History of the Macarthur

Sydney’s Macarthur region has played a pivotal role in the development of what is now modern-day Australia. Situated on foothills bordered by the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands, Macarthur has long been a stepping stone to regional New South Wales, and was the site of many Australian firsts. It encompasses the centres of Campbelltown, Camden and Picton, and is home to around 240,000 residents.

So how did Macarthur develop from rolling farmland into the vibrant metropolis that it is today? Let’s take a look at the area’s often intriguing past.


The beginnings of human settlement of what is now Macarthur began with the arrival of the Tharawal people. While our knowledge of the lives of the Tharawal is limited to rock carvings, cave paintings and dreamtime stories passed down from generation to generation, we can garner that the Tharawal area reached from Shoalhaven to Botany Bay and across to modern-day Macarthur.

The Tharawal were skilled hunter-gatherers, and subsisted on a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat and fish (as seen in various shell midden sites in the Macarthur area). While the Tharawal were decimated with the arrival of the Europeans and the language is now extinct, some aboriginal Australians claim to be descended from Tharawal ancestors.

European Settlement

Shortly after the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, four cows and two bulls escaped their pen in Botany Bay and were quickly presumed lost or dead by the settlers. 7 years later an exploration party was mapping the grassy region between Nepean and Georges Rivers – modern day Macarthur – and stumbled upon a greatly expanded herd of 61 cattle. While the animals were deemed too wild to be tamed, and were subsequently destroyed, the area was soon christened ‘Cowpastures’ and was earmarked for cattle grazing.

The Macarthurs

It would be another 8 years before the area saw any real use, however, and it would take two particularly hardy souls to make it happen. The Macarthurs – John and Elizabeth – had initially arrived on Australian soil in 1790 where John acted as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. John was famous for his quarrels with the then New South Wales Governor Phillip, and this abrasive, argumentative temperament meant that the Macarthur’s first few years in Australia were rather unproductive.

Things changed when Governor Grose took over the colony in 1792. Grose took a shine to the Macarthurs, initially promoting John to Inspector of Public Works, then granting him land in Parramatta to try his hand at agriculture. John and Elizabeth proved to be naturals, and their proficiency at rearing Spanish Merino sheep (which John had personally shipped in) meant that in 1803 they were granted 5,000 acres of land in Cowpastures to expand their flock.

All Australian merino can be traced back to the Macarthurs, and their skill in rearing sheep has resulted in Australian merino being the most prized wool on the planet, and the Australian sheep industry supplying around a quarter of the world’s wool. Much of the credit must go to Elizabeth, who ran the farm alone for years at a time as John was first court-martialled for his involvement in a duel, then exiled from New South Wales between 1808 and 1817 for his role in the Rum Rebellion. What’s more, John and Elizabeth’s sons, William and James, are responsible for introducing winemaking to Australia.

It could be argued that no one family has had as great an impact on the modern day trade and economics of Australia as the Macarthurs did. And for their pioneering efforts, their Cowpastures acreage was renamed Macarthur in their honour.

From Rural to Urban

Initially sheep runs and outposts on the Macarthur property, Campbelltown, Camden and Picton eventually developed into small townships. These regional centres initially fed the local farming industry, but as Sydney slowly invaded the Macarthur region the townships have turned into satellite suburbs.

The region is now one of the quickest growing in greater Sydney, with suburbs such as Glen Alpine, Nangarin Estate, Macquarie LinksHarrington ParkBlair AtholEnglorie ParkMount Annan and Currans Hill all cropping up in just the last few decades. But while development is ever-accelerating, Macarthur has still managed to retain a relaxed, rural feel, and is seen by many Sydneysiders as the gateway to the outback.

From the humblest of beginnings, Macarthur has developed into a thriving semi-urban semi-rural area that can claim to be home to some of the most historically significant sites in all of Australia. With one eye on the past but the other firmly on the future, Macarthur is a region that all visitors – Australian or international – can enjoy immersing themselves in.