Nestled in the growing suburbia of North-Western Sydney there is a suburb with a name that has made a few of we Ancient Historians and History Enthusiasts turn our heads - Marsfield, also known as The Field of Mars. How did we end up with the Field of Mars so far away from Rome?
The Field of Mars: Australia.
Nestled in the growing suburbia of North-Western Sydney there is a suburb with a name that has made a few of we Ancient Historians and History Enthusiasts turn our heads - Marsfield, also known as The Field of Mars. Cuddled by Epping, Pymble, Macquarie Park and Ryde, there sits a place by the name of ‘Marsfield,’ which instantly brings up the memory of ‘The Field of Mars,’ otherwise known as the ‘Campus Martius,’ - the ancient military grounds of Rome. In a country so far from Rome, both in distance and in time, why would there be a place named after the famous Campus Martius, the Great Field of Mars in Australia? Where did this name come from?
Myth, Legacy or History?
A quick investigation led to finding that Marsfield was originally called ‘The Field of Mars,’ the first records of this name being used is in reference to the land grants given to Issac Archer and John Colethread on the 3rd of January 1792 (Shaw, Cashman 2002). The story goes that the land grants were given to these two men by Governor Phillip, who named the area ‘Field of Mars’ to pay homage to their service as marines (Levy 1947; Shaw, Cashman 2002; Ryde Recorder 1988-1989). This explanation perpetuated by local historians makes sense, these men having served in military service for a good while; why not pay tribute to their history with a reference to the god of war and the ground on which soldiers trained under his eye? Such a story is a nice sentiment, and the answer seems to be given right there. The trouble is, there is no primary evidence to say whether this was the case.
Despite its shrouded origins, the name seemed to catch on, spreading its legacy beyond the plots of land which were originally given to the two ex-marines. As more land grants were given out and the population began to grow and increase occupation, the name spread, becoming the name for specific areas, such as the ‘Field of Mars Common,’ land designated for the common use of the people; and the ‘Field of Mars Parish,’ parish being a term for a designated administrative area (Dawson, Elliott, 2021). But the name ‘Field of Mars’ became a general term to refer to the land surrounding the ‘Field of Mars’ from the first land grants, all the way down to the Parramatta River (Shaw, Cashman 2002). What was considered the Field of Mars changed with boundary and council reassignments and the introduction of a greater population creating the need for more suburbs. All that remains is a small 3.863 square kilometres of land called Marsfield, a reserve, and a cemetery that cling to the areas original name, though they are far from the land that has been left to carry its legacy (Australia’s Guide 2021).
The Father of the Name
To learn more about why it was called the Field of Mars, we look at the life of Governor Arthur Phillip (1738-1814), the man attributed to naming the land ‘The Field of Mars.’ Phillip grew up living and breathing the navy. He started his naval career at the tender age of 13, studying at the Greenwich school for the sons of seamen (Pembroke 2013, p9). The foundational teachings of this school were naval skills and basic academics. There appears to be no classical education included in their curriculum, though there is a chance that he could have come across classical concepts on account of his father being a language teacher (Parker 2010, pp2-3). The problem with this is that his father died when Phillip was an infant, thus if there was any chance his father’s unknown education could have been an influence on him, it would have been in legacy only. We can also speculate that Phillip could have learned things of a classical nature from any number of people and places that he had visited. Knowing even a little about Rome could have come at any time in Governor Arthur Phillips life. But this is all based on speculation. It is impossible to pin-point exactly where he could have learned enough of Rome for it to have an influence in his choice of place names.
The Two Marines
We know even less about the two marines who were given the original land grants in the area, [Issac Archer] (https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/8-cRCOMK7YcGMq3pHPHcq3?domain=peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au ) and John Colethread. Their lives and exploits have not been well documented, their legacy is remembered in the archives of historical societies, the rabbit holes of historians and in the lines of personal family trees. Both men were marines, serving under the company of James Campbell (Gillen, Browning, 1989, p10). They were given the land grants at the completion of their service as an incentive to stay in Australia rather than to travel back to England (People Australia, 2021). Both men joined the navy at young ages, and little is known about their family. Issac Archer did well in Australia. He married Sarah Burdo in 1794, to whom there is no record of children. Archer owned a substantial amount of land in the Field of Mars area. Upon his death, his land was given to Edward Aiken (People Australia, 2021). John Colethread, unlike his older brother in arms, did not have much success as a farmer. His family were required to live on stores, and much of his land was eventually sold. (People Australia, 2021).
It is impossible to see if they had any classical learning that may have influenced the naming of the area. It could be possible that they had never heard of ‘The Field of Mars,’ until the name was given to the lands on which they were about to settle. Again, there is no proof or evidence of this, it is only another possibility out of an innumerable number of hypothetical origins.
The Legacy of The Field of Mars
What is the key lesson from all this? What are the origins of the name? Unfortunately, we do not know. We can track the changes over the last almost 250 years of the area called the Field of Mars and see how its name has influenced the changes over time, such as how many street names in modern Marsfield are named after wars. But as to the reason for its name, we can only speculate. The story that has been told thus far will have to suffice, paying homage to the lives of the men that settled the area, and to Rome. No matter the stretch or how far, all roads lead to Rome. So, what’s in a name? Sometimes more than we will ever know. Yet the name survives and its legacy lives on, even if we cannot know its actual origins behind the name the Field of Mars.
Australias Guide 2021, ‘Marsfield’, viewed 13th of May 2021, https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/BMHACWLVn6ikVl05fBEGyS?domain=australias.guide
Cashman, G. ‘The Field of Mars and Field of Mars Common’ in Ryde Recorder Vol. 22-23 1988-1989.
Dawson, J., Elliott, G 2021, ‘The original Land grants’, Ryde History, the Ryde District Historical society, viewed 18th of march, 2021. https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/3PBmCXLW6DiJWpmXhxi4Q5?domain=rydehistory.org.au
Gillen, M & Browning, Y 1989, The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Library of Australian History, Sydney.
Levy, M. C. I. 1947, “Wallumetta” A History of Ryde and Its District 1792 to 1945, W. E. Smith LTD, Sydney.
Parker, D 2010, Arthur Phillip: Australia’s First Governor, Woodslane Press, Warriewood.
Pembroke, M 2013, Arthur Phillip: sailor, mercenary, governor, spy. Hardie Grant Books, Ultimo.
People Australia, 2021, Colethread, John (1761–1802)’, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 18th of March 2021, https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/7OHDCYW86Es8wG5LtrBMOp?domain=peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au
People Australia, 2021, Archer, Isaac (1754–1836), National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 18th of March 2021, https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/jm1JCZY146sG0Oz5HVDgq6?domain=peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au
Shaw, K., Cashman, G. 2002, ‘Field of Mars Grants’, In Historic Ryde: A Guide to some significant heritage sites in the city of the city of Ryde, PLT Print Solutions, Frenches Forest.
The British Museum 2021, Alter, Viewed 20th of May 2021, https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/lmw_C1WLjwsRlv8MfKeHLb?domain=britishmuseum.org