Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

Part VIII — Upper Watershed of Darling Harbour, cont.

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1864.

Part eight 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.”

THE waters at the head of the great inlet known as Darling Harbour, once, almost within the memory of living man, came up to the distance of not more than a stone’s throw from the main road, where George-street South terminates, and Parramatta-street begins. They have, however, long since, altogether retired from the level land now traversed by the before-mentioned black ditch, and are daily becoming more and more limited in their expanse by the enormous accumulations of drainage, collected and deposited in this spot from all parts of the vast and densely populated upper watershed of Darling Harbour. Already these waters at low tide recede from their marginal outline as defined by the latest maps, and uncover a melancholy waste of acres and acres of mud, reaching entirely across the present top of the “bay,” and for about a quarter of a mile in its greatest length on the western side, where it spreads as far to the north as the second archway in the Pyrmont extension. From that point the extreme northern limit of this odoriferous flat is made out by a line having, about midway, a deflection to the south, towards the shallows of which the Hay-street sewer is directed, and near which it at present terminates.

Beyond this tongue-shaped extension of polluted water, the mud-flat runs far to the westward and northward of Dixon’s wharf to the immediate vicinity of the steam saw mills, not far from the end of Liverpool-street. This mud-flat has to receive the main, or Hay-street sewer, which is brought into it at its south-eastern extremity; and it is further constantly supplied with accumulations by the open sewer on the western or Pyrmont side; by what remains of the old sewer now, for the most part, superseded by the Hay-street sewer – and by a third sewer ditch which enters this tract two or three hundred yards to the north of Hay-street, draining a steep slope, densely packed with, houses lying principally between portions of Sussex-street South, Liverpool-street West, and Pitt-street South.

It is not, of course, denied that the recent formation of the Hay-street sewer has not been an immense improvement in this direction; still much, very much more remains to be done, as will be apparent when the whole watershed supposed to be drained comes to be carefully examined. However excellent that work may be, and however efficacious as a main outlet for sewage and surface water, it must, nevertheless, be borne in mind that the three open sewers above mentioned are wholly unconnected with it – the contributions of each one of them being entirely independent of the other, and their respective courses at present such as to render any satisfactory disposal of their stygian volume impossible. The Hay-street sewer is carried right up Hay-street, until the intersection of that thoroughfare with Elizabeth-street South, opposite to John-street. There it takes a rather sharp turn, and runs along Elizabeth-street, in a northerly direction, to a spot a little beyond the end of Market-lane. At that point the Hay-street sewer (tracing it upwards) tokes the form of a wide, open ditch-one which receives the sewage and superfluous waters of a considerable area, the whole of the south side of South Head Road, from Liverpool-street to Crown-street; and from Crown-street down to the low-lying and populous quarter in the vicinity of Market-lane. A great mass of water rushes down here in rainy weather, the valley thus generally indicated being strongly defined in its natural aspect.

The following streets and localities are more or less dependent upon this open ditch for sanitary purposes: Market-lane, and the lanes and alleys between Market-lane, Elizabeth-street, and Goulburn-street; portions of Macquarie-street South, Sheriff’s Gardens, Lyons-terrace (a fine row of stone residences facing Liverpool-street), Brisbane-street, connecting South Head Road with Goulburn-street; Edward-street, and several back streets and lanes in its immediate neighbourhood to the eastward; Goulburn-street East, and Campbell-street East; together with streets and houses standing on the southern slope of the valley in numbers and in directions not easy to determine. The Hay-street sewer is still further amplified by the drainage of a large half-inhabited tract which lies to the south of the above-mentioned area and to the north of Albion-street. At every continuous rainfall, Exeter-place, Campbell lane, John-street, and all the streets and open land in this last-mentioned quarter are placed in a dreadful state with fetid mud and filthy waters. Especially is this the case during bad weather in the open space to the north of Albion-street (across what appears as Mary-street and Forster-street upon the maps), a perfect river of black sewage at such times then comes sweeping down, and finds its way, as best it can, into a small southern branch of the Hay-street sewer ending hereabouts; or, in the alternative, overflows the adjacent flat with its pestilential abominations. A more unwholesome spot that this stinking nameless place it is almost impossible to imagine.

A large portion, of Surry Hills – indeed, nearly the whole of that locality, on its western side – drains (where it drains at all) into this Slough of Despond at “Fosterville,” or into two water-courses, which, meeting in the open land behind the Albion Brewery near the termination of Albion street, pass beneath Elizabeth-street, near the Old Burial road, and, crossing some marshy meadow-land bordering on the Haymarket, finally fall into the main sewer near the Methodist chapel, in Parker-street. Another line of drainage is also distinctly indicated by a watercourse that receives from some of the streets of Mary-le-bone (south-west of Surry Hills properly so-called), and from the numerous and rapidly-extending streets of Strawberry Hill. This last stream runs parallel with Devonshire-street, and eventually finds its outlet on the western side of the mud-flat at the head of Darling Harbour, the large upper watershed of which we have thus attempted briefly to describe.

By referring to the map the reader may perhaps now be enabled to form some tolerably definite idea of the magnitude of the upper watershed of Darling Harbour, and of the immense amount of rain-water, sewage, and surface-deposit which must be swept from time to time – and particularly on some occasions – into the mud-flat at the top of the Bay. It is in contemplation to reclaim that miserably unwholesome and unsightly waste, if not for building upon, at least for purposes of public recreation and general resort. For the latter purposes, the locality may at some considerable outlay doubtless be rendered available, and a commencement has been made.


