said “The Government shouldn’t have a problem with managing a theme park on Australian history. The National Trust could have done it.”[30] Visitors were concerned the park’s boats were sinking and thought the buildings were in desperate need of repair. Warwick Amusements general manager, Paul Kiley, defended the site saying “It’s meant to be buildings and constructions from the 1788-1810 period, so it’s not Disneyland.”[31]

Robert Hughes featured Old Sydney Town in his documentary Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (2000).[32]. The segment gave an insight into the performers of the site and what drew them to the experience. Hughes called the site “the only theme park in the world devoted to punishment and repression.”

The park permanently closed on January 3, 2003. Warwick Amusement had allegedly lost $1.4 million on the site since it was purchased outright in 2000. [33] While Warwick Amusement partly blamed the park’s closure on a lack of youth engagement with the site due to temptations of new technologies,[34] employees complained about minimal maintenance and lack of marketing[35]. Former MP Barry Cohen, called for an inquiry into the conditions of lease and sale of the site as Warwick Amusement had never progressed with their three-phase development plan[36].


In February 2012 residents of the Central Coast formed a committee to re-open the park.[37][38]

In February 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported that the family of Frank Fox (Michael and Peter Fox) were in negotiations with the current lease holders about reviving the town.[39]

In the early hours of 20 February 2014, fire claimed Heritage Hall (the entrance and reception complex), on site and a significant part of the artefacts and documentation stored therein were lost.[40][41]

The park was sold in May 2018 to World Cultural Tourism Village. Proposed plans for the site include tourism, residential and environmental conservation areas alongside a smaller refurbished old Sydney Town.

The site was heritage listed by the National Trust of Australia in 2019.[42]

Park layout and attractions[edit]

The Red Coats in action

The town was set out according to James Meehan’s map of Sydney in 1803 and consisted of over 30 authentically reconstructed buildings.[43]

Activities and Re-enactments[edit]

  • Soldiers on parade[44]
  • Thundering cannons
  • Pistol and sabre duels
  • Convict rebellion
  • Public Floggings
  • Magistrate’s court
  • Convict punishment
  • Bullock rides, horse-drawn wagons
  • Craft stores
  • Kiosk, tea shop, barbecue facilities
  • Storming of the brig Perserverance
  • Timber Task Works
  • Animal feeding
  • Bush dances
  • Noonday Fair
  • Convict Weddings[45]
  • Minstrel Shows

Sites and Buildings[edit]

The site featured a range of historical buildings, that included but was not limited to[46]:

  • “Sydney Cove” – a recreation of Sydney Harbour
  • Parade Ground
  • Tea Shoppe
  • Magistrates Court
  • Coach and Harness Museum
  • Bonded Store
  • Church and Graveyard
  • Bullock Pen
  • Mrs Rafferty’s (Cottage Store)
  • Seamstress
  • Military Windmill
  • Dawes Observatory
  • Potter’s Hut and Kiln
  • Candlemaker
  • Tinsmith
  • Barracks
  • Gaol
  • King’s Head Tavern
  • Wood Turner
  • BBQ Area
  • The Brig Perserverance
  • Dockyards
  • Blacksmith
  • Rosetta Stabler’s Eating House
  • Mary Bryant’s
  • Tank Stream
  • Kenny’s School
  • Bennelong’s Hut
  • Wool Shed

Filming Location[edit]

Throughout it’s life and since closing, the park has been hired for film and television productions.

In 1994/95 the park was used in the second season of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for the three-part episode Return Of The Green Ranger as colonial Angel Grove.

The ABC also used the site to record documentary resources for schools.

Australian horror film Beast No More filmed there in 2016.


