Thompson Square still connects us to Macquarie and his ideals for a new society

Thompson Square showing the Old Punt Road winding up through it, and the square clearly defined by buildings on three sides.
Thompson Square showing the Old Punt Road winding up through it, and the square clearly defined by buildings on three sides.

When a wooden plank with the words Thompson Square was put up, renaming Bell Post Square in January 1811, it publicly flipped the bird at the British class system. With the current push to have Thompson Square put on the national heritage list, the Gazette looks at why there’s a strong case.

Hawkesbury councillor and Community Action for Windsor Bridge (CAWB) member Pete Reynolds told the Gazette on Friday the reasons why Thompson Square’s history is so important. We also draw from reasons given in two submissions for a national heritage listing to Environment and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg.

Thompson Square in 1929. Picture: collection of Carol Roberts

Thompson Square in 1929. Picture: collection of Carol Roberts

1. It’s the place where the Australian concept of the fair go began. Mr Reynolds said that anything that links Lachlan Macquarie to the process of transformation of a penal colony to our modern Australian society is of national significance.

“This was because alongside the street that Macquarie named after King George, is the square he named after ex-convict Andrew Thompson,” Mr Reynolds said. 

“This street and square were side by side and so put both men on the same level. This was profound, this was incredibly brave. Thompson was a young Scottish bloke who’d come out here in chains [and became chief magistrate of Windsor after he was freed].

“By naming the square after Thompson, Macquarie drew a line in British history, dividing what happened before and what happened after. On Macquarie’s grave on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, it says ‘The Father of Australia’.”

Thompson Square is thus seen as a monument to Macquarie’s hugely audacious social experiment where someone’s worth was judged by their actions and character, not status or wealth.

2.Philip Cunningham, the Irish rebel ringleader of the Battle of Vinegar Hill was hanged there the same day as the battle in 1804,  where the sign commemorating it is, next to the old School of Arts.

3.It is the only surviving 18th century place on the whole continent that retains its original form and views, from the top of the square to the river. Pictures from 1807 show what is recognisably Thompson Square. It demonstrates what a civic square is supposed to be, as proclaimed by Governor Macquarie. It was the first formal designed urban place in Australia.

4.There are lots of Aboriginal artefacts still there. Mr Reynolds said only 12 inches under the dirt beneath the CAWB tent are Aboriginal artefacts found to be 6000 years old. “It’s part of the Aeolian dune which in other parts contains artefacts 30,000 years old,” he said. “The dune goes from the bottom of Lapstone hill out to Pitt Town.”​

5. It has buildings from the first quarter century of the colony – the Shipley Crozier building on the corner of Bridge Street (Rod Storie’s building) built 1812 and the Macquarie Arms built 1815 are the oldest surviving. Most of the others now standing are mid-1800s.

The main objections to the RMS’s current Windsor Bridge plan is that it will involve the re-shaping of Thompson Square, elimination of stately trees, and the building of an elevated modern concrete bridge carrying a major road through the square – destroying historic views of the river and the holistic nature of the Georgian Square. They say it will sever the square forever into two halves and encourage even more heavy trucks through it.

“Nowhere else in Australasia can one look at a streetscape built under the reign of the Georgian kings. It is the first and oldest remaining dedicated civic space in the nation,” the Reynolds-Butler submission to the minister said.