Enfield Road near Sydney c. 1850s; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867.

State Library of New South Wales.

Between the western extremity of Hay-street and the soap and candle factory of Mr W. B. Allen – to the west of Dixon-street – there is already a long, low, dingy looking piece of land which has altogether become terra firma – and away to the west of this again is a “land debatable,” of mud, and sand, and water, partially fenced off from tidal influences by an embankment that extends from the aforesaid factory at the bottom of Goulburn-street across the extreme southern limit of the Bay. Roadways are also being carried out which are, it is understood, gradually to be taken right across to Pyrmont. The entire flat will thus probably soon be reclaimed to low water mark, and be deepened on the northern face of the intended work, so that the edge of it may be made serviceable as a convenient wharf. It is to be hoped, however, when this is done by the authority of the Legislature that adequate provision will, at the same time, be made for the waterway of the three large ditches which disembogue into the bay, and are wholly independent of the main sewer of Hay-street. If such careful provision be not made, the worst consequences may confidently be predicted, not only in a sanitary point of view but also in respect of the inevitable insecurity of the whole work. The ditch on the Pyrmont side and the ditch that crosses Dixon-street must both be taken out to some distance, like the Hay-street sewer. If it should be sought to join them to that main sewer, when there happens to be much rain, the whole place will be flooded with the back-water.

The old principal water-course of the locality now under description ran for some way parallel to the present main sewer, and may still be distinctly traced from its western extreme in the filthy spot to the back of the houses and shops in George-street, south of Hay-street, up to Parker-street, where the upper part of the ditch is deflected into the main sewer. By this channel, still left open, the turbid waters of the uplands were once supposed to be carried under Mr. Reeve’s, ironmonger’s shop, and so to get out into the bay behind by an ambiguous outlet, which was the agony of everybody in the neighbourhood, and the standing disgrace of the city. The upper part of this drain was sagaciously made far wider than its middle portion underneath the dwelling-house, so that the waters rose like a flood in the course of a few minutes, and, in obedience to the irresistible laws of hydrostatics, flooded the houses under which they could not freely pass, and turned this part of George-street into a temporary lake. This, thanks to the warm remonstrances of the citizens and the strong representations of the Press, has now to a great extent been remedied, but the nuisance still exists in a modified degree.

The old ditch lies open from the Wesleyan chapel, at the corner of Parker and Hay streets, down to where it enters a sort of culvert opposite Mr Reeve’s house; and when there is an over-flow from the connection with the main sewer, or, from sudden rain-falls, an accumulation of water at the flood sluices hard by, the houses on the western side of George-street are grievously incommoded, no effectual means being left at the end of the ditch for carrying away the drainage. It is suggested that the upper or eastern part of this ditch ought to be at once filled up from George-street to Parker-street, instead of being left open for the reception of watery sewage. This is the more desirable as the land so reclaimed would obviously be an extremely valuable site, facing the Haymarket and close to the principal thoroughfare of the city. It ls believed, moreover, that this land would readily realise not less than £60 per foot, and even then be a good investment for the capitalist.

Regarding this section of the city generally, it may be remarked that the southern extreme of Sussex-street is, for the most part, dirty, ill-drained, and but poorly built, the back premises having an air of discomfort and squalid wretchedness frequently to be met with in parts of on old town at home – the back streets of Bristol for instance. That part of George-street that comes within the scope of our present observation, however, abounds with many fine shops and places of business. Viewed from Brickfield-hill – the ascent at which George-street comes within the arbitrary subdivision we have adopted for the sake of convenience – George-street South presents a very lively and animated appearance, the Anglo-Norman spire of Christ Church giving the vista a cheerful English look. In the vicinity of Christ Church are the Benevolent Asylum, the Police Barracks, the House of the Good Shepherd (a Roman Catholic institution), and a similar establishment known as the Sydney Female Refuge, supported by the Protestant Churches.

To the east of these again are the old burial grounds of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational, Wesleyan, Hebrew, and other denominations – the Anglican ground having long since been disused for ordinary interments. Across to the south-west of Devonshire-street is the Sydney Railway Terminus, and, to the west of that spot, the Cleveland Paddocks. All the ground in the Haymarket and its immediately adjacent streets lies very low, and is still very defective in surface drainage, although much has been done. The open land to the north of Albion-street is, as has been intimated, in a disgraceful state, and the “Riley Estate,” higher up, is not much better. The Strawberry Hills, on the south-west of the watershed, occupy a gentle ascent and contain several excellent dwellings. Good and substantial houses are also not uncommon in “Mary-le-bone,” along the ridge of the Surry Hills, and in Pitt-street south, and Castlereagh-Street South, – although the last two streets hereabouts have a somewhat dull and retired air. The architecture of the cross streets and the bye-streets in this quarter of the city is susceptible of very considerable improvement. It seems curious to think that the declivity of George-street, from Bathurst street down to the Haymarket, was once completely out of town. In the French map before alluded to, published by Napoleon the First, this part is marked as the “Village de Brickfield,” and the locale of the culvert opposite to Mr Reeve’s shop is dignified as being (at the beginning of this century) a “pont.” The Village of Brickfield has long since been swallowed up by the enlargement of the city, but its memory is yet preserved in the designation of Brickfield Hill, still applied to this portion of George-street by some old residents.

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