02- Drainage Tunnels
Subterranean Sydney


The Tank Stream Sewer is the showpiece of subterranean Sydney. When the Water Board holds its inspection every two years, a crowd of forty or fifty people anxious to spend a fine Sunday morning down a drain, gather for a guided tour of this piece of Sydney's underground history. Most of them are Water Board employees and their families.
The guided tour begins at Angel Place because the upstream drain to King Street is too -. small for normal comfort. The tour begins with a Water Board engineer giving a brief history of the Tank Stream. It was, of course, the source of water which originally persuaded Governor Arthur Phillip to settle at Sydney Cove rather than Botany Bay. The tanks which gave the stream its name were constructed later by convicts, around present day Bridge Street, but have long since disappeared.
By 1826, the stream was already too polluted to drink. From then on it was little more than an open sewer until it was finally completely covered over in 1878. The sewage has since been largely diverted to Bondi so the brown water you see flowing through the drain on your tour today is only muddy stormwater. Water Board hard hats and Water Board torches are handed out and then you put on a safety belt as you climb down the rungs of the manhole to the drain three metres below. The drain is low and slippery and your neck soon begins to ache from crouching as you slosh forward up to your ankles in water; it is then you begin to wonder why you came down this drain. The walls are alive with cockroaches. They seem to like it down here. The bricked-over sandstone culvert around Angel Place was built in the 1850s and later covered over. Downstream, the roof height becomes higher and you can almost stand upright. Various manhole covers at Hunter Street and other points have been opened for the safety of the "tourists" and the board chemists have checked the air for carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases.
At Australia Square Tower, the brickwork of last century gives way to a modern concrete diversion tunnel built to avoid the foundations of the building. You proceed on past Bridge Street, where Australia's first bridge once crossed the stream. Near the corner of Crane Place and Pitt Street, you finally reach a weir built to keep back the tide from the harbour. There is also a sewerage interceptor at this point. You then emerge blinking in the welcome sunlight at Crane Place, where the Water Board has provided half a dozen buckets of its excellent product to wash your hands.
The Tank Stream itself is too low and slippery for the "tourists" beyond this point. It proceeds on to Circular Quay, where it enters the harbour at the western end. The last few metres are normally below water level except at exceptionally low tides. Even then you can't see the exit because the Maritime Services Board has built a concrete apron around the reclaimed shoreline to protect it from erosion caused by the wash of the ferries. If you are really keen, there is a hole in the cement through which you can peer to see a small lake under the footpath.
The Water Board engineers find the Tank Stream inspection quite enjoyable. A more normal Sunday is spent in soaking wet conditions, spread out full length on a trolley in =. much smaller drains full of silt and even sewage. Sundays are chosen for inspections whenever normal weekday flow would make it difficult to carry out during the week.

Collins's New South Wales, published in 1798, relates:
"The spot chosen for the settlement was at the head of the cove, near the run of fresh water, which stole silently along through a very thick wood, the stillness of which had then, for the first time since the Creation, been interrupted by the rude sound of the labourer's axe and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants."

