John Baptist Foundation Relaunch

(10.30am, Wednesday 14 November 2012, Hyde Park North)

Good morning, everyone. Welcome. I would like firstly to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who make up our City.

I'm pleased to welcome today Carolyn Chown and Alex Haege descendants of John Baptist, the early Sydney benefactor that this fountain commemorates.

In September 1888, the Sydney Morning Herald recorded its opening by Sir Alfred Stephen, the former Chief Justice, who lived opposite in College Street, and was a great champion of Hyde Park.

The original John Baptist was perhaps Portuguese. Certainly he came to Sydney from Portugal in 1829 and his career began with a modest three acres of land in Redfern on which he grew vegetables which he sold at the George Street Market.

City Historian Lisa Murray tells us that he improved the sandy soil with manure and lime, and steadily added to his holdings. By 1886, he owned 36 acres which included exotic plants, trees, shrubs and fruit trees, and 15 acres of market gardens.

The gardens were described as "a showpiece of Sydney". They were open to the public to enjoy on Sunday afternoons, and the owner himself was often there to chat with his visitors.

He also invested in property, eventually owning 37 houses in Surry Hills and another 25 in Redfern.

He bequeathed the first John Baptist fountain - the rather larger one that is the centrepiece of Redfern Park, but this one was actually donated by his son, John Baptist junior, after the death of his father in 1884.

It's a handsome work which was perhaps originally installed in the Baptist Gardens in the 1860s but moved to Hyde Park during the 1888 centenary of European settlement.

Unfortunately over the years it has been damaged by tree roots, it was moved to build the underground train lines, and had its clamshell bowl broken off by vandals in the late 1980s.

And although it's identified as a rare example of a mid-19th century ornamental garden fountain, our photographic records show that it has not worked as a fountain for over 20 years.

So it was time for some serious work. It was relocated 10 metres northwards, away from the tree roots, to allow for restoration of the basin and an underground plant pit under the pathway.

The centrepiece was painstakingly reconstructed by specialist stonemasons, working closely with descendants and with heritage and fountain experts and the carved stone sides match the original design and construction technique.

The base was rebuilt, the centrepiece repaired and reinstalled and the hydraulic system upgraded with new water jets and filters. And there's now a root barrier to prevent any future damage from tree roots.

The fountains will now continue to commemorate an important Sydney-sider and a part of the Sydney story for generations to come.

A very big thank you to all those involved in this project:

the team from Civil Constructions Pty Ltd, especially managing director Chris Judges, project manager Ty Nguyen and Foreman Jimmy Candava, and our City staff, including public art conservation program manager Marie Stucci and our City Projects project manager, Terry Byrnes.

You've done a wonderful job. Thank you.