The grassy waterfront land on the eastern side of Launceston’s yacht basin wasn’t officially named Royal Park until 1912 but is significant as the place where Europeans first camped as they explored the head of the newly explored estuary that was to be named the Tamar River.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson, sent by the British Government from Sydney to settle northern Van Diemens Land, gave a glowing report of the countryside after his first view of it on 1 December 1804.
“The country is general hilly with large fragments of granite ... the grass everywhere excellent pasture ground, of a superior quality of Seven Hills near Parramatta.
"The wood is in general very lofty but the trees thinly dispersed which gives a beautiful appearance to the eye."
The area that was to become Royal Park was probably the most convenient place for setting up a camp for the explorers.
John and David Morris, in their book History In Our Streets, note that the settlers landed near where Ritchies Mill now stands but set up their tents on the rising ground to the east.
Despite his favourable report Paterson was obliged to set up his headquarters at York Town, near the entrance to the Tamar River, to ensure no other European colonial power should try to settle the area the British had named Port Dalrymple.
Paterson’s choice for his settlement was based on the availability of fresh water but the site at York Town was flood prone and in 1806 Paterson removed his headquarters to the head of the river where they had found more amenable land.
The fledgling settlement was named Patersonia in his honour but he was then ordered to remove the military headquarters to York Cove, at George Town, to better defend the northern part of the colony.
By the time Paterson was recalled to Sydney in1809 the merits of the lands at the head of the river were well recognised and preferred by the free settlers for grazing their stock.
Following his tour of Van Diemens Land in 1821, Governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered the construction of a new gaol, hospital and military barracks in the settlement that had become Launceston. After the British garrison was moved back to Launceston the town started to expand.
The Tasmanian Heritage Register submission for Royal Park says that the first military barracks were ‘‘on the top of a hill overlooking the Tamar and was known as Soldier’s Hill’’, the location being predominantly the western section of Launceston’s Royal Park.
By 1826, with the town’s population approaching 2000, there were three long buildings fronting on Paterson Street as well as sheds and workshops. Maps of the area a few years later show there were officers’ quarters and a small hospital.
Government, residential and commercial buildings sprang up nearby including the town courthouse and jail. For some years a gibbet stood at the top end of the park in Paterson Street, and the bodies of executed criminals were left to dissuade law breakers.
But the area was also used for recreation and the Cornwall Chronicle reported on Saturday 2 September 1837 the formation of the Tamar Yacht Club. The purpose of the club was to organise a regatta to mark the Queen's Birthday (Queen Victoria had ascended the British throne on 20 June 1837).
Eight boats were entered for the Tamar regatta of 24 November 1838 – a week before Governor John Franklin’s official Tasmanian regatta on the Derwent River. The Tamar Regatta of 24 November 1838, held on Home Reach, was the first public regatta held in Tasmania
The walled military barracks were expanded over the next few years to accommodate up to 100 soldiers but in 1846 the Launceston military command was disbanded.
The heritage register submission says that for several years, the empty building proved something of a dilemma for the Government but in 1868, the old military barracks were adapted into the Launceston Invalid Depot for the increasing numbers of poor and destitute, many the legacy of the convict system.
‘‘By 1870 the site had become so crowded that the gaol across the road was being used for extra accommodation.’’
In 1885 local astronomer Alfred Biggs established the Royal Park Observatory. Biggs, a teacher, had assisted a US expedition that had observed the transit of Venus in 1875 at Campbell Town.
He took and recorded weather data as well at the Royal Park Observatory, which operated in association with the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery that opened nearby in 1891.
The Tamar Yacht Club was granted a lease on a section of the waterfront in 1885. On 3 December 1884, the Daily Telegraph reported that Mr Alfred Jones, Superintendent of the Invalid Depot “had no objection to the granting of a portion of reclaimed land for the erection of a shed and flagstaff for the Tamar Yacht Club.” The yacht Club’s first clubhouse and slipway was constructed on the site in 1891.
When the Government in Hobart handed control of the land and other parks and reserves in Launceston to the city council in 1889 the area was still known generally as the Invalid Depot Grounds.
The Launceston Benevolent Society took over management of the buildings in 1895 but by 1912, after the city council decided to make the area a public reserve, the buildings were sold or demolished.
The visit in 1912 by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scout movement, was used to officially name Royal Park. On Saturday, June 8, Sir Robert laid a stone that was to accommodate a 4-metre statue of the late King Edward VII.
In its editorial of Monday, June 10, 1912, The Examiner saw the ceremony as a way of accelerating the beautification of the area. ‘‘Now that the first stone has been laid the statue, presumably will be pushed to completion and prove a worthy adornment of the ground which a few years hence promise to be so beautiful an addition to the list of our city reserves.’’
Because of World War I, it wasn’t until December 1918 that the bronze statue of ‘Edward The Peacemaker’ was installed in its current position at Royal Park.
The heritage register nomination notes that in the 1920s a number of local organisations became involved in the development of the park as it evolved in to a popular recreational area. Sailing and rowing clubs had organised sporting events on the waters of Home Reach for many years, and the Launceston Bowls and Croquet Club was established there in 1885.
The Launceston Cenotaph was erected in Royal Park in 1922 and remains the focal point for Anzac Day and remembrance ceremonies.
The great flood of 1929 caused enormous damage to boats and buildings but the clubs were quickly rebuilt. The construction of Launceston’s Flood Protection Scheme in the early 1960s saw the erection of the concrete wall that runs nearly the full length of Royal Park and protects lower parts of the city from inundation.
A decade later, the construction of the Northern Outlet road bisected the park. Despite the modern incursions, the heritage register listing says that Royal Park is important for archaeological reasons as well as its history and recreational values.
‘‘The historic Royal Park is however an important part of the city’s recreational and administrative history as well as an integral part of the Launceston civic precinct.’’
Royal Park South, that part of the reserve fronting onto Paterson Street, was listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register in 2010.