When Sydney began to run out of fresh water in 1850, having abused both the Tank Stream and Busby’s Bore in Centennial Park, consideration was given to where a new supply would come from. It took four thirsty years to decide upon a plan to build a series of dams leading to a pumping station out near Botany (beside the site of Sydney Airport). Water was pumped from the Botany site to two city reservoirs: one in Crown Street and one in Paddington.
The scheme didn’t really work out, and water again ran dry by 1862. This new crisis led to the creation of the Upper Nepean Scheme, which is still providing us with fresh water today. The Botany Station kept pumping, topping up shortages until 1893.
The great minds at the top weren’t finished with the Botany site, however. In the 1870s it became ground zero for the Botany-Rockdale Sewage Farm, Sydney’s earliest attempt at purifying human waste products in the hope of beating the repulsive sounding sanitary problems of the era. A farm was created using human waste as fertiliser, and while the crops were successful, there just weren’t enough of them to sustain operating costs. That, and this monstrosity was right next to a fresh water supply. The farm was closed in 1916 and deemed a failure, but as they say, shit happens.
All physical evidence of the farm was destroyed or removed. Unbelievably, it was decided that a better solution was to just pump all the sewage out into the ocean near Long Bay, and the current buildings here were built for that purpose. Even more unbelievable is that in this day and age, this system (known as SWSOOS, or Southern and Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer System) is still deemed the best way, because it’s still happening. This one in particular services the Cooks River Estuary and the Ascot Racecourse (now Mascot Airport). So much cement was required for this project that Australia’s first steam powered concrete mixer was imported for the job. Wow.
It’s a quick yet perilous walk from the McDonald’s (a sewage farm of another kind) on General Holmes Drive to the scene of the action, and your first port of call is this. I had the eerie feeling I was being watched as I approached, and not by the Federal Police.
When I reached the site I was greeted by some friendly bunny rabbits, who have taken up residence in this…that. Whatever that is. The bunnies appeared to be doing their best to make sure the site was still well fertilised. Some things never change.
Since 1991, the Museum of Contemporary Art has enthralled, inspired and confused Sydneysiders and tourists of all kinds. Established through a bequeathment of money from Australian artist John Power (who died in 1943, making it one very long inheritance battle), the MCA has recently undergone a much publicised redevelopment during which ruins of a colonial dockyard were discovered underground. But contrary to what you might think, their art deco building wasn’t just an attempt by the MCA itself to be trendy – they weren’t in there first.
It’s funny that despite the expensive and lengthy redevelopment process, they missed this little clue. In fact it appears it was covered up by another sign for years and only recently disturbed. As you can see, it reveals that the MCA’s building was once the site of the MSB. This is apparently common knowledge, but what was the MSB?
It makes sense that the Maritime Services Board was established in and housed at the Rocks. 90 years of confusing yet important Sydney port control laws and services were consolidated into one administrative entity, the MSB, in 1936. In 1949 construction began on the building, which was completed in 1952, so even by art deco standards it was late to the party. The MSB itself relocated in 1989, leaving behind the building for the art world to work its magic on and in. It’s just that you missed this spot, guys. Then again, knowing the MCA, maybe it’s actually one of the exhibits and I just don’t get it.
You’re looking at Sydney’s most polluted waterway. And I thought Rhodes was bad.
In the late 1880s (it’s always the 80s), someone envisaged a grand canal stretching from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. It would start at the Botany Bay end of the Cooks River, and lead all the way through the city before opening up at Circular Quay, thereby giving the Eastern Suburbs the island refuge from the great unwashed they’ve always wanted. To that end, I’m surprised it never happened.
Shea’s Creek, a small offshoot of the Cooks River, was chosen as ground zero for the new tributary, which was supposed to act as an access route for barges to transport goods between the multitude of factories set up along the creek in the area. Factories including brickworks, tanneries and foundries. Factories that drained their runoff directly into the canal. A canal that is, according to the EPA, “the most severely contaminated canal in the southern hemisphere”. So keen to pollute were the industrial warlords of yesteryear that they had to invent waterways to defile.
At the time the canal was constructed, Sydney’s roads were a terrible mess completely unsuitable for transporting goods, making an aquatic access route more practical. Thankfully, Sydney’s roads today…uh…they…they’re pretty uh…let’s get more canals happening.
Between 1887 and 1900, Shea’s Creek was ripped up and turned into the canal. By 1895 it was looking unlikely that it would ever reach Sydney Harbour. The NSW Government had decided that as a sewer, the Shea’s Creek Canal as it was known then was doing a good enough job as a carrier of stormwater and runoff, and that there probably wouldn’t be a need to spend all those pounds carrying on with the project. Tenders were called again to complete the canal in 1905, but there were no takers.
The canal was renamed the Alexandra Canal in 1902, after the then-Queen Consort Alexandra. Coincidentally, the suburb that the canal ended in, Alexandria, was also named for her. I bet she was proud, too.
This is how it ends. The mighty canal winds down to a stormwater drain, which then continues to wind up through Alexandria before disappearing. Apparently, the cost of the already 4km canal was so prohibitive as to cancel the rest of the project. It might also have been that the powers that be were trying to save lives, for in creating the Alexandra Canal, they had also created…a bloodthirsty monster!
There have been several attempts since 1998 to clean up the canal, add cycleways (more cycleways!), cafes and restaurants, and generally make it a nice place to be.
As you can see, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe when the city’s insane lust for cycleways finally stretches the canal to Sydney Harbour, that fantasy can be realised.