Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

Part VII — Upper Watershed of Darling Harbour

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1864.

Part seven 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.”

Round the southern extremity of Darling Harbour, and especially on the south-eastern head of that great inlet, lies an extensive metropolitan area draining exclusively into that part of the harbour, which, as being, geographically speaking, a separate district, we now propose briefly to describe. Its limits may be considered to commence at the termination of Liverpool-street West – from the wharf; the general boundary line of the watershed being coincident with Liverpool-street until its junction with the Old South Head Road, which it follows until its intersection by Crown-street South – or, as it is more generally called, Crown-street, Surry Hills. The western boundary line of the watershed then runs along that street towards the south for some considerable distance, until it turns rather sharply to the south-west on the top of the hill, and, crossing an open, sandy space, finds its extreme southern limit near Cleveland House. From that elevated point, the line may be further traced northerly, till it reaches Devonshire-street, at the back of the Old Burial Grounds, the boundary line of the watershed in this direction being defined by the western portion of that street, including part of the Railway Station. The area adverted to is also bounded by part of George-street, as far as the end of the Botany Road, taking in the houses and lanes on the northern face of the immediately adjacent slope; and is, lastly, marked off by an arbitrary line drawn from the vicinity of the Kent Brewery, across Parramatta-street, along the ridge of Ultimo Hill, and finally terminated at the third railway bridge, on the Pyrmont extension line, neatly opposite to Dixon’s Wharf.

A casual glance at the map will suffice to convince the most unobservant of the magnitude and importance of this metropolitan district, for the sewage and surface drainage of which there is no other outlet save that afforded by the mudflat at the head of Darling Harbour. The entire space above indicated comprehends a large portion of the sub-districts vaguely designated in maps and ordinary parlance as “The Riley Estate,” “Surry Hills,” and “Strawberry Hill,” together with a part of the old Metropolitan Parish of St. Andrew – in which is included “Ultimo,” and a small portion of Pyrmont the only provision for drainage yet made for the exigencies of that vast area being the Hay-street sewer, with which the drainage of the southern and western portions of this area is not yet, in any way, connected. In many parts of this quarter, the nature of the ground is such as to afford every facility for exantlation, there being, especially in the neighbourhood of its above-described limits, generally speaking, pretty steep inclines which might easily be rendered available. In several of the lower levels, however, the mean elevation of the ground above the old high-water mark is so inconsiderable that all the careful contrivance and forethought of an experienced engineer will be necessary to bring about a clear and uninterrupted flow of superfluous waters, and less agreeable accumulations, such as may tend permanently to the conservation of property, and to the preservation of public health. Much of the difficulty in the way of a good system of drainage for the Upper Watershed of Darling Harbour will, nevertheless, disappear when the mud flat, at the head of the inlet, has been judiciously reclaimed; Hay-street sewer being carried out into deep water, and amplified by indispensable effluents from that volume of surface-water and sewage which is still left to spread itself over the southern and western side of the flat.

For the sake of convenience, we shall commence our observations on the tract which lies below the dreary, uneven, and unoccupied road on the ridge of the hill (dignified by the name of Harris-street) and the Pyrmont Extension Railway Line, which runs for nearly a quarter of a mile parallel with the western edge of what is still supposed to be the head of the bay. In this comparatively narrow slip, deep in hollows and quagmires burrowed out by the busy hands of brickmakers, and aggravated by the disregarded action of water – is a sort of miserable hamlet, consisting of about twenty houses, which, for abject wretchedness and general unfitness for human habitation, are scarcely to be surpassed in any portion of the city. They are, for the most part, built of damaged bricks and rough-hewn slabs of wood (now black with rottenness and age), mended, or at least altered, from time to time, with unwholesome sods of earth; roofed in with rusty sheets of old tin packing cases, and deliberately patched with bits of deal, which, doubtless, once did duty on board ship, and ought, long since, to have been religiously burned in a salutary Auto-da fé – an offering to the outraged manes of a departed cleanliness and ruined health. Small, low, damp, and unutterably dirty – they are almost built of dirt – it is hard to think how human beings can venture to reside in such places, or, if they should venture on such foolhardiness, how they can do so and live. Pools of filthy water stand round about these cabins, and neglected children (for there are children even in this place) jeopardise their lives as they dabble in the doubtful accumulations, either on the brinks of the many water-holes, or along the muddy edge of streams slowly, and as it were reluctantly, contributing their quota to an open and fetid ditch, which comes down near, the middle archway, from the vicinity of the Sydney Railway Station, on its way to the mud flat on the other side of the Pyrmont extension.


Sydney from the Domain (1859) [Corner Macquarie Street and Bent Street, looking west. The elevated viewpoint indicates the photograph was made from the tower erected over the Sir Richard Bourke statue in May 1859].

State Library of New South Wales.

