HISTORY OF REGENT SQUARE
Its Past, Present and future
Regent Square is over 200 years old. It was an important part of the original plan of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who visited the site on the 18th December 1811 during his first visit to Van Diemen's Land. He had decided to build a new town near the mouth of the Tamar River to replace Launceston as the centre of government in the North. He named it George Town and the inlet it lay beside was called York Cove.
Accompanying Governor Macquarie was James Meehan, the Acting Government Surveyor. He had journeyed with Macquarie the year before, when they had together planned six new towns to the west of Sydney. Now they were in Van Diemen's Land, they would plan another two - Elizabeth Town on the banks of the Derwent River in the New Norfolk district, and George Town on the banks of the Tamar.
Lachlan Macquarie and James Meehan spent the afternoon exploring around the cove, undoubtedly discussing plans for the town. Meehan wrote out some notes and undertook surveys. That evening, as Macquarie wrote in his diary,
At 7 p.m. Our Dinner having been Cooked on board, and brought on shore, we dined very comfortably in our Tent, and drank prosperity to George Town, shortly intended to be erected here. ---The Evening being very fine Mrs. Macquarie and myself Slept on Shore in our Tent, which was Pitched on the future scite [sic] of the new intended Town, and probably on that part of it in which the principal Square will be erected and formed.---
Next morning Macquarie and Meehan made a further inspection of the site, marking out the locations for some of the buildings:
I had two Boards, with George Town painted on them, nailed up to conspicuous Trees on the West and East side of the Cove, to mark out the intended Scite [sic] of the new Town; that on the West Side being nailed on a Tree close to our Tent. ---I also marked out the proper place for a Government Wharf and Public Stores & Granary to be built on the west side of the Cove; and near the Point on the same side, I had a Tree marked where the Government House is to be built, with a suitable Piece of Ground to be annexed thereto as a Domain.
This work completed, Macquarie moved down river on the Lady Nelson to Lagoon Bay, for an early departure the following morning.
The original plan for George Town, as approved by Governor Macquarie in 1813 [NSW Archives Office]
In June 1812 James Meehan was sent down from Sydney to complete the survey of George Town and Elizabeth Town. Macquarie advised Meehan that he had decided to form the town "according to a well digested regular Plan". It would be a grid pattern of streets on each side of York Cove. The key feature was a large central square, around which the principal buildings of the town should be placed. Macquarie's instructions were explicit:
In marking out the Town, You will be guided generally by the verbal Instructions I have already given you on this head, and the Plan you drew of it in December last and approved by me, and which you have in your Possession. The Town may extend round the Cove on both sides of it; but the Principal Square and all the Public Buildings must be marked out on the North East side of York Cove, as fixed on by me in December last.
Macquarie also told Meehan that the town plan for Elizabeth Town, now New Norfolk, was to be "exactly on the same Plan and Principle as that of George Town with regard to the Centre Square, Streets, and size of the several Allotments..."
Following the granting of approval by the British Government to establish the new town, work began on George Town in 1815. In May 1819 the Commandant moved his headquarters to George Town, and it remained the centre of government for the north until the beginning of 1825.
Regent Square was named after George, Prince of Wales, who was the eldest son of King George III. He became acting ruler or "Regent" when the King became too ill to carry out his duties. The Prince Regent became King George IV following his father's death in 1820.
From the start Regent Square was the centrepiece of George Town. All the major public buildings were planned to be around the edge of the Square, with the church in Elizabeth Street, the Barracks in Anne Street, the Officer's homes in Cimitiere Street and and the main working areas in Macquarie Street. Not all these plans came to fruition, but Regent Square was kept in government hands and was not allowed to be alienated to private builders. The properties facing Regent Square were regarded as having a very desirable location. A visitor to George Town in 1848 wrote,
A very large square piece of clear land, perfectly level, is the most immediate spot before you, as you look to the north. The Police Office and residence of the police magistrate is an excellent building on the north side of the green, and on the same side is Government Cottage, occupied by the port officer; and an elegant stone building on the same side, but nearer to the river.