On 26 January 1788, the fleet was brought round from Botany Bay and the tents and huts of the infant settlement were erected on the banks of a clear running stream afterwards known as the Tank Stream. The small rivulet served for nearly forty years as the settlement's main source of water. It rose in marshy ground skirting the western slopes of what is now Hyde Park between Market and Park Streets, and was fed by seepage springs from the joints of the underlying sandstone at the head of the valley which extended towards Oxford Street. The water filtered through the soil between Pitt and George Streets until it approached King Street, and then formed a definite channel in its flow to Sydney Cove. Its catchment was about 64 hectares, extending from Macquarie Street, and a line continued there from through Hyde Park on the east, along Bathurst Street on the south to York and Clarence Streets on the west. The stream entered the high tide waters of the Cove at about the middle of Bridge Street.
Bridge Street owes its name to the first bridge erected in Australia. The bridge WAS built across the stream "to facilitate communication between both sides of the Cove", and those using it were charged a halfpenny per head. This structure, a small affair of logs, must have been built soon after the colonists had settled the Cove. It is shown in the chart of 1800, and three years later (in 1803-4) it was replaced by a more pretentious stone bridge. The Sydney Gazette (May 26 1804) urged the able-bodied among its readers to lend a hand in building this replacement, and added:
If on the other hand the work should be left to be finished by the labour of a few feeble
women, the length of time likely to intervene will be attended with a portion of inconvenience that must continue to be severely felt by the owners of carriages and horses.
The astute appeal to self-interest had its effect and the bridge was completed within a month.
Phillip permitted the early settlers to occupy Crown lands adjoining the Tank Stream, but no titles were given to their holdings. The stream was the only natural source of water and was jealously guarded. A fifteen-metre green belt was preserved on either side and cutting of timber and grazing of stock forbidden. Before long, however, the flow in the stream became scanty and, though people dug wells and found other springs, the settlement was only in its second year when it found itself in dire need of more water. With dry conditions in the summer of 1789 and throughout 1790, the Tank Stream was so reduced that Phillip had three tanks cut in the sandstone beside the stream. One of these was at the present intersection of Pitt and Spring Streets, and the other two on the opposite side of the streaming Bond Street. These tanks gave the stream its name. Water was later found by well-sinking and new areas along High Street (now George Street) towards Brickfield Hill were opened up.
John Hunter arrived in 1795 to succeed Phillip as Governor, and the preservation of the Tank Stream continued to be a problem. On 22 October 1795, an order was issued forbidding its pollution and, little notice being taken, a further order was issued three months later.
Because the colonists were in such dire straits for water, the Governor offered a substantial reward to anyone discovering a sufficient supply. It is related that two adventurers spent "three whole days" in "the wild hush" surrounding the settlement, during which one of them was speared in an encounter with blacks, and that they found .a permanent stream of beautifully clear water running into the harbour at Rushcutters Bay.

The course of the Tank Stream superimposed on the Sydney of today (click for larger version).

For years this creek was a valuable addition to the scanty supply of the townspeople, but the
Tank Stream was the main source. When Philip Gidley King succeeded Hunter in 1800, the population of the colony had increased to 5547 persons, including 776 children. Droughts were a constant worry, and every effort was made to maintain the purity and flow of the Tank-Stream.

The following order appeared in the Sydney Gazette of.18 December 1803:
If any person whatever is detected in throwing any filth into the stream of fresh water, cleaning fish, washing, erecting pigsties near it or taking water out of the tanks on conviction before a magistrate their home will be taken down and forfeit £5 for each offence to the Orphan Fund."

As a further precaution the stream and the tanks were fenced, and access forbidden except at the tanks.
Lachlan Macquarie was appalled by the misery and squalor when he arrived as Governor and, in 1810, he had stone diversion walls built along the banks of the stream. The slaughter houses and other objectionable buildings that drained into it were pulled down. But neither these measures, nor the soldiers stationed at strategic points along the stream, were adequate. With rubbish and slops being thrown into backyards or on to vacant lots, and with sanitary conveniences other than cesspits non-existent, fouling of the stream became progressively worse as settlement increased.
In 1811, another severe drought threatened the settlement, and the tanks were empty .for weeks. It was reported in the Sydney Gazette of 2 March 181 1 that:
The long prevailing drought has destroyed every hope of the maize crop which has unfortunately passed recovery. A scarcity of water more acute than ever before experienced has also been the consequence. In Sydney the tanks have been several weeks empty and those who were in want of water were obliged to collect it from small cavities in the spring course above the tanks, which has afterwards been sold at from 4d to 6d per pail.
Heavy rains fell soon afterwards, and for several years, with the exception of the summer of 1814-15, floods were more in evidence than droughts: Then dry seasons set in and conditions again became intolerable. The Tank Stream was little more than a sewer and futile attempts to preserve it from pollution only emphasised the need for an alternative source of water.

Another Gazette notice, calling upon people to observe the regulations, concluded:
With much pain we have lately observed individuals washing themselves in this stream
of water, particularly in that part that runs centrally from King Street because that spot
is almost secluded from every eye, that of curiosity excepted."

