For several generations one of Australia’s most beloved tourist attractions was a colonial theme park where parents sent their children to watch convicts being flogged.
Another highlight of this heritage experience was for boys and girls to be placed in a pillory so their heads and hands were restrained, or locked up by their ankles in stocks.
Old Sydney Town, near Gosford on the New South Wales Central Coast, was the scene of countless school excursions and family diversions off the Pacific Highway for almost 30 years.
Children could attend mock convict trials and funerals, watch pistol duels and fist fights, and recoil from the roar of cannon and musket fire.
The pillory was a favourite experience for children at Old Sydney Town near Gosford in NSW
A highlight of Old Sydney Town for school children was to watch a convict being flogged
‘Had my school excursions there,’ one person said on Facebook. ‘Today’s kids are missing out’
Mums and dads bring their children along to watch a convict being flogged for his crimes
Children could experience brutal convict punishment for themselves at Old Sydney Town
But after a reported six million visitors had walked through its gates the park closed in 2003 due to falling attendance. It has sat decaying for the past 15 years.
Now the site and surrounding land is being sold with many hoping that Old Sydney Town will rise again, albeit likely without some of its brutal exhibitions.
A Facebook page called Bring Back Old Sydney Town is filled with hundreds of pictures and fond memories of ‘the biggest heritage park in New South Wales’.
‘I’d loved it as a child and would love my kids to live the joy too,’ one nostalgic contributor wrote.
‘I too feel our children/grandchildren have missed out on something truly wonderful,’ wrote another.
A third said: ‘I remember going there for a school excursions year 6 and buying some chewing tobacco and hurling my lugs up when the nicco kicked in. You have to love the seventies.’
And one more: ‘I cant believe they shut it down.’
Generations of school children made the bus trip to Somersby to visit Old Sydney Town
A program shows the daily events at Old Sydney Town including three sessions of floggings
A soldier chats with a maiden while another convict is flogged with a mock cat o’ nine tails
Near the end of a day at Old Sydney Town a funeral and burial would take place at Church Hill
Old Sydney Town was opened by then prime minister Gough Whitlam on Australia Day, 1975, as a living museum of life in the NSW convict settlement from 1788 to 1810.
Representing an area now bound by Macquarie, Hunter, York and Argyle Streets in modern Sydney, the attraction was billed as ‘the world’s first faithful re-enactment of the birth of a nation.’
‘The people who inhabit the town are living out the lives of the colourful early settlers,’ a sign at the front of the park stated. ‘Feel free to question them about their lives.’
Among the attractions were a ‘recreation’ of Sydney Cove as a man-made lake with the replica brig Perseverance at anchor and more than 30 stone, brick and wattle and daub buildings.
There was the firing of a cannon twice a day, the storming of the Perseverance and the re-enactment of a convict rebellion. For many wide-eyed youngsters it was truly thrilling stuff.
‘Still can’t believe they shut it down,’ one person wrote of Old Sydney Town on Facebook
Children such as this girl were encouraged to mingle with the actors at Old Sydney Town
These school girls enjoyed the stocks experience during an excursion to Old Sydney Town
A bullock team worked through the streets and children could catch a horse-drawn ride.
Actors portraying soldiers conducted drills, while others played convicts working on road gangs. There were street musicians, shop keepers and vagabonds.
By far the most memorable spectacle for most was the punishment of convicts tied to a triangle and flogged.
At 10.15am there was a ‘welcome, muster and flogging’ at Church Hill and at 11.15am a ‘magistrate’s court and flogging’ at the gaol. A third flogging was held at 2.20pm.
Audiences would be shown a real cat o’ nine tails which would then be substituted for a whip with cloth strands soaked in red dye.
A promotional pamphlet promised ‘The Greatest Adventure in Living History – unique experiences you’ll always remember.’
‘Old Sydney Town is more than an authentic recreation of Sydney as it was in 1788; it’s a living adventure where you will feel the charm of the past mixed with the harsh realities of colonial life,’ the pamphlet said.
This girl regularly visited Old Sydney Town with her family and would stay for an entire day
This pillory pictured in 1978 was set up in front of the stone gaol, which was never completed
The ambitious building program at Old Sydney Town at Somersby was never completed
Old Sydney Town featured several places to eat and drink including the First Fleet Tea Shoppe
‘See soldiers on parade and hear the thunder of the daily cannon salute. Thrill to the excitement of a pistol duel or boxing match.
‘Be part of a typical trial of the day as colonial justice takes its course in the Magistrate’s Court. See convicts tried and punished.’
Another pamphlet said: ‘Old Sydney Town has something for the whole family. You can occupy front seat at the Magistrate’s Court, and if the scoundrel’s found guilty (he usually is), you can wince as he receives a dozen lashes with the cat o’ nine tails.’
Another popular experience was to try out the stocks and pillory placed around the town. Sadly, the sale of the site seems unlikely to see those simple pleasures return.
Old Sydney Town was developed by architect and entrepreneur Frank Fox with the assistance of the federal government and what was then the Bank of NSW (now Westpac).
In this picture a body is taken to the cemetery in a wheelbarrow for a burial as children watch
Actors dressed as soldiers fired Old Sydney Town’s cannon on the parade ground twice a day
‘Hear the thunder of the daily cannon salute,’ an Old Sydney Town promotional pamphlet said
The cannon fell silent at Old Sydney Town 15 years ago due to falling numbers of visitors
Heritage architect Robert Irving, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW, was responsible for research into what should be erected and where. The town was to be built with as much historical accuracy as possible.
About 130 of Irving’s first year architecture students were involved in the design and construction of the first 13 buildings as part of their studies.
Some buildings, such as the gaol and church, were never completed. Among the most impressive structures on the site was a windmill and the park was supposed to keep expanding.
Shortly after the Whitlam government was dismissed in November 1975 the federal investment was taken over by premier Neville Wran’s state government.
Later the park was leased to a private company, Warwick Amusements, run by Paris-based multi-millionaire Richard Chiu, who eventually bought the site under the terms of the lease and still owns it.
Children came by the busload for decades to enjoy Old Sydney Town’s brutal attractions
It was almost obligatory on a visit to Old Sydney Town to have a photograph like this taken
Another popular piece of theatre at Old Sydney Town was the portrayal of a duel with pistols
More than 30 buildings were erected on the Old Sydney Town site with many more planned
But it seems the park never made money, reportedly losing up to $600,000 per annum in even its first five years of operation.
As the years wore on little money was spent on marketing and maintenance of the buildings became mostly cosmetic. Dry rot became a problem. Birds removed thatching from roofs.
The NSW Government and Warwick Amusements both claimed promises were not kept in the conditions of the lease.
Old Sydney Town could not seem to attract the visitor numbers that flocked to Victoria’s gold rush themed Sovereign Hill.
Government had little interest in running a theme park and private investors did not see a way to make money.
The operators blamed an ‘instant gratification’ generation more interested in computer games and more spectacular rides than watching actors being flogged when they finally closed the park.
Mock trials were held in a makeshift court which convened outside Old Sydney Town’s gaol
A convict who has been sentenced at the magistrate’s court as led away to his punishment
Mothers and fathers accompany their children to watch a convict tied up and flogged
Fun for the whole family: generations of young Australians enjoyed a trip to Old Sydney Town
After the park’s closure, it was occasionally used as a function venue and hired as a movie set. Major investment would be needed to bring Old Sydney Town back.
Locals have occasionally used drones to take pictures of the abandoned park, which is slowly disappearing into the surrounding bush.
The deck of the replica brig Perseverance which children once clambered over now sits near water level covered in weeds as the vessel rots into the lake.
Some years ago residents of the Central Coast got together to form a committee determined to re-open the park and the Bring Back Old Sydney Town Facebook group was formed.
In 2013 it was reported the family of original builder Frank Fox was in negotiations with Warwick Amusements about resurrecting the town.
