A few days ago, at a small foundry in Western Sydney, two bronze statues were cast of one of the unsung giants of Australian history.
The statues depict a 12-year-old boy, book in hand, bag on his back, eyes fixed firmly ahead, determinedly walking to school.
The boy is James Martin, after whom Martin Place is named.
Though thousands of people walk up and down Martin Place every day, few know much about Martin the man.
Born in 1820, he spent his early years growing up in servants’ quarters at Parramatta.
His family was Irish Catholic — his father a servant and his mother a convict’s daughter.
Being a Catholic of servant and convict stock meant the odds were stacked against him.
His kind were persona non grata in the early days of the colony.
But the boy from the west had intelligence and pluck, and from an early age he was determined to make the most of whatever opportunities the new colony would offer him.
At just 12 years of age he set to attending the colony’s best school, later to become Sydney Grammar.
When his father could not find work closer to the school in Sydney, the child declared, “that’s alright father, I’ll walk”.
And so he walked, hitched and did whatever it took to make the 20km journey to and from school each day.
It’s a feat that seems unthinkable today. From these ambitious but humble beginnings, Martin would go on to become a journalist, editor of The Australian newspaper, premier of NSW three times, attorney-general and then chief justice of NSW.
He remains the only person to have held all three positions.
It’s not just his CV that holds lessons for us today — it is also his values.
He was a fierce champion of the colony’s self-reliance.
He was an architect of Australia’s first public education system and he created programs to help kids who hung about the streets and were illiterate.
He also set up the Mint so that we would not have to depend on England for our coinage, and he played a key role in the first constitution.
On the day of his funeral, Henry Parkes decided the muddy track which we now know as Martin Place should be named after this forgotten founding father of an independent NSW.
Martin’s legacy is the free and prosperous nation we live in today.
But it is that early determination of Martin the boy that is captured in the statues cast last week, crafted under the expert hands of veteran sculptor Alan Somerville, whose craftsmanship also gave us the valiant soldiers standing guard on the Anzac bridge.
The casting of the statues is timely.
Right now in Australia we are in the middle of a challenging but important public conversation about our nation’s history, spurred on by a call from Stan Grant to better recognise our nation’s indigenous past.
Grant has emphasised that his is a call for unity, not division.
Condemning the extremists who vandalised Sydney’s historical monuments over the weekend, Grant told The Australian newspaper, “Those statues are our history — they tell us who we have been, which is why I would not want them removed.
“I want a national story that speaks for us all.”
Right now some are calling for historical statues to be torn down.
But it is also important that Australia continues to commemorate those who have made a significant contribution to the nation we are today.
That is what the new statues of James Martin will do.
Martin’s legacy, captured in the youthful, hopeful, resourceful stride of a 12-year-old boy, is one that can be an inspiration to all Australians.
This is especially the case for young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is hoped that the two statues will find homes in Parramatta, where Martin’s journey began, and in Martin Place, where his memory is honoured.
They will stand as a reminder of the opportunities that abound here in Australia — of the great things that can be achieved even if the odds are stacked against you.