Newspaper accounts of the Square and of life in George Town in the first half of the nineteenth century are rather scant. There are references to properties for sale with desirable locations facing the Square and in 1859 celebrations and a fireworks display for Queen Victoria's birthday were held there. These were also held in 1863 and they included the planting of oak trees. There is a newspaper report from 1863 that said the Square was used for grazing cows and that it needed to be enclosed and planted with trees.
In 1851 Tasmanians were for the first time allowed to vote for representatives in the Legislative Council. The polling place for George Town was Regent Square. It was also used as a polling place for the 1855 Legislative Council election.
A pencil sketch by Louis Wood in 1867 shows Regent Square as a grassed area with copses of mature trees around its edge and fenced with a post and rail fence. The two closer buildings both originate from the earliest formation of the town. The smaller one was the Commandant's cottage, and the larger was accommodation for the clergyman.
Regent Square by Louis Wood, SLNSW
In April 1879 there was a committee meeting to arrange plans to fence the green into a recreation ground. Other improvements incurred, including the planting of oaks in the Square in 1882. In November 1882 permission was given to Messrs Morling, Morris and Warren for a quarter acre in the Square to be used for a 'tennis ground'. Morling was the local Anglican clergyman and Warren was manager of the Eastern Extension Cable Company that operated the submarine telegraph cable across Bass Strait.
In 1888 the Tasmanian Parliament passed the Recreation Act which provided for the establishment of recreation reserves in towns and the election of trustees to manage the grounds and establish facilities. A George Town Recreation Reserve was established under this Act in 1891. Trustees were elected for its management; a fundraising committee was quickly formed, and it was hoped that
"every resident within the Recreation Ground District will lend a helping hand towards improving this really valuable piece of land granted by the Government to the inhabitants for recreation purpose."
A cricket/football ground was placed in the north-western quarter of the Square and at some time a "Town Hall" was erected on Macquarie Street facing Bathurst Street.
Regent Square was gazetted as a Public Reserve in December 1922. At the time there was a dispute between the Council and the Lands Department over the right of an organization to demand entry fees to an activity on the recreation ground.
A plan of the reserve shows a small hall and tennis court on the Macquarie Street frontage, diagonal footpaths across the Square linking the opposite corners. The north - south footpath was bordered by an avenue of trees, and the entire Square was bounded by a hawthorn hedge. The surveyor G. Eddie recorded:
Regent Square is where sports are held, Cricket, Football, Tennis &c. Meetings, Concerts, Dances &c are held in the Hall. All improvements have been made by public subscription. The Square being vested in The Council a charge could be made for entrance, thus providing an improvement plan.
In March 1935 a frontage along Macquarie Street 50 yards deep was resumed by the Government for use as car parking. This frontage excluded the tennis court and hall, which were to remain in their existing location. It appears this land may have been acquired by the Public Works Department.
During the 1920s and 30s the Square was used not only for cricket and football matches but also for public festivities such as the annual Anzac Day commemoration and sports, and the Empire day bonfire and fireworks display. Military exercises were still being carried out on the Square. The hall was used for badminton matches, concerts and dances and meetings.
On Anzac day 1939 a war memorial on Macquarie Street in front of the hall was unveiled by the local Member of Parliament and Minister for Lands and Works, Major T. H. Davies, who was also President of the local branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia. The memorial had a light shining through the three crosses, facing north, south, and east.
Buried in the monument is a copper tube were the names of all returned servicemen of the municipality, of all present and past members of the RSSAILA, and copies of newspapers, coins and stamps of the day.
