Though one of the University’s smaller campuses in terms of enrolment, Hawkesbury is large in area (1300ha) and complex in its offerings and traditions. Founded in 1891 as an agricultural college of the NSW Department of Mines (and by the time it opened, ‘...and Agriculture’), it always was intended to link school-leaver/ vocational education with high level research. (Until the 1950s, degrees could only be done at the University of Sydney.)

Some of the most significant names of Australian science, such as William Farrer, would be associated with the site. Indefatigable promoter of education, Reverend James Cameron made available his historic house in Richmond (‘Toxana’) as a temporary residence, while students and lecturers undertook their first practical agricultural training by clearing and fencing the site. The first lectures were held in Andrew Town’s House in Richmond. Buildings came slowly, keeping ‘town and gown’ closely knit until the first student residences were opened in 1896. The Principal’s residence (now Yarramundi House) was ready by 1894, but the brick administration block was not constructed until the 1920s. The more practical buildings – such as the first bales, barns etc, and Stable Square (1895), which was constructed to house draught horses and machinery — came first, followed by the specialist buildings (e.g. the Science Lecture Theatre, 1899). The Quadrangle Buildings were constructed between 1895 and 1907. Some Hawkesbury plant structures, such as the generating plant, and the Riverfarm Pumping station (1909), long remained important contributors to Richmond civic infrastructure. Through Walter Vernon, Stable Square has an architectural link to the Vernon complex on the Parramatta campus and, through refurbishment and masterplanning by Philip Cox, with the design concepts of the Campbelltown campus. The campus as a whole has an association with iconic Aboriginal leader Yarramundi and so with the Nirimba campus.

The conundrum of the campus was a combination of distance from Sydney, its ties to government agencies and, from the 1970s, its relatively expensive discipline mix. Distance meant that it could not rely on day students, and developed across most of its life a tight residential culture suited to the passing on of identity. In Australian educational circles, therefore, Hawkesbury and Duntroon in Canberra are thus often mentioned in the same breath and developed strong mutual ties, competition and a tendency to turn up in the media for similar reasons. The acronym ‘HAC’ forged on the rugby and cricket field (the sacred turf which still dominates the centre of the campus) from the elements of shared rural background and experience of war (HAC students served conspicuously in the Boer and Korean conflicts, and the two World Wars), would remain part of the University’s iconography long after the ‘College’ itself had disappeared. Another attempt to overcome the tyranny of distance was the expansion into nursing programs at Blacktown and Concord hospitals, and eventually the development of the Nirimba campus.

Its ties to government agencies meant, on the one hand, a sort of protected association with scientific and industrial agencies (such as the CSIRO, but also pastoral companies such as Dalgetty’s), but on the other hand the tendency to be blown around by Departmental policy changes. The expansion of the number of agricultural education centres around NSW (Tocal, Orange, Riverina, etc) and then competing degree courses in universities (Sydney, then NSW, UNE, Newcastle, and later Charles Sturt) kept student numbers at Hawkesbury under threat from shifts in the take-up of rural vocations and agribusiness, even when it was the largest of the providers. A review of the delivery of agricultural education in the early 1990s (the McColl Report), which pointed to the closure of Agriculture on Hawkesbury, was successfully avoided. By the mid-2000s, however, it was clear that the discipline was in trouble.

By then, however, the College’s leadership had been energetically expanding its offerings – first, by reconstituting itself as a College of Advanced Education (through which process it separated itself from the Department of Agriculture), and then by absorbing new disciplines, such as nursing, building, hospitality, business and the like. This meant the end of the all-male residential culture from 1972. In 1972, Hawkesbury had 285 students, and by the early 1990s it boasted a population of over 2,500 students, many of whom were international students drawn by the campus’ scientific specialisations. After the redistribution of students onto the Nirimba campus in 1996, this was still not enough to satisfy ever-inflating viability criteria, and so the University began to proactively develop the site as (along with its continuing undergraduate programs) a specialist research campus. The world-class achievements of Snow Barlow, Paul Baumgartner and others in plant science, sustainability and ecological science resulted in the establishment of the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, a congeries of programs which drew external funding and made the most of Hawkesbury’s extensive land holdings (for instance, the Eucalyptus Free Air CO2 Enrichment experiment, and sustainability developments on the Riverfarm).

Apart from its research and teaching activities, over time the Hawkesbury campus became, as Parramatta did, an important receptacle for regional memory. When St. Paul's Anglican Church Agnes Banks (1893) was scheduled for demolition, for example, the desire to commemorate long-serving Hawkesbury Deputy Owen Carter caused conversations, and the old church building was relocated to the Hawkesbury campus as the ‘Owen Carter Memorial Chapel’ (1991). The aggregation of such buildings, the scattering of old staff houses and design features (such as the Fairy Circle) amidst the new science blocks, and the combination of concentration and expanse, provides the now well-manicured campus with a stately expansiveness which rarely fails to impress itself upon visitors.