.mw-parser-output .reflist{font-size:90%;margin-bottom:0.5em;list-style-type:decimal}.mw-parser-output .reflist .references{font-size:100%;margin-bottom:0;list-style-type:inherit}.mw-parser-output .reflist-columns-2{column-width:30em}.mw-parser-output .reflist-columns-3{column-width:25em}.mw-parser-output .reflist-columns{margin-top:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .reflist-columns ol{margin-top:0}.mw-parser-output .reflist-columns li{page-break-inside:avoid;break-inside:avoid-column}.mw-parser-output .reflist-upper-alpha{list-style-type:upper-alpha}.mw-parser-output .reflist-upper-roman{list-style-type:upper-roman}.mw-parser-output .reflist-lower-alpha{list-style-type:lower-alpha}.mw-parser-output .reflist-lower-greek{list-style-type:lower-greek}.mw-parser-output .reflist-lower-roman{list-style-type:lower-roman}

  • ^ .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url(“//”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}”ABC AM Radio 702- “Old Sydney Town to close””. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 3 January 2003. Retrieved 13 January 2008.
  • ^ “Re-Creating Old Sydney”. The Australian Women’s Weekly.
  • ^ “Building an Australian Shrine”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ “Re-Creating Old Sydney”. The Australian Women’s Weekly.
  • ^ “Slave Labour”. Tharunka.
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  • ^ “Re-Creating Old Sydney”. The Australian Women’s Weekly.
  • ^ “Building an Australian Shrine”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ “Re-Creating Old Sydney”. The Australian Women’s Weekly.
  • ^ “Government to Buy Share in Tourist Town”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ Further $35m for Old Sydney Town Canberra Times 27 January 1975 page 8
  • ^ PTC Plays Major Role in Opening of Old Sydney Town Transport News March 1975 page 1
  • ^ Hughes, Robert (September 2000). “Body and Soul”. Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore. PBS.
  • ^ “Roy Hargreaves as Lt. Dawes in his Observatory, Old Sydney Town, Somersby”. Central Coast Library.
  • ^ “Building an Australian Shrine”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ “OVER IN OLD SYDNEY TOWN”. The Southland Times. 7 June 1997.
  • ^ “Old Sydney Town Pty Limited – Decision 13”. National Archives of Australia.
  • ^ “Submission No 138 : Old Sydney Town Pty Limited – Decision 309”. National Archives of Australia.
  • ^ “In Brief: Old Sydney Town”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ “Old Sydney Town Grant”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ “Old Sydney Town”. The Canberra Times.
  • ^ Clark, Pilita (26 October 1986). “OLD SYDNEY TOWN TO GET $40M CLUB-STYLE HOTEL”. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • ^ Mathers, Ken (26 February 1988). “OLD SYDNEY TOWN GETS A FACELIFT”. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • ^ Sandham, Sonya (11 January 1994). “GAINS WROUGHT AMID THE DEVASTATION”. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • ^ Daitel (26 September 1998). “$35,000 fine over cannon”. Daily Telegraph.
  • ^ “NSW – COMPANY FINED $35,000 AFTER CANNON BLAST INJURES THREE”. Australian Associated Press. 25 September 1998.
  • ^ Minogue, Katie (14 July 2000). “Historic theme park sold”. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney).
  • ^ Jacobsen, Geesche (9 September 1999). “Lessee Denies Old Sydney Town Will Soon Be History”. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • ^ Minogue, Katie (14 July 2000). “Historic theme park sold”. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney).
  • ^ Minogue, Katie (14 July 2000). “Historic theme park sold”. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney).
  • ^ Hughes, Robert (September 2000). “Body and Soul”. Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore. PBS.
  • ^ “Farewell to Old Sydney Town forever”. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • ^ “Sydney Morning Herald – “A historic theme for Australian fun parks: failure””. The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 January 2003. Retrieved 13 January 2008.
  • ^ “Farewell to Old Sydney Town forever”. Sydney Morning Herald.
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  • ^ Collins, Terry (18 February 2013). “Bold bid to revive Old Sydney Town as a major theme park and tourist attraction”. Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
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  • ^ “Old Sydney Town brochure map”. Central Coast Library.
  • External links[edit]

    • Old Sydney Town website
    • Old Sydney Town television commercial
    • Heritage List Old Sydney Town Facebook page

    Further reading[edit]

    • Documentation of historical research and other aspects of the history of the site and its development can be found in the Mitchell Library (Robert Irving’s papers) and in the Gosford City Council Local Studies Library collection.

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