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A brief history of the University of Sydney

Take a quick trip through time and learn about the University's past
Did you know that the University of Sydney is the oldest university in Australia? Founded in 1850, our Camperdown/Darlington campus was established on the land of the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation.

Our founding principle as Australia’s first university was that we would be a modern and progressive institution, supporting students of all backgrounds to further their education. These values haven't changed – but as you can see, our campus and its surroundings certainly have!

University of Sydney Archives, 224_0470
View of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, St. John’s College, Missenden Road and Environs, 1880. 

In the beginning

In 1852, when the University first opened its doors, students had just a few subjects to choose from, such as the classics, sciences and mathematics. They could also study what were then called ‘modern’ subjects, like French, German and political thought. 

University of Sydney Archives, 224_2714
Group of Students and Staff, 1880


In 1856 the first degrees were granted, and in 1881, the University of Sydney became one of the first universities in the world to accept female students. 

The Quadrangle 

Today, our world-famous Quadrangle is a place for study and sightseeing, but before this the site was actually first used as a military camp. Later on, it became Grose Farm, which employed convicts. It’s hard to believe that the lawns that students relax on today were once inhabited by cows!

University of Sydney Archives, 224_0285 
View of St. John’s College and Grounds with cows in foreground, 1860. 


In 1854, Australian architect Edward Blacket accepted an invitation to design the University’s first buildings. The Main Quadrangle was built in Victorian Gothic style, based on the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge. 

University of Sydney Archives, 224_0223
Stonemason Carving Gargoyle for MacLaurin Hall, 1908. 


The Quadrangle’s gargoyles are over 100 years old and can be spotted all over the building. There are many throughout the University – keep an eye out for them when you're wandering around campus. 

University of Sydney Archives, 1_0005
Main Quadrangle, n.d.

Fisher Library

In 1851 the University Senate formed a committee to select books for the soon-to-be Fisher Library. More than 50 years after the library committee was formed, Fisher Library opened to the public in 1909. 

University of Sydney Archives, 224_0095
Fisher Library Stack Building under construction, 1966. 


In 1967, Fisher Library became the first university library in Australia to obtain one million volumes. Today, the University of Sydney Library is the largest academic library in the Southern Hemisphere with over five million items. 

University of Sydney Archives, 1_1084
Students Studying in Fisher Library, 1987. 

Student Life

The University of Sydney Union (USU) was established in 1874 and in 1914, the Sydney University Women’s Union (SUWU) was formed. 

University of Sydney Archives, 224_1177_3
Orientation Week on Science Road, 1971. 


In 1929, the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) was formed and the first edition of Honi Soit, the only weekly student publication in Australia, was printed. 

University of Sydney Archives, 224_2628
Carslaw Building from Eastern Avenue, 1965. 


Images provided with permission by the University Archives and Records Management. Visit the University archives

25 August 2020

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