The "Eora people" was the name given to the coastal Aborigines around Sydney. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as "Eora Country". Within the City of Sydney local government area, the traditional owners are the Cadigal and Wangal bands of the Eora. There is no written record of the name of the language spoken and currently there are debates as whether the coastal peoples spoke a separate language "Eora" or whether this was actually a dialect of the Dharug language. Remnant bushland in places like Blackwattle Bay retain elements of traditional plant, bird and animal life, including fish and rock oysters. With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Cadigal and Wangal people were decimated but there are descendants still living in Sydney today. All cities include many immigrants in their population. Aboriginal people from across the state have been attracted to suburbs such as Pyrmont, Balmain, Rozelle, Glebe and Redfern since the 1930s. Changes in government legislation in the 1960s provided freedom of movement enabling more Aboriginal people to choose to live in Sydney (Anita Heiss, "Aboriginal People and Place", Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani).
For over a century after Europeans arrived in Port Jackson the series of harbourside bays now surrounded by Sydney's Eastern suburbs was still home to the Aboriginal people who had traditionally lived in the area and who continued to rely on these waterways for their livelihood. Today these bays are still significant to the local Aboriginal community, but the rich history of Aboriginal people's connection with the area is seldom acknowledged and poorly understood (Ingrey & Irish, 2011, 4-5).
At Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Bay House there is evidence of these enduring connections. At Elizabeth Bay ('Gurrajin' to the Aboriginal people) Governor Lachlan Macquarie applied well-meaning but ill-guided assimilationist policies when he built the Elizabeth Town settlement, in an attempt to encourage Aboriginal people to learn about and adopt a more sedentary way of life; he wanted them to be reliant on cultivation rather than fishing (ibid, 2011). Macquarie (1810-21) had the village built in c.1815 for a composite group of Cadigal people - the indigenous inhabitants of the area surrounding Sydney Harbour - under the leadership of Bungaree (d.1830). Elizabeth Bay had been named in honour of Mrs Macquarie. Bungaree's group continued their nomadic life around the harbour foreshores. Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor 1821-5, designated Elizabeth Bay as the site of an asylum for the insane. A pen sketch by Edward Mason from 1822-3 shows a series of bark huts for the natives' in the locality. (Carlin, 2000, p.38).
The site of Elizabeth Town was behind the sandy beach below what would later become Elizabeth Bay House, in the vicinity of Macleay's kitchen garden (now Beare Park). Later, there is evidence of the involvement of Aboriginal people from the La Perouse community in 1930s historical pageants at Vaucluse House. Although the historical record is fragmentary, such connections should not be viewed as discrete encouters of Aboriginal people within a colonised landscape (Ingrey & Irish, 2011, 4-5).
Governor Darling granted Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay 54 acres at Elizabeth Bay in 1826. In May 1831 The Sydney Gazette enthusiastically reported improvements at Woolloomoolloo Hill (Potts Point) and Macleay's neighbouring estate at Elizabeth Bay "5 years ago the coast immediately eastward of Sydney was a mass of cold and hopeless sterility, which its stunted and unsightly bushes seemed only to render the more palpable; it is now traversed by an elegant carriage road and picturesque walksThat these rapid improvements were originated by the proprietor of Elizabeth Bay cannot be doubted. He was the first to show how these hillocks of rock and sand might be rendered tributary to the taste and advantage of civilized man. As to the estate of Elizabeth Bay, noone can form an adequate judgement of the taste, labour and capital that have been bestowed upon it. A spacious garden, filled with almost every variety of vegetable; a trelliced vinery; a flower garden, rich in botanical curiosities, refreshed with ponds of pure water and overlooked by fanciful grottoes; a maze of gravel walks winding around the rugged hills in every direction, and affording sometimes an umbrageous solitude, sometimes a sylvan coup d'oeil, and sometimes a bold view of the spreading bays and distant headlands - these are living proofs that its honorable proprietor well deserved the boon, and has well repaid it." (Carlin, S/HHT, 2000)
As with the design of the house, the design of the estate appears to have involved a number of people whose respective contributions are not known. Fanny Macleay regarded her father as the mastermind, referring to Elizabeth Bay as "our Tillbuster the second", a reference to the Macleay family's country estate in Godstone, Surrey, which Alexander had improved in 1817. In September 1826 she promised her brother a plan of the recently acquired grant "when Papa has decided where our house is to be and the garden etc". Although Nurseryman Thomas Shepherd had practised as a landscape gardener many years previously in England and his 1835 (public) lecture (in Sydney) included suggestions for the further improvement of the Elizabeth Bay estate, he does not claim credit for involvement, however informal, in its design. It may be that Macleay considered his views old-fashioned.
