150 Years of Penrith City Council

On Tuesday 18 of July 1871, Penrith Council met for the first time. The meeting was chaired by the elected mayor, James J Riley, and there were eight elected aldermen present. This year marks 150 years since this historic beginning.

Penrith holds a unique place in the world: where a global city meets rugged mountains at a mighty river. Our lifestyle is second-to-none. We embody innovation and economic momentum; yet at the same time, we value our wide-open spaces and access to nature. We embrace everything this lucky country has to offer us.

The lands we call home have seen agricultural pastures for animals, a penal colony, a vast factory producing ammunition for far-flung wars; these lands have been sacred country for the Dharug people for thousands of years. Our City has been home to convicts, who were deported from England and incarcerated at Emu Plains, then made to work in iron-gangs to build the treacherous Zig Zag Road, now known as Old Bathurst Road. Even female convicts were incarcerated at Emu Plains.

There have been many firsts: the first successful expedition by European settlers to cross the Blue Mountains set off from South Creek in Orchard Hills in 1813. The first notable bushranger gang became active around Penrith and neighbouring districts: John Donohue and his gang of bushrangers terrorised our area until he was finally shot by a soldier in 1830.

Penrith's Pivotal Position

Its location in this pivotal position on the Western Road ensured that Penrith City became instrumental in the history of NSW. It was the construction of the mighty Victoria Bridge, which we still use today, that allowed for the gold fields west of the Great Dividing Range to open. As the gold rush unfolded, the amount of traffic into and through Penrith increased exponentially, with hoards of hopeful miners travelling west to try their luck, and many inns, hotels, shops and services springing up to cater to them.

The coming of the railway and Penrith station in the late 1860s were inextricably linked with our district’s development. As the area grew in economic importance, the desire for local government began to stir. It took many petitions from local landowners and residents expressing their desire for a voice in matters affecting them – along with many counter petitions arguing against it – until, on 12 May 1871, the district of Penrith was proclaimed a municipality, announced in the NSW Government Gazette the following day. The population of the Penrith township at that time was 836.

Early Local Government

At the time only men could be elected to Council, and once elected they were called aldermen. The first Mayor was J.J. Riley, a prominent man who lived on a 2,000 acre property at Mulgoa where he bred fine sheep and thoroughbred horses, who served as a local magistrate for over 30 years. Among the other eight aldermen were a local butcher, two publicans – one of whom built the Red Cow Inn – a storekeeper, an Irish farmer and a bootmaker. The local undertaker was appointed clerk.

They set about building the frameworks of a local government, passing bylaws and introducing improvements to increase public safety, health and wellbeing. At the time there were very few well-formed roads in our district, so installing kerbs and guttering was one of Council's first tasks. They negotiated to receive half the funds from the toll over the Victoria Bridge. And more bridges, drains and culverts were put in place to deal with the drainage problems that plagued the district, which often led to life or death situations.

“Cleanliness combined with good drainage is one of the best preventatives,” as written by The Nepean Times in 1884. Outbreaks of diseases like typhoid, diphtheria and scarlet fever were often deadly, particularly in the lower lying areas, and more so when residents would leave rubbish in holes and gutters. Sanitary conditions would rapidly improve once Council enacted a series of bylaws to address these problems.

Lineage of Innovation

There is a long lineage of innovation in our City: in 1890, Penrith became the first town in the Sydney Region to connect to electricity. With much fanfare, Penrith switched on street lights and made electricity available in private homes, only the third town in NSW to do so after Tamworth and Young.

In the early 1920s, when residents were still burying or burning their household rubbish in the backyards, Council introduced a regular garbage collection service. Waste was taken to a former garbage tip within Penrith Park, and used to build up low-lying grounds. The inspiration for this came from Sydney’s Centennial Park, which also used rubbish to build up lower areas. This new garbage removal service improved air quality and the health of residents.

Council has always been a strong supporter of sports in our district, championing the establishment of Nepean Rowing Club in 1928. Council’s donation of 15 pounds for the establishment of the club caused a stir at the time, leading one alderman to quit in protest, but Council argued that nothing could bring crowds to our River like rowing could.