The Tank Stream served as a dubious source of water for the settlement for a few more
years and was abandoned in 1826. For the next four years residents depended on wells or
on water carted from the Lachlan Swamps (Centennial Park) at heavy expense.
When the Tank Stream had begun to fail, wells were dug with good results in various
places in and near the town. Even after Busby's Bore began to flow the practice was
continued and extended for many years. In most cases the diggers did their work well, evidently intending that, as far as they were individually concerned, there would be no
shortage of water in the future. These old wells have often been found in the rebuilding of
the city, and it is interesting to note that two of them were unearthed during excavations
for the Water Board's offices completed in 1918.
In 1826, (with the population then 10 000) Governor Sir Ralph Darling appointed a civil
engineer to supervise, among other things, the construction and repair of drains and
sewers, but it was another six years before the construction of sewers was seriously
mooted. Even then nothing was done, although, in 1833, the Government made it an
offence to throw rubbish into any watercourse or channel.
During the next few years the Tank Stream and other creeks originally used for water
became foul conduits of sewage and drainage. Cesspits, practically the universal means of
sanitation in lower-class areas, were allowed to overflow into these streams. In the more
affluent areas on the western side of Pitt Street, water closets were used and flushed out
into open drains leading to the Tank Stream.
A Bill to incorporate the City of Sydney had been introduced into the Legislative
Council in 1840 but, owing to opposition, was withdrawn. However, another Bill was
brought forward two years later, and on 20 July 1842, the Sydney Municipal Council was
The standard of the franchise was very low and when the results of the first Council election were announced, ten out of the twenty-four persons elected were illiterate and entirely incompetent.
'The first informal meeting of the Council was held in the Royal Hotel on 4 November
1842. Subsequent meetings were noted for their belated and acrimonious discussions. At
the first official meeting on 18 January 1843; the question of water supply and drainage
was discussed, but deferred pending further consideration. The Act of Incorporation conferred upon the Council power to construct drains, watercourses, public wells, and so
forth, as it thought fit and necessary. It also had the right to borrow money, but the
amount so borrowed was not to exceed the aggregate of three years' revenue.
Mr James Aird was appointed City Surveyor at a salary of £300 per annum and he was
instructed to make a survey of the City with a view to it being properly drained. However,
for the next ten years, the Council did nothing. The death rate from fever was alarming
and the stench from open drains was almost unbearable. Finally, the public became fed up. In 1853, the Council was dismissed and replaced by three Commissioners.

The first yearly report of the Commissioners, which was issued in 1855, mentioned that
a start had been made with a trigonometrical survey of the city; a lease of a brickfield and plant at Newtown had been purchased for the manufacture of bricks; stocks of glazed earthenware pipes and Roman cement had been purchased and a start in a small way had been made with several minor drainage works.
By the end of the year 1856, the City Commissioners had completed the Bennelong Sewerage System and thereby drained the swamp area, which fed the Tank Stream. This resulted in the stream becoming very little more than an open sewer.
About this period, Circular Quay was extended across the old course of the Tank Stream to Campbell's Wharf. This necessitated reclamation of the area and also payment of compensation for the toll-gates which were in existence at the bridge across the Tank Stream near where Henrietta Street now is. This bridge was known as the Bon Accord.
In 1860 the Tank Stream was covered from Hunter Street to Bridge Street, forming a four metre by three metre sewer. At Bridge Street this work connected on to an open stone drain which ran along the original course of the Tank Stream through private property to connect up near the present site of Crane Place with the elliptical stone sewer constructed by the City Commissioners and the City Council in 1857.
During the period 1858 to 1873, the Council was handicapped in carrying out sewerage works by its inability to enforce payment of sewerage rates. In 1873,'the Sydney Morning Herald was complaining about the harbour being polluted by sewage.
On Friday, 6 March 1874, Henry Parkes, speaking on the Metropolitan water Supply and Sewerage Bill in the Legislative Assembly, moved "That it is desirable to bring in a Bill to make better provision for the supply of water to the city and suburbs of Sydney and for the sewerage thereof".
As a result of this Bill, the Sewerage and Health Board was created whose duties were to draw up a scheme for the sewerage of Sydney, intercepting, where possible, the sewage which was being discharged to the harbour. After a preliminary investigation, an alarming state of affairs was disclosed, of which the following extract from their report is typical:
From the faulty construction of the receptacles for night soil, the state of filth and neglect which was allowed in connection with them, and the absence of any control on the part of the City Corporation over the nightmen, an intolerable and flagrant nuisance existed on every side sufficient in itself to breed fever and disease, even without the palpable contamination of wells in the immediate vicinity of the closets, which was constantly occurring. The evidence taken by us on this subject, and the careful inquiry we made into the systems adopted and the appliances made use of in other countries for the disposal of night soil, convinced us that here also special legislation was necessary to reduce the evil.

