If you read my entry on Shea’s Creek/Alexandra Canal and found your thirst for knowledge on the subject far from quenched (yeah, right), then I recommend you head over to the Dictionary of Sydney, which has just launched its Cooks River project. From the Dictionary:
It is with great pleasure that we launch our ‘Fine stream, fine meadow’ Cooks River project. Made possible through a Federal Government Your Community Heritage grant, today marks the culmination of a 12 month partnership between the Dictionary of Sydney and Botany Bay City, Marrickville and Canterbury City councils, the Cooks River Alliance, and nine fine writer-historians whose collective works form the heart of this project.
Through 14 essays, our authors trace the history of the Cooks River valley from its days as a pristine natural watercourse and lush hunting ground for the Eora people to the high density inner city suburbs and polluted river we know today.
It’s an impressive, exhaustive undertaking, and one I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to. Plus, if you look hard enough, you might find one of the photographers to be very familiar. What are you still reading this for? Get over there, ya mugs!
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.
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.
Since 1938, this theatre has sat on the bank of the Cooks River, Canterbury. Originally called the Windsor Theatre, its proximity to the water made it prone to flooding and also, apparently, prone to thievery. The theatre suffered two safecrackings in the 1940s alone, a problem that doesn’t seem to have been experienced by its current tenants. The Windsor closed in 1981…
…and was converted in 1982 into Mytilenian House, a meeting place for the Mytilenian Brotherhood, which itself was established in 1925. They’ve kept the screen area relatively intact:
I’m guessing they upgraded the safe, especially if the security around the back is anything to go by: