Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

Part V — Sussex Street and Darling Harbour

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1864.

Part five of an eight-part series published in the Sydney Morning Herald between 12 May 1864 and 15 July 1864. In this series the authors take the readers on a journey through the streets of Sydney “beyond the line of handsomely built houses, and off the well kept streets, to show them the nooks and crannies into which they themselves have never penetrated, to make them acquainted with the abodes of poverty, of misfortune, or of crime.”

A RAMBLE down Sussex-street will give the wayfarer a better idea, not only of the productive power of New South Wales but also of her latent or at all events only partially developed manufacturing power, than will a visit to any other quarter of the city. On the numerous wharves that border Darling Harbour in close proximity to this street are landed the articles of produce that come coast-wise, from the North and from the South, whilst the greater part of the street itself, together with the numerous off-shoots from it towards the water, are lined with the offices and stores of produce-agents and dealers of every kind and degree.

There you will see stores, bursting with heaps of golden grain, from the deep coloured maize to the less obtrusive wheat; potatoes are piled up bag upon bag; hay bound and pressed fills out-houses until there is no longer room for stowage, and the bales lie out exposed, or covered with tarpaulin, a temptation that the numerous goats which infest this quarter find it impossible to resist; poultry of all kinds shriek, or cackle, or gabble, according to their several characters, as though protesting against the crowded nature of the coops in which they are confined. Or, what is of still greater importance, you can find no part of this in which the snort of the steam-engine is not heard, or in which the ring of the hammer upon iron does not wound the air. And further than this again, here is the place where coal merchants most do congregate, and the black diamonds of Australia fairly cumber the wharves, particularly towards the head or south of the harbour.

Before going into particulars, however, it would be as well were we to take a general view of the Eastern border of Darling Harbour, and having done this, we shall take our readers along Sussex-street, and amongst the many odd out of the way places that lie between that street and the water’s edge. Looking along the eastern margin of the bay or indentation the head of which may, perhaps, be more familiar to the Sydney cockney of ancient date, under the name of Cockle Bay, we see that wharves, jetties, piers, and embankments, have within the last few years been gradually pushed out from the shore into the waters of the harbour, until now they have very materially infringed upon them, particularly towards their southern extremity. Whilst this encroachment has been going on in this direction, the water area has been still further decreased by the gradual silting up of the head of the bay, This silting up has gone on so rapidly that an area of something like fifty acres has been reclaimed by this natural process within the last twenty years; and that is now permanently dry land, upon which cattle browse peacefully, that within the memory of most of us was covered by the flood tide. When the mills at the end of Sussex-street, to the south of its junction with Hay-street, and known, we believe, as Smart’s Mills, were first erected, the tide flowed up to its outer wall in sufficient quantity to float a good sized boat; now, a very comfortable and well-cared for garden has been laid out on the spot. In fact the marks of the gradually decreasing tidal waters have been carefully noted at different periods, and there are reasons for fearing that before many years are past the whole of the head of Darling Harbour, as far as the Pyrmont Bridge, will be filled up in the same manner At the present time the low water mark barely touches the line of Liverpool-street, and the high water mark only just passes the line of Goulburn street.

The cause of this silting up has been said to be, not so much the debris washed down into the head of the bay as the decreased tidal force consequent upon the many extensive encroachments upon the waters of the harbour, especially on the eastern side, round which the outgoing tide was once accustomed to set, and carry off every particle brought to it either by flood or sewer. The wharves and jetties that have been erected have checked the tidal outflow to such an extent as to seriously diminish, if not to render altogether nugatory its scouring power, and thus every particle of earthy or other matter brought down by drains or sewers is left unremoved. To this is added the foreign substances taken up by the waters themselves in their wash upon the shore, caused by the violence of winds or the action of steamboat, all of which substances are sure to be deposited at that spot where the tidal force is smallest, namely, at the extreme point reached by the incoming tide.


Looking south from Dawes Point past ships at Campbell’s wharf to Circular Quay, (c.1857); William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867. 

State Library of New South Wales.

In so far as it has yet gone, this silting up of the head of the bay has caused no great inconvenience, except perhaps to some few persons who formerly owned water frontages, that are so no longer; but, if it be allowed to continue unchecked, serious consequences are likely to ensue from the impediments that will be thrown in the way of the water traffic that supports so large a number of establishments in this quarter of the city.