The coroner knows this quarter well, for his sad duties have made him practically acquainted with it; the medical man, too, has often had to visit it with or without his fee, and so, it is to be hoped, has the minister of religion. But the insalubrity of such a dirty den requites to be denounced in stronger terms than either of these has yet applied to it; – an emphatic condemnation of the whole hamlet as matters stand at present. How can cleanliness, health, social order, and an average amount of happiness – such as all men are entitled to – be looked for in a locality where the ordinary comforts and proprieties of civilisation are obviously unknown, where people are camped as it were in hovels standing amidst waterholes and by the side of running sewers. God forbid that by these marks the hardships of honest poverty should be supposed to be criticised and unfeelingly commented upon, but there is something more than poverty amiss here. In such places, the moralist will always recur to the inevitable connection of health and cleanliness with social good order and happiness – nay, with something far higher than either. The very existence of such habitations as these is an insuperable obstacle to the manifestation of the steady and beneficial light of religion. Let the authorities of the State and of the city look to it; such habitations should not be tolerated – they should be swept away, wherever they are to be found, by the strong unrelenting arm of the law.

The north-eastern portion of the space between the lower end of Botany Road and Kensington-street, together with the immediately opposite side of Parramatta-street, both drain, it is believed, into Darling Harbour – as far as there is any drainage at all; – still but very little provision has been made for the spot, especially on the south-eastern side of the slope going up towards Chippendale. Kensington-street, in particular, seems to be very badly provided for in this respect, and more than elsewhere is it so in the middle of it, where there is an obvious dip on the western side, from which it is probable that the superfluous moisture must percolate, as best it can, away to the southern extremity of the street, at which there is an outlet under the back premises of the Kent Brewery, running into the large unwholesome reservoir near St. Benedict’s – and ultimately draining thence into Black Wattle Swamp. Of that, however, as being in a separate watershed, we shall have to speak hereafter. The houses in Parramatta-street hereabouts are in the occupation of respectable tradesmen, as shops an places of business, but Kensington-street, with the lower part of Botany Road and the adjacent intersecting lanes, generally speaking, consists of the private residences of persons who have a decent but not very wealthy position in society. At the back of the houses in Parramatta-street, here and further on to the west-ward, there is much that it would be well to amend for sanitary reasons, although nothing that calls for more than this remark.

Returning once more to the First Archway in the Pyrmont extension line, we pass through, that dubious outlet into what is more usually known as ” Ultimo” – properly, so-called – a district for the most part inhabited by persons who live by keeping cows and selling their milk in the city. This sub-district is bounded on the west by low garden grounds, traversed by the sewer, ditch above-mentioned, and lying to the eastward of the Pyrmont road, or Harris-street-its southern and eastern limits being defined by the back of the houses facing George-street. It extends, on its northern side, down to the top of the mud-flat at the head of Darling Harbour, and is chiefly overspread with small weatherboard cottages, “dropped down” in all directions (as if by chance) in the midst of cow-yards, by the side of the road, or away in isolated spots which are not easily accessible. Some (and such are not the worst of these dwellings) have actually been placed down upon the sands of the mud flat; – leading one to speculate gloomily on their possible fate in times when high tides and tempestuous floods may be concurrent calamities. Besides the road – a very fair one – which, connecting “Harris-street” with George-street, passes through the centre of Ultimo, there is a lower path nearer to the bay, whereby the passenger may be brought to grief, if not “to muddy death” should he rashly venture along it in rainy weather. At such times the third archway in the Extension line, through which the black ditch at length, disembogues into the bay, becomes utterly inaccessible.

A third road in Ultimo, trends off from the main road, in a south-easterly direction, and finally comes out in George-street, opposite the spire of Christ Church, where it is known under the designation of Valentine’s-lane. Much of the upper portion of Ultimo, as above described, is built on comparatively high ground – on a partially covered sub-stratum of rock – where there is a considerable amount of natural facility for surface drainage; and well it is such should be the case, for Ultimo has no subterranean sewerage whatever. The houses are, many of them, tolerably clean, the circumjacent yards being only denied with those odorous accumulations which form one of the inseparable and not least objectionable concomitants of all town “dairies.” When contrasted, however, with other quarters in the city, abounding with indescribable filth (offensive alike to the moral and to the physical sense), Ultimo, especially after the salutary washing of a good drenching rain, will be found to bear a very favourable comparison. On the east side of it there is a small open sewer, communicating beneath George-street, with Gipps-street (a short, new street, which runs across from Pitt-street near the House of the Good Shepherd,) and forming the sole and inadequate representation of the water-way from an original indentation in that quarter, where, both in George street and Gipps-street, so much has been injudiciously banked up. The lower part of this foul streamlet is very perceptible to the nose and to the eye as you enter Ultimo from George-street, near the Steam Engine Inn, on the eastern side. The residents of Ultimo are of the lower industrial class, but are apparently in comfortable circumstances, as far as money is concerned; and, indeed, it is only fair to state that the whole place seems to be in every way much improved to what it was some years ago, when it had a rather unenviable notoriety for drunkenness and dirt, – its denizens, for one reason or another, making constant and discreditable pilgrimages to the Central Police Court.

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