The coming of the aluminium industry turned the sleepy village of George Town into a fast growing town. Meetings were held between the George Town Commission, which then administered the municipality, and the Government about plans for the new developments. It decided that Regent Square would continue as the recreation ground and the businesses would be located in Macquarie Street and the streets bordering the Square. In 1952 a new lease agreement was made with the Government. The square was again leased to the Council for use as a recreation area for 99 years. The plan for the lease shows the PWD land had been restored to the Square and the lease covered the same area as the 1922 lease.
A photo of the square shows a recreation ground in the north western part of the Square, car parks at the southern end and the Memorial Hall. The rest of Regent Square was parkland. This photo was taken probably soon after completion of the Memorial Hall.
Regent Square c.1960 [George Town and District Historical Society]
In 1974 a new 99 year lease was negotiated between the Government and the Council. Some 7190 sq. m., at the Memorial Hall, were placed on a separate lease and this land was reserved for use as a public building. The plan of the lease lists the hall as the George Town Council Chambers. The rest of the Square was reserved for "Public Recreation and Amusement."
1974 plan showing the boundaries of the recreation reserve.
The council chambers were removed to their present location in 1978.
In 1975 it was decided to remove the major team sports from Regent Square. It returned more to being a public park than a sports ground. Nevertheless it has remained the focus for the most important town festivities. These included the annual Batman Festival in the 1970s and 80s, the annual George Town on Show for the past ten years, festivities associated with the annual Christmas Parade, the Bicentenary Celebrations in 2004, many campervan rallies, annual visits of the Showmen’s Guild, and the annual Australia Day Breakfast. For the past 15 years it has been the main spectator area for the Targa Prologue.
Why is Regent Square Important?
1. Regent Square is probably the oldest public park in Tasmania. It predates Launceston's Prince's Square by at least 13 years and City Park by 30 years. Hobart's Franklin Square did not become a public park until 1862 and St David's Park was a cemetery until 1926. The only park that can compete with Regent Square's claim is Arthur Park in New Norfolk.
2. Regent Square is a rare surviving Australian example of the town planning of Lachlan Macquarie and James Meehan. Together between 1810 and 1812 they drew the plans for Liverpool, south west of Sydney, the five "Macquarie Towns" in the Hawkesbury Valley, and the two Tasmanian towns of George Town and New Norfolk. George Town is one of only two of these towns to survive with its original street plan and central park intact. George Town still has the same street plan as that drawn up by Meehan, the same street names as allocated by Macquarie and Regent Square still has its original boundaries. The only other Meehan and Macquarie designed town to have these features is Wilberforce, in New South Wales.
3. Regent Square has always been the focus for celebrations and important civic occasions in the town be they the Empire Day celebrations, the Anzac day sports, the military parades, the Batman Festival, George Town on Show, Christmas Carols, Australia Day Awards or Targa. For more than 160 years George Town has celebrated important occasions on Regent Square, and they may have been celebrated even earlier.
4. Regent Square is in danger of losing its special heritage appeal. The new additions to the Memorial Hall have formed a barrier between Macquarie Street and the parkland area of Regent Square. Any further building to the east or west of the Memorial Hall will extend that barrier so that George Town's main street will be blocked off from its central square. Often our car parks along Macquarie Street reach capacity. Further building on the Square will increase demand for parking and the temptation will be to park these cars further on the Square, thus threatening the existing open parklands. If Regent Square becomes a park behind buildings, hidden from view from Macquarie Street, then George Town will no longer be the town Macquarie had in mind some 200 years ago, and we will lose an important reason for George Town having its status as an historic town.
The Future for Regent Square
One of the problems facing Regent Square's survival is its scruffy appearance (which has in recent years been noticeably improved;) the effects of the prevailing strong winds on activities and vegetation in the Square and the clay pan that turns the Square into a swamp during the winter months.
In recent years two reports commissioned by the George Town Council address these problems and note the importance of the Square.
The George Town Central Area Strategy
This study was prepared by Ratio Consultants in 1999 to provide the Council with comprehensive strategies for the future planning and management of George Town's central area. It clearly recognized an important role for the town's central square:
The core of the central area is defined by a significant open space, Regent Park. [sic] This area provides a significant focus for informal recreation and formal community activity. Regent Park provides an important focus for the wider system of open space.
