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A coloured black and white photo of a building next a body of water with trees and grass in the background.
National Park, New South Wales, undated postcard, Josef Lebovic Gallery collection, National Museum of Australia

Australia’s first national park — (now Royal) National Park — was created in 1879 just south of Sydney. It was only the second in the world.

Originally formed to address public health concerns about overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in large cities, today’s national parks often focus more on ecological conservation.

Australia now has more than 500 national parks covering 28 million hectares.

Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1879:

The toil-worn citizen will be able to recreate himself amid scenes of natural beauty and grandeur.

National first

Australia’s first national park was created on 26 April 1879. Later named the Royal National Park after the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, it is located on the southern side of the Georges River, about an hour south of Sydney.

The other states followed New South Wales’s lead. Within 37 years, each of Australia’s states had a national park:

  • South Australia established Belair National Park in 1891
  • Victoria created Wilson’s Promontory National Park in 1898
  • Western Australia also moved in 1898, making the initial reservation for what would become John Forrest National Park
  • Queensland established the Witches Falls National Park on the eastern side of Mount Tambourine village in 1908
  • Tasmania completed the picture in 1916 with the creation of National Park (later renamed Mount Field National Park) and Freycinet National Park
Photo of a pathway through bushland
Royal National Park, The Coast Walk, 2009. Photo: Alex Proimos

Australia’s need for national parks

National parks sprang from concerns about public health prompted by the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of large industrial cities. Today, their focus is more on conserving plants, animals and ecological processes.

Australian urban development mirrored in many ways the pattern set down in Europe and America. From 1788, it took 70 years for the Australian population to reach one million. It took only another 19 years for that number to double.

With such rapid growth, infrastructure lagged hopelessly behind. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Sydney, which had never been properly planned, and whose population in 1881 had expanded to 225,000.

The dislocations caused by the discovery of gold, the burgeoning numbers of new arrivals seeking better lives and the chronic shortage of housing led to a wide range of social ills, not least of which were overcrowding and the abandonment of children. A variety of epidemics, but especially the scarlet fever outbreak in the 1870s, focused attention on public health.

Those who advocated the value of parks (including cultivated gardens as well as areas of scenic beauty and splendour) increasingly claimed that urban areas, with their polluted air and water, were detrimental to people’s physical and moral health. The creation of national parks was one expression of the relatively new idea that nature could be beneficial, rather than a threat.

Park advocates were expressing ideas first articulated by the Romantics (that coterie of painters, writers and poets, such as Wordsworth) who in the early years of the Industrial Revolution praised ‘natural’ England and damned its cities.

Perceptions of the National Park

The tremendous popularity of the National Park’s picnic grounds and facilities suggests that the public preferred nature’s ‘wildness’ to be tempered. The creation of the Park involved damming rivers, laying grass, constructing facilities and planting many thousands of exotic trees, which were recorded in postcards of the time.

When rail lines were built, visitation grew from 38,000 in 1892 to 170,000 in 1903. Seven years later, annual visitor numbers had reached 250,000.

However, there was a small but growing group of people who appreciated the Australian bush in its pristine state. These were epitomised by Myles Dunphy, who in the 1920s loved to hike through the National Park.

The Museum holds an album of photos shot during one of his walks. Dunphy was a founder of Sydney's first bushwalking club and subsequently became one of Australia's earliest campaigners for environmental conservation.

Coloured black and white photo of a body of water visible through trees
National Park, New South Wales, undated postcard, Josef Lebovic Gallery collection, National Museum of Australia
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In our collection

Pram known as the 'Kanangra Express', used by bushwalkers Myles and Margaret Dunphy in the Blue Mountains, 1930-1931Folding pram (perambulator) with an iron frame, a woven wicker body including a square hood, and four iron spoked wheels of the same size. Residual paint indicates that the frame was originally painted black with decorative orange lines. The wheels fold up so the pram can be turned into a cradle with a rocker base. The solid rub...
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