The new decade began in Australia with an apocalyptic vision of drought, fire and flood, but it’s always a bit of shock to Sydney when natural disasters sneak up on the inner city too. Last week as flood waters in Marrickville submerged cars, factories, studios, houses and even the beloved Marrickville Bowlo, a look at the Dictionary of Sydney reminded us that although this kind of occurrence has happened before, perhaps it becomes even more confronting as we lose sight of our city’s natural terrain and its ancient waterways.
Traditional owners of Sydney regularly remind us we are a city bound by rivers – including the Cooks River to the south. Feeding into this grand river was the Gumbramorra Creek, that fed in turn the Gumbramorra Swamp, which lies hidden under all the inner west concrete we know and love in Sydenham, St Peters, Marrickville and Tempe. The Gadigal people tapped into this thriving wetland as a rich source wildlife, vegetation and shellfish, but early European residents hated it. In 1790, Watkin Tench complained when he didn’t find rich pastures but instead encountered ‘high coarse rushes, growing in a rotten spongy bog, into which we were plunged knee-deep at every step.’ Other colonists called it a ‘slough of despair.’
The patterns of the swamp were also misunderstood. In wet seasons, it covered a wide area but decreased to half of its size in dry seasons. This misreading was disastrously highlighted by the decision to develop the area. A tramway was constructed along the western boundary of the swamp, now Victoria Road, in 1881 and was a feature used to promote the new Tramvale subdivision. Sales targeted the working class with the promise of increasing land value and employment prospects in the ‘centre of a manufacturing district.’
But the reality of living here was grim. Poor sewage facilities were compounded by regular flooding, meaning neighbouring suburbs could smell Tramvale’s effluence from miles away. In summer mosquitoes thrived in plague proportions. Disaster struck in 1889 when after five days of rain the Cooks River flooded and waters rushed into the ancient swampland, drowning the estate.
A shocked public demanded answers as to how such an unethical development had been allowed to occur. Tramvale was never rebuilt, although poorer residents still stayed in their homes until the state government eventually resumed the properties and it was recognised that this low-lying land was better suited to industry. The drainage of the Gumbramorra Swamp commenced in the 1890s, continuing until the 1930s and beyond. Soon the ‘old swamplands’ were no longer even known as Gumbramorra.
But when storms hit Sydney and combine with a high tide in the Cooks River the swampland returns and reminds us of what this landscape once was.
You can read local historian Chrys Meader’s great entry on Sydenham, the swamp and Tramvale on the Dictionary here. Don’t forget to explore further through the links and images you’ll find on the site.
There’s also a wonderful essay On the margins of the good swamp by historian Sue Castrique that was published by the Griffith Review in 2019 to read here too.
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!