It proposed a Regent Square Precinct, consisting of the Square and the bordering residential areas, including the Council Chambers. Its aim was to facilitate the integration of Regent Square with the surrounding residential areas. This was to be in association with the encouragement of middle density housing and buildings such as town houses in the surrounding residential area.
The report commented on Regent Square as follows:
Regent Square represents the most significant area of open space within the Centre, and provides a venue for community gatherings and recreation. The Square has significant potential to provide a landmark, or signature space which defines the character of George Town and the values of its community. At present, however, the space and the surrounding residential area presents a degraded and poorly defined area. Masterplanning of the areas should seek to create a high quality, landscaped community space, offering a variety of spaces to encourage activities of different scales, including the hosting of large events (such as Targa) and a secluded area for quiet relaxation.
Its aim was for
...significant value to be added to Regent Square, with additional landscaping and recreational elements, to enable this public space to meet a wider spectrum of the community’s civic and passive recreational needs;
It developed a concept plan for the development of the Square, with a series of open spaces for use on special celebration days, skate bowls for the young, reflection gardens and ornamental trees.
The Regent Square Landscape Guide Master Plan
This is a master plan for the development of Regent Square, presented to the George Town Council by Dr. Andreas Kelly in 2007. It arose out of the community consultations which preceded the extensions to the Memorial Hall, and the strong opinions of the participants that the whole Square and not just the Memorial Hall had to be considered.
The Landscape Guide Master Plan gave a very detailed assessment of the conditions on the Square. On ground conditions it stated,
The surface profile of the approximately 6.5 hectares of the park is literally flat with consequent surface drainage problems. Much of the land is waterlogged in the winter and dries out hard in the summer. The subsoil is impervious clay and the overlaying topsoil is a shallow, part peaty soil, resulting from decaying turf over many years. There is no fixed irrigation in the park. The existing footpath system is made of narrow, poor quality, often broken up, unreinforced concrete.
A detailed study was made of each tree on the Square. It was found that:
Generally the condition of the existing trees is very varied. The healthiest exotic trees are English oaks, Cypresses, Poplars, and Radiata pines ... Other planted exotic trees have varied conditions from fair to very poor. Few seem to be thriving ... The conditions of the native trees are also varied. She-oaks (Allocasuarina) seem to do well, and some of the Eucalyptus species (likely E. ovata and E. pauciflora) also survive well. A large number of the native trees ... are, however, in poor to very poor conditions and are unlikely to grow into healthy, mature trees.
The report recommended a plan "to build on the existing good features of the park, and allow for the positive development of the park over a considerable time." It recommended a formal area suitable for public occasions between the band stand and the hall. Further to the north more informal open space were proposed using clusters of trees, and avenues along the paths. A large fenced playground was recommended along the western side and an enlarged skate bowl and skating track on the eastern side. To the north of the band stand a two metre mound was suggested to provide protection from the wind for those attending concerts at the band stand. The rest of the the park would be a series of open spaces to allow for large public events such as Targa.
In addition, it recommended a tree planting program "based on species which ... will have a good chance of maturing to sizable and healthy trees on this horticulturally difficult site."
This report was exhibited for public comment and a public meeting supported the principles of the plan. For some reason it was not adopted by Council, but nevertheless its implementation appears as a key strategy in the Council's Annual Plan for 2010-11.
Regent Square has played a significant role in the life of the town over the past 200 years. It is an important part of the town's heritage. For more than 150 years our townspeople have given money and labour for the upkeep and development of the Square. In recent years the Square has not had this recognition, despite expert advice to the Council of the role it should play as the town's central square. It is not a piece of useless swamp that should be got rid of and built on. Future generations will condemn us if we let this Square be ruined, just as we allowed many of our town's earliest buildings to be demolished fifty years ago.