Ashfield’s population is highly multicultural. Its urban density is relatively high for Australia, with the majority of the area’s dwellings being a mixture of mainly post-war low-rise flats and Federation-era detached houses. Amongst these are several grand Victorian buildings that offer a hint of Ashfield’s rich cultural heritage.
By 1790, a rough track had been built between the colony’s two settlements at Sydney Cove and Parramatta. This route later became the main artery of the expanding Greater Sydney and, as the northern boundary of what is now Ashfield, dictated early British settlement in the area. The first land grant in the area was made to Rev Richard Johnson in 1793 and all of it had been granted by 1810.
By the 1820s, all the grants had been amalgamated into two large estates: Ashfield Park and Canterbury Estate. Ashfield Park was named by Robert Campbell, whose father was the laird of Ashfield in Scotland.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the area now known as Ashfield was inhabited by the Wangal people. During this time, Ashfield was seen as a highly desirable location compared to the city, which had become crowded and pestilent.
Many grand Victorian houses were built in the latter part of the 19th century. But by the time of World War I, the suburb had fallen out of favour and the rich residents had mostly headed for the North Shore.
Many of the grand homes were knocked down in the 1920s and 1930s and replaced with small art deco blocks of flats or semi-detached houses. A few remain, however, and are listed in the Landmarks section.
By the 1950s, the population of Ashfield had begun to fall, as it had in many surrounding suburbs, as people moved to newer houses on larger blocks of land on the urban fringe.
The Council’s response was to start approving large blocks of flats, many of which were built during the 1960s and 1970s but which also continue to be built today.
There is, however, recognition of the area’s heritage with many buildings in the suburb protected by heritage orders.
Wangal country was believed to be centred on modern-day Concord and stretched east to the swampland of Long Cove Creek. The land was heavily wooded at the time with tall eucalypts covering the higher ground and a variety of swampy trees along Iron Cove Creek.
The people hunted by killing native animals and fish. The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 had a devastating effect on the local people, mainly from the introduction of smallpox, to which the indigenous people had little resistance.
In 1838, Elizabeth Underwood, then owner of Ashfield Park, subdivided part of her land to form the village of Ashfield between Liverpool Road and Alt Street. Part of the subdivision was the building of St John’s Church in Alt Street in 1841. This is the oldest surviving building in Ashfield.
By 1855, the village had about 70 houses and 200 residents. However, the opening of the Sydney-Parramatta railway line that year, with Ashfield as one of its six original stations, led to a population explosion. In 1872, there were enough residents for the area to be granted a municipal council. By 1890, the population had grown to 11,000.