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The suburb of Petersham in Sydney's inner-west suburbs was among the first land outside of the colony in Sydney to be cultivated for agricultural crops. With fresh food a scarcity in the early years of the colony, well irrigated land just outside of the town centre was quickly put to use, and the Petersham Estate which landowner Lieutenant-Governor, Major Francis Grose named after his home town in England, was one of many convict farms in the inner west. With the trees cleared, Indian corn was the first crop successfully grown on the Petersham Estate and along with nearby farms alongside the Cooks River, Petersham would become one of the more successful food production farms in the inner city.
In 1831 prominent and controversial Sydney barrister and co-founder and editor of The Australian Robert Wardell bought several large land grants in the area including the original Petersham Estate. His 2500 acre estate stretched down as far as the Cooks River and along with grain crops, was in the majority uncleared acres of timber reserves which had his property of very high value at the time. Upon finding runaway convicts living in a makeshift humpy on the fringes of his property one afternoon, Wardell confronted the escapees and the fight that ensued ended with Wardell shot to death. With no living relatives to whom his estate could be granted, Wardell's estate was given to close friend and co-editor of the Australian William Charles Wentworth who would subsequently subdivide and sell the land.
With Sydney's population continuing to grow, these large residential allotments were favoured with the wealthy merchants of Sydney looking to escape the industrial city centre and with the railway line extended through the area in 1855, Petersham's popularity as a residential suburb grew. The legacy of this period of wealth and prosperity in Petersham can be seen today in the suburbs grand Victorian mansions, which can still be found along many of its main streets. The more wealthy residents of Petersham would begin to move from the area by the 1870s yet residential development in Petersham would only increase as workers from the surrounding industrial areas such as Marrickville looked to move locally.
Historic, heritage listed, public architecture is one of the features of Petersham which includes the railway station, the former public school and church on Gordon Street and the water tower amongst others. Petersham Railway Station which was built in 1870 is one of the few remaining 19th century train stations in Sydney with its heritage iron lace work amongst the stations original Victorian features. The Petersham Water Tower, Petersham's most distinguishing landmark, was also established at this time. With the Upper Nepean Scheme coming into effect in 1888 providing Sydney with a permanent water supply for the first time, the Petersham Reservoir was the first tower commissioned to be built to take advantage of this radical new engineering feat. The initial smaller covered reservoir was added to in 1965 with the large elevated structure which now dominates the skyline in Petersham part of these additions.
The suburbs of the inner west all experienced a high number of refugees from Southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia in the 20 year period between 1950 and 1970 and Petersham would become home to large Greek and Portuguese communities. The proliferation of Portuguese eateries along Petersham's main shopping strip on New Canterbury Road has led to the suburb today referred to as 'Little Portugal'.