In 1825 Robert Henderson had been recruited at the Cape of Good Hope by Alexander Macleay. Henderson's obituary records that he superintended the laying out of the gardens of Elizabeth Bay and Brownlow Hill. In February 1829 Fanny wrote "we have now some beautiful walks thro' the bush. Mr (Edward) Deas-Thompson who is possessed of an infinity of good taste is the Engineer and takes an astonishing degree of interest in the improvement of the place."
John Verge's office ledger contains many references to the design of garden structures, including gates and piers and copings and "scroll ends" for garden walls. The entries are dated between April and November 1833. A design for a bathing house (not built) dated 1834 and initialled "R.R.", may be attributed to the architect and surveyor, Robert Russell (1808-1900) who arrived in Sydney in that year.
Macleay's approach to the Australian bush was in contrast with that of the majority of colonists, who customarily cleared it and started afresh. Nurseryman Thomas Shepherd wished others to emulate this:
"The high lands and slopes of this property are composed of rocks, richly ornamented with beautiful indigenous trees and shrubs. From the first commencement he (Macleay) never suffered a tree of any kind to be destroyed, until he saw distinctly the necessity for doing so. He thus retained the advantage of embellishment from his native trees, and harmonised them with foreign trees now growing. He has also obtained the benefit of a standing plantation which it might otherwise have taken twenty or thirty years to bring to maturity."
The bush was planted with specimen orchids and ferns to enhance its botanical interest, which could be enjoyed in the course of a "wood walk". Two surviving notebooks (Plants received, c1826-1840, and Seeds received, 1836-1857) list the sources of plants for the garden and illustrate a comprehensive approach to plant collecting, similar in their approach to entomology. The plant and seed books contain entries for purchases from nurserymen Merrrs Loddiges of Hackney, London, and exchanges with William Macarthur of Camden Park. They also record the plants contributed by visitors to the estate and by William Sharp Macleay's natural history collectors in India.
Alexander Macleay had a great passion for bulbous plants, particularly those from the Cape of Good Hope. The explorer Charles Sturt, contributed many bulbs collected on his journey to South Australia in 1838, having been presented with four bulbs of Calostemma album from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew during his visit to Elizabeth Bay in February 1831. Bulbs featured in the large collection of plants which William Sharp Macleay brought with him to Australia in 1839. 88 varieties of bulbs were forwarded to him in 1839-40 by his scientific correspondent, Dr Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the botanical garden in Calcutta.
Macleay's garden was also noted for its fruit trees. In 1835, Charles Von Hugel noted "pawpaw, guava and many plants from India were flourishing". Georgianna Lowe (of Bronte House) described the shrubbery and adjacent garden, in 1842-3 commenting on the wealth of fruit trees and other plants assimilated into a Sydney garden:
"Mr Macleay took us through the grounds; they were along the side of the water. In this garden are the plants of every climate - flowers and trees from Rio, the West Indies, the East Indies, China and even England. And unless you could see them, you would not believe how beautiful the roses are here. The orange trees, lemons, citrons, guavas are immense, and the pomegranate is now in full flower. Mr Macleay also has an immense collection from New Zealand."
Many visitors commented on Macleay's achievement in creating a garden in Sydney conditions. Georgianna Lowe described "some drawbacks to this lovely garden: it is too dry, and the plants grow out of a white, sandy soil. I must admit a few English showers would improve it." (Carlin/HHT, 2000).