Apparently, at the time of this report, it was common practice for the inhabitants to "shoot all their filth on the gutters in order to avoid being summoned for having it on their premises".
Most of the closets supplied with water from the Sydney mains were directly connected to those mains. In consequence the Chairman of the Board reported that "water supplied for household purposes is polluted with matter which some authorities consider too offensive to be admitted even into the public sewers".
Pending the construction of the major schemes for the interception of the then existing sewers, several Acts were passed to safeguard the public health, the chief of which was the "Nuisance Prevention Act of 1875".
The Sewerage and Health Board formulated two major schemes for the sewerage of Sydney; one consisted of an outfall sewer discharging at Bondi and the other a sewer main discharging on to a treatment works at Botany Bay.
In 1877, Mr Clark, an English engineer, was asked to report on the existing sewers and on the schemes proposed by the Sewerage and Health Board. In regard to the conditions then existing he said:
"I find that the City is at present partially drained by brick sewers, discharging into the Harbour. These sewers also receive a considerable amount of drainage from pipe sewers, which have extended over a great part of its area and, as I am informed, are calculated to remove two inches in depth of rainfall per hour. The City contains 16,924 houses and, at the end of 1876, 8,126 of these were connected with the sewers; by these connections the house drainage, i.e., cooking water, slops, etc., together with the excrementious matter from 7,000 water closets, is removed and conveyed into the harbour at Blackwattle Cove., Fort Macquarie, Darling Harbour, Sydney Cove, Farm Cove, Woolloomooloo Bay -these with Rushcutters Bay and Double Bay -are what may be termed the northern outlets."

Regarding the health of the community, Mr Clark commented:
"This would seem to indicate that fourteen to eighteen per thousand is the inevitable mortality, and that the dangers attendant of city life are fatal to an extent equal to 6.4 per thousand above that in the purer air of the suburbs, while the rate for both the city and suburbs is steadily increasing."

With amendments, Mr Clark substantially recommended the schemes proposed by the Sewerage and Health Board.
Meanwhile, in the year 1866, a sewer, for the most part oviform in section, was constructed along the route of the Tank Stream between Hunter and King Streets, part of which remained for a time uncovered. The erection of the General Post Office and the formation of Martin Place during the 1870s, and later on the widening of that thoroughfare, necessitated the covering of the central portion of the open drain in the year 1878. In . . the same year a diversion to the route of the Tank Stream was made between Bridge Street and Crane Place. The original route of the stream in this vicinity was through private property and the diversion was carried in brick oviform located under the roadway of Bridge and Pitt Streets.
The completion of the Bondi Sewer in 1889 meant the end of serious pollution of the Harbour from the Tank Stream Sewer. After 1889, sewage was taken by pumping stations .. from the Tank Stream and diverted into the Bondi Sewer. However, the Tank Stream continued to act as a combined. system sewer for many years. Until a new pumping station F! was built in 1939 to solve the problem, overflow reaching Circular Quay created noxious w conditions around No. 8 Wharf, and a bank of sludge that had to be removed regularly.
Even today, some sewage from old buildings is likely to reach the Harbour in wet weather, although not in sufficient amount to cause a problem.
Meanwhile, new buildings have continued to put their foundations into the Tank Stream. Additions to the GPO in 1940 necessitated the reconstruction of part of the upper Tank Stream between Martin Place and King Street. The telephone tunnel to the Dalley Street Exchange, built in 1950, had to go under the Tank Stream. The Western Assurance Company's building, constructed in 1958,,and the Commercial Union building at 109-1 13
If Pitt Street, built in 1962, both resulted in the original stone arch channel being replaced by pipes laid so as to be accessible from the basement of the buildings. The Australia Square group of buildings constructed in the early 1960s also encountered problems with the Tank Stream. The stream was diverted into a reinforced concrete box under the basement 'f of one of the buildings.