Several schemes have been proposed, having for their object, first, the reclamation of the head of Darling Harbour; and second, the preservation of existing water frontages. The head of the harbour is now, at low water, only a pestiferous mudbank. The ordinary effluvium given forth by a mudbank from which the sea water has retired is offensive enough in all conscience; but when this is increased, as is the case, at the head of this bay, by the silt brought down by the Hay-street sewer, the effluvium becomes not merely unbearable, but also noxious and destructive to health. The Engineer for Rivers and Harbours has recommended the construction of a substantial sea wall of a semicircular form, commencing at the eastern side, at a point between Goulburn and Liverpool streets, and carried round in a curve to the Pyrmont side to a point nearly opposite. The City Engineer, however, proposes a much more extended plan. He carries Bathurst-street, straight across to Pyrmont, leaving a canal communicating with a dock 200 or 300 feet wide, extending from Bathurst to Liverpool street. The traffic of Bathurst-street would cross this canal by means of a swing bridge. To the north of the continuation of this street, he suggests a public wharf, carried by a curve to a little beyond the point where the present Darling Harbour extension of the railway line ceases. The deck would secure the present water frontages of wharf owners between Bathurst and Liverpool streets, whilst by dredging, a depth of twenty feet of water could easily be secured all along the proposed line of wharf. One of the great causes of the silting up would thus be removed; the other, however, and the more serious one of the two, namely the checked tidal force, and consequently decreased scouring power would still remain, whichever plan was adopted.

So long as we have the present projections of piled piers and wharves into the waters of this harbour, so long shall we have the same tendency to silt up at the head of the indentation, whether that head be nearer or farther from the entrance of the bay. It is only by one continuous and unbroken line of sea wall that the full scouring force of the outgoing tide can be kept up, and this we are unfortunately not likely to obtain. So many and such great interests have grown up since the first enterprising water frontage holders drove their piles and formed their wharves upon the edge of the harbour, that no Government would ever be powerful enough to interfere with them. Whilst our national purse is not likely for many years to come to be full enough to pay the large amount of compensation that would be required, even in the event of such interference being legalised.

In all great maritime cities, the tendency of late years has been towards constructing continuous lines of wharfage along the borders of the water, first, because the tidal force is here allowed to operate to its fullest extent; and next, because greater convenience and elegance are thus obtained. Unluckily, Sydney is in no position to avail itself of the experience of other and older cities than itself. Encroachments, – when we use the term, we employ it solely in reference to the diminished water area, and not in its legal sense, – have been authorised year after year, by one Government after another, until now the line of wharfage is so broken, that anything like a continuous quay would be an impossibility unless at an expense that the country could never bear. Besides, as we have said, large interests have grown up under this permissive system, for companies, and even private individuals have gone to very great expense in carrying out their extensions into the Bay; and their rights, having been acquired legally, cannot be ignored.

We are thus compelled to make the best of the matter as it stands, and the only way of doing this will be to get rid of as much of the nuisance as we can and to form as much of a continuous line of sea wall as it is in our power to do. The first thing to be considered is, no doubt, the abatement of the nuisance arising from the mud-bank at the head of the harbour, from which the poisonous exhalations perpetually threaten the city with an epidemic. We have only to stand upon any one of the jetties at half-ebb and to breathe through the nostrils, to be made aware of the disagreeable character of the substances that the out-going tide is carrying on its surface. On its surface, because the sewage matter, being specifically lighter than water, floats on it, and may easily be perceived by the enterprising enquirer in the shape of a thin unctuous scum reeling in large patches on the face of the water. If it is so easily perceptible here, both to the eye and the nostril, what must it be when laid out on the surface of the oozy mud, exposed to the sublimating influence of an Australian sun, and made ready to be wafted over the city by the first breeze that springs up, to sicken, poison, or destroy all with whom it comes into contact.

By the plan originally laid down by the civic body, silt pits for the reception of the sewage matter, brought down by the Hay-street sewer are to be established somewhere on the line of sewer, and in close proximity to the railway line. In these pits, the sewage is to be deodorised, mixed with ashes, and sold as manure to market gardeners and others. If this is done fully and completely, so as to allow of nothing but flood water passing out from the sewer into the harbour, the greater part of the evil now complained of will be removed; and as the Government have shown themselves anxious to do something to remove the other part of the evil by reclaiming the head of the bay, and as Parliament have already voted £10,000 towards this good work, we may hope soon to see this long threatening evil completely remedied. It threatens still, however, and to such an alarming extent, as to demand instant attention, and to require the putting aside of official delays and red tapeism for the adoption of prompt action.

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