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The first chapter

17 August 2017
A document that is one of our most important artefacts

Even older than the University's oldest buildings, the first book of Senate Minutes is kept safe in our Archives. Every carefully written word represents the nation-changing ambition that defined the birth of the University of Sydney. 

Senate minutes

Behind a security door on the ninth floor of Fisher Library, you’ll find the University of Sydney Archives. The office windows offer expansive district views, but the real interest is the document storage room where no natural light is allowed.

Here, where the temperature and humidity carefully monitored, you’ll find some of the University’s precious documents. One of the most important is the large volume in which the minutes of the very first Senate meeting in 1851, are carefully handwritten, together with the minutes of many meetings that followed.

The prose is lean and business-like, written in a meticulous, cursive script. Yet subsequent meetings were clearly written by a different hand. This is possibly because the minutes of the first Senate meeting were written by a clerk of the NSW Legislative Council, where the first meeting was held. Records show that by the second meeting, the University had employed its own clerk who probably wrote the minutes.

Looking at the first page, it’s hard to imagine that at the time, the site that would be proposed for the University in 1853 was a wide open landscape dotted with cows. It wasn’t until 1854 that the influential architect, Edmund Blacket, presented his plans for the campus buildings that are now so familiar and precious.

That first Senate comprised 16 men aged 35 to 60, none of whom had experience managing a tertiary institution. Controversially, only three members of the Senate were clergymen as WC Wentworth, a driving force in creating the University, was determined that the institution would be secular and welcome people of all faiths.

Sydney’s population in 1853 was fewer than 60,000 people, but Wentworth was part of a growing realisation that Australia needed to start educating its own leaders rather than sending them to England to be educated. The intentions of the first Senate, with its pastoralists, merchants, lawyers, clergy, judges, government officials and one doctor, can still be seen in the minutes as they plan for a University that will help make Australia its own nation.

Details of the lives of some of the first Senate fellows are sketchy yet dramatic: it seems at least two were involved in duels, one was stabbed to death by a hospital patient, and another headed home to Scotland but was lost at sea.

Read the Minutes

You can read copies of the actual Minutes at: sydney.edu.au/arms/archives/foundation

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