The mouth of the Tank Stream in Sydney Cove c1803, a detail of [Sydney from the western side of the Cove, ca1803], atrributed to GW Evans, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (XV1/c1803/1)

The mouth of the Tank Stream in Sydney Cove c1803, a detail of [Sydney from the western side of the Cove, ca1803], atrributed to GW Evans, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (XV1/c1803/1)

It is often forgotten that our modern city lies across what was a natural landscape of forests, valleys’, rivers and streams. It was a landscape formed over millennia and familiar to Aboriginal people for over 30,000 years. Running through the valley on which the city of Sydney now stands was a fresh water stream, rising in the marsh land around Hyde Park before heading north towards the harbour. At high tide it formed a wide estuary as it entered the harbour, at low tide a large marshy mudflat.  

Today historian Dr Mark Dunn talked to Julia Carr-Catzel on 2SER Breakfast to talk about the Tank Stream.

 Listen to Mark and Julia on 2SER here 

When the British arrived in the First Fleet, Arthur Phillip, the first Governor, used this stream to order his rambling camp. To the east he had a space cleared for the erection of a prefabricated, temporary house to serve as the Government House, with land close by set aside for his officials and administrators. On the west the military began to establish what would become their barracks and the convicts were left to set tents and later build their huts along the ridge in what became the Rocks.

Phillip’s hastily thought-out camp plan, based around the stream set the foundation for the future city and is still discernible today. To the east of the stream, which essentially runs under Pitt Street, sit the State parliament, law courts, the hospital and other government functions, to the west the commercial city moved into the space left behind by the barracks (modern day Wynyard) and the convict town of the Rocks.

Detail showing the Tank Stream from 'Plan of the town and suburbs of Sydney, August 1822', courtesy National Library of Australia (MAP F 107)

Detail showing the Tank Stream from ‘Plan of the town and suburbs of Sydney, August 1822’, courtesy National Library of Australia (MAP F 107)

What of the stream though? Soon after the arrival of the Fleet, David Collins deputy judge-advocate and lieutenant governor, wrote of the camp that it was ‘at the head of the cove, near the run of fresh water which stole silently through a very thick wood’. It was vital to the survival of the new camp, just as it had been to Aboriginal people. Archaeological work carried out on the site of Angel Place during its construction recovered 54 stone flakes of tools made by Aboriginal people on the banks of the stream itself.

People love firsts, and the stream provides us with a few. It had the first bridge in Australia built across it, giving us the name Bridge Street. The first flood recorded by the British was in August 1788, when heavy rain swelled the flow and washed away newly erected brick kilns and some huts. It is also the site of our first environmental protection laws. Recognising the importance of the stream to the colony, Phillip banned any huts to be erected within 15m of the stream, forbidding the removal of the trees along its banks and restricting access by animals and people.

The name, Tank Stream, appears in the years after 1790 when a series of four large tanks were cut into the sandstone banks to collect water. Even in these early years, and despite the almost utter reliance on the stream for fresh water, the overuse and pollution of European living had begun to put unbearable pressure on this precious resource. Each tank could hold up to 20,000 litres. Tanks built, water secured, name bestowed.

Phillip left in 1792 and with him so too did any real concern for the stream. Under his temporary replacement, Major Grose, officers of the military were permitted to build within the 15m exclusion zone, and soon huts and pigsties appeared along its banks. It was quickly polluted, and despite subsequent Governors trying to reintroduce some controls, the stream never recovered.

By 1828 it was ruined and Sydney was looking to other water sources for their supply, eventually replacing it with the convict built Busby’s Bore. Soon enough the idea of covering the stream was mooted. The proposed redevelopment of the head of the cove into a circular quay also included the diversion of the stream into a purpose built sewer. George Barney, colonial engineer set with the task of scoping the quay project noted in 1836 that:
The stream is in effect the main sewer of a large portion of the town, and from local position, it becomes the channel of conveyance of hundreds of tons of sand, annually, from the numerous and extensive streets inclining towards it, in addition to a contribution of every species of filth from the rear of the premises abutting upon it ( The Australian, 16 September 1836, p2).

His solution was the conversion of the stream into a sewer, covering it in a brick or stone culvert which would protect it from sand and debris, allow the streets above to be formalised and extended, and still maintain the stream itself for the benefit of the city.

And so it was that in November 1856 work finally began to divert the course into Circular Quay and enclose the stream within an elliptical stone culvert. The first section between the Quay and Bridge Street was completed by September 1857, creating in the process New Pitt Street. From 1860 the next portion between Bridge and Hunter was covered and finally that part south of Hunter Street went underground from 1867 so that the whole stream had disappeared by the early 1870s.

For the next 118 years it was largely out of sight, out of mind. Most people forgot it was even there, except a few builders who occasionally saw it in the basement of older sites or the construction of new ones like Australia Square. Then in 1988, Sydney Water, wanting to be part of the Bicentennial celebrations, decided to give the culvert a clean-up and open it to public viewing. What started small is now one of Sydney’s most sought after underground experiences and the ballot is currently open for a chance to explore.

Tank Stream 1842 by Frederick Garling, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (ML 420)

Tank Stream 1842 by Frederick Garling, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (ML 420)

For those who miss out, keep your eyes peeled next time you walk in Pitt Street Mall or Martin Place for Lynne Roberts-Goodwin’s installation, Tankstream-into the head of the Cove. In a series of blue glass rods inserted into the footpath, Goodwin maps the route of the stream and reminds us that we walk atop of Sydney’s fresh water heart.

Head to the Sydney Living Museums website for information about the Tank Stream tours and how to enter the ballot:

Mark Dunn is the Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association, the Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW and a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!

Listen to the audio of Mark & Julia here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15 to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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