An aerial view of Old Sydney Town’s abandoned and decaying buildings taken from a drone
The site of Old Sydney Town near Gosford is up for sale and many would like to see it rebuilt
Supporters of the iconic Old Sydney Town would like to see the theme park reopened
Old Sydney Town was described as a place to step back into the time of colonial Australia
Then in the early hours of 20 February 2014, fire destroyed the entrance and reception complex.
The Bring Back Old Sydney Town group does not want to see the site sold to a developer. They support a proposal by the sons of Frank Fox to return the park to its former glory.
There have been suggestions a drive-in theatre and motor-home park for retirees on the land could help fund a rejuvenated Old Sydney Town.
A mini water park and Aboriginal dreamtime section have also been put forward as potential future attractions.
A petition calling for the government to buy back the site garnered 11,000 signatures but the Bring Back Old Sydney Town group now favours the Fox family proposal.
Old Sydney Town, at 945 Old Pacific Highway, Somersby, is 8km from Gosford and 77km north of Sydney.
The 120 hectare site for sale includes Old Sydney Town’s 25 hectares, the 5.4 hectare adjoining Australian Reptile Park, which has a long-term lease, and 89 hectares of surrounding farm land.
Visitors to Old Sydney Town could clamber above and below the deck of the Perseverance
The brig Perseverance as she was when Old Sydney Town was a major tourist attraction
The replica brig Perseverance has lost its masts and is slowly rotting into the lake’s waters
Selling agent CBRE said the site’s size and rezoning potential could allow for a variety of uses, including as a theme park.
CBRE’s Peter Vines said the chance to buy so much land in one of NSW’s strongest growing regions had attracted widespread interest from local and offshore groups.
‘Located at the gateway to the Central Coast – the coastal city of Gosford – this site offers an unprecedented landbank opportunity to secure more than one million square metres of premium land,’ Mr Vines said.
‘Given its vast size, direct proximity to the Somersby industrial area and future rezone potential, this site could be later developed for a range of outcomes such as rural activities, theme parks, tourism development and residential subdivision.’
In October last year Richard Chiu said he would consider rebuilding Old Sydney Town if Central Coast Council rezoned 30 per cent of the surrounding rural land for residential or commercial development.
Visitors to Old Sydney Town were encouraged to interact with the colourful local residents
This bloodied tramp wandered the streets of Old Sydney Town; here he is fishing without luck
Over the years birds pulled apart the thatched roofs of some of the Old Sydney Town buildings
The international hotelier said such a rezoning would make the financial risk of revamping the theme park feasible.
Mr Chiu told the Central Coast Express Advocate he had put that proposal to the council over many years but had always been refused.
‘If the council was willing to give in principal support to rezoning a third of the land for residential purposes then we would redevelop Old Sydney Town at our own cost,’ Mr Chiu told the newspaper.
‘I fully believe that some kind of park could work – not a museum like it was – but we can make it a heritage theme park.’
No such resolution was reached and the land is being sold. Expressions of interest closed on March 15 and a decision on the site’s future is expected within weeks.
Old Sydney Town was proudly described as ‘the biggest heritage park in NSW, Australia’
The crowds are long gone at Old Sydney Town, which was hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s
Old Sydney Town has become run down since its closure in 2003; the site is now up for sale
Mr Chiu is president of Warwick International Hotels which owns about 60 hotels in 30 countries. He said Old Sydney Town had never made money for anyone.
‘We lost a lot of money – operating losses of over $15m over the years – so we decided to close it,’ he said.
Colleen Wells is one who mourns Old Sydney Town loss. She used to take her children regularly to the park because it was ‘affordable, enjoyable and a safe environment for children.’
‘We always packed a picnic and bought drinks and ice creams from the shops,’ Ms Wells said. ‘We used to stay the entire day.’
Sara Powter from Bring Back Old Sydney Town was at the opening of the park in 1975 and visited several times each year. She is a descendant of convicts and would love to see the site revitalised.
‘I just love that colonial era,’ Ms Powter said. ‘Watching the blacksmiths, the coopers, the draught hoses, the bullock teams, I just loved the lot.
‘It was a just one of those fabulous things where you stopped back in time.’
Operators blamed falling numbers of visitors as among the reasons Old Sydney Town closed