The Drainers

A group with a special interest in underground Sydney is SUSS -The Sydney University Speleology Society. Normally members of this society spend their weekends exploring caves at the Jenolan Caves or any of the other relatively scarce outcrops of cave-forming limestone in New South Wales.
Apart from a few sea-caves along the coast, Sydney is not well supplied with natural caverns. However it does have drains.
What sort of person would want to go and explore a drain? Well, basically it's the same kind of interest that sends people into the bowels of the earth in search of limestone caverns, geological formations, bats, cave insects, and a sort of general reverse claustrophobia. A certain amount of wine drunk at a cavers' party is often a preliminary to these night-time draining expeditions.
Isn't it dangerous? Well, not if one is careful. Flash floods are a hazard in ordinary caving and naturally one has to choose one's weather for draining. The only other danger is stepping on the occasional eel. and an undesirable level of carbon dioxide. Drainers generally wear normal caving gear and carbide lamps on their expeditions into the bowels of Sydney.
Is it legal? The drainers are not sure. Some drains have signs prohibiting public access. But normally they enter the drains at places where anybody who wants to can just walk in. Sometimes they leave by lifting a manhole or grille. On other occasions they simply retrace their steps.
What are the best drains to explore? Basically the drains they choose are the old creek beds of Sydney that have been culverted and covered over to build such thoroughfares as the Warringah Expressway, Parramatta Road and various suburban streets. Near the Harbour, these drains are generally big enough to stand up in. They get smaller as they proceed inland.
Where are the suitable drains? The archetypal drain and every drainer's ambition is the Tank Stream which now flows beneath Pitt Street. But there are a number of others. Here are some other examples. One of the best drains begins at Milsons Park near the Ensemble Theatre. Entry is made from the Harbour although the drain is above tide level. This drain has particularly intriguing old brickwork and has obviously been there a long time. It starts off quite large and proceeds up towards the Warringah Expressway by way of a three metre high rise in the drain. It is probably the site of an old waterfall that once tumbled down to Careening Cove before reclamation and roads transformed the area beyond recognition.
During one expedition through this drain the cavers lifted a grille and found themselves at the side of Warringah Expressway with the traffic whizzing by. They replaced the grille and continued on until the drain narrowed to the point where they had to proceed on their hands and knees. They then found an exit through a manhole cover in Miller Street, North Sydney.
The drain which runs from the Waverton shopping centre down to Waverton Park and the Harbour is a modern concrete affair. However, it offers an exhilarating slide down its slippery surface. It is an ideal drain for skateboarding.
On the other side of the Harbour is Johnston’s Creek which forms the boundary between Annandale and Glebe and later Annandale and Camperdown. It has a branch, Orphans School Creek, which is the boundary between Glebe and Camperdown. Orphans School Creek runs past the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and Sydney University. It is wholly culverted and drainers who have followed it quite a way have discovered no way out.
Johnstons Creek is open for much of its course but becomes a covered stormwater drain passing under Parramatta Road and later under Stanmore Road. There is an exit at Salisbury Road.
Whites Creek Stormwater Drain nearby is the boundary between Leichhardt and Annandale. It is also open for part of its length. It is a concrete drain from Rozelle Bay towards Parramatta Road. There is an exit at Norton Street, Leichhardt.
The Kensington Drain has an entrance at Lorne Avenue. It always has quite a stream flowing. It follows Doncaster Avenue to emerge in Centennial Park. This is presumably the creek that flows into Botany Bay via East Lakes.
How do you find suitable drains? Basically by looking out for them. Some, like Whites Creek and Johnstons Creek. are named in Sydney street directories. In other cases there are hints on the map through the red lines marking in postal districts. These apparently arbitrary boundaries tend to follow the courses of old creeks which have long since been covered over by roads to become part of Sydney's network of underground drains.
So, to those interested . . . good draining!
This section is based on the excellent book by Brian and Barbara Kennedy. (Subterranean Sydney (The Real Underworld of Sydney Town), Reed, Sydney, 1982. ISBN 0 589 50312 X). Copyright Brian and Barbara Kennedy and Reed Publishing.
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