Over time, Penrith and our neighbours joined together: in 1949, St Marys, Castlereagh and part of the Nepean Shire amalgamated, joined in 1963 by Emu Plains and Emu Heights. As Penrith expanded, our sense of civic pride grew too – a perfect example of this was the centenary celebrations in 1971.

Centenary Celebrations

The 100th anniversary of the municipality of Penrith was honoured with City-wide fanfare, the likes of which we don’t see anymore. To kick things off, the Mayor fired a pistol into the air. A procession of floats representing 120 local organisations paraded through the streets of St Marys and Penrith. A ball was held at Penrith Leagues Club , plus an elegant garden party took place at the beautiful Combewood homestead. An aquatic carnival on the Nepean River featured canoe races and a demonstration by ‘kite-man’ who flew above the water. The Nepean District Tennis Association set a new world record for endurance tennis, with a single game lasting for 50 hours. A picnic day at Penrith Showground featured amusement rides, novelty races and a parachute jumper. As the celebrations continued, crowds flocked to art exhibitions, concerts, a flower show, BBQs and fireworks displays. A banner commemorating 100 years was displayed on the front façade of the Council Chambers, which inspired the banner hanging above the entrance to the Civic Centre today.

As we look ahead to the next 150 years – in which Penrith will become a global City in our own right, with world-class parks, well-connected employment hubs and a quality of life second to none – we acknowledge the achievements of our past and of the people whose shoulders we stand on.

Celebrating 150 Years - Get involved 

SPEAKER SESSION 1: 30 JUNE 2021, 5.30PM

A panel speaker session with local historians to shed light on the history of the Penrith LGA since it first became a municipality with just 836 people in 1871, was strengthened by the inclusion of St Marys, Castlereagh and parts of what was then the Nepean Shire in 1949, and Emu Plains and Emu Heights in 1963 – when the lifestyle and economic heartland that is the Penrith LGA as we know it today was finally formed. Register online – limited places available.
Speakers: Beth Moore and Craig Werner, Nepean District Historical Society
Norma Thorburn, St Marys and District Historical Society
Location: Penrith City Library Theatrette, 5.30pm to 7pm

SPEAKER SESSION 2: 28 JULY 2021, 5.30PM

Lorraine Stacker wrote the book on Penrith’s history – literally. Hear some of the stories that shaped our LGA from Penrith’s leading historian. Then go behind the scenes to learn about some of the events and actions that shaped Penrith Council from a long-term former Council employee and local historian, Jim Mason. Register online – limited places available.
Speakers: Lorraine Stacker, Jim Mason
Location: Penrith City Library Theatrette, 5.30pm to 7pm

150TH ANNIVERSARY COMMUNITY CELEBRATION TRIANGLE PARK – 16 JULY, 6PM

This family-friendly event will celebrate our City’s heritage and culture, both past and present, with live music, food and beverages, and immersive historical experiences.
Location: Triangle Park and High Street (from Station Street), 16 July, 6pm to 10pm

See the Historical Display and Win

Win one of five $50 vouchers, simply by taking in some local history! Head down to Penrith City Library and see the incredible historical display showcasing artefacts from the last 150 years, such as the seal commissioned by our the very first Council in 1871. Once you have seen the display, tell us which item interested you the most and why. Entries should be 200 words or less and emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by Sunday 18 July.

Terms and conditions

  • By entering the competition, entrants agree to the following terms and conditions: 
  • Employees of Penrith City Council are excluded from entering the competition. 
  • Entries are open at 9am on Thursday 3 June and close at 11:59pm on Sunday 18 July 2021.
  • There is a total of 5 prizes on offer.
  • The entries will be judged by a panel.
  • The decisions of the judging panel will be final.
  • Prizes are limited to one per entrant.
  • Council will notify the winning entrants via email on Monday 2nd August 2021.
  • Council is not liable for any loss or damage whatsoever that is suffered by any entrant or winner as a result of the competition or use of prizes, except for any liability that cannot be excluded by law. 
  • Council in no way sponsors or endorses the suppliers of prizes.