Recently I was excited to receive one of the hottest tickets in town, a chance to mix it with Sydney’s finest rats, cockroaches and albino grasshoppers in this historic stormwater drain. Thanks to Sydney Living Museums and Sydney Water, a very lucky few from thousands that applied were given the chance to tour Sydney’s Tank Stream. This is not just any stormwater drain, it is the remains of the original stream that determined the location of Sydney, Australia’s first city, and was the life vein of the early colony for its first 40 years.
But before it supported the early European settlers, the Tank Stream was an important resource for Sydney’s indigenous people, (most likely) the Gadical clan of the Eora Nation. While little evidence was preserved, some signs of campsites and life centred around the stream have been uncovered. This includes small stone artefacts found during redevelopment of Angel Place and The Ivy Nightclub in the 90s indicating the manufacturing of small stone tools taking place just metres from the edge of the stream. One can only assume it provided an important drinking water source as well as other resources that grew along it. It’s also claimed that people buried their dead along the Tank Stream after the discovery of a skull during the development of the General Post Office at Martin Place in the 1800s.
During these times, the stream drained a swamp from around present day Hyde Park, flowing down a route roughly between George Street and Pitt Street before entering Sydney Cove at about Bridge Street. Along the way it passed through a series of waterfalls, gradually dropping about 30 metres as it flowed down the hill into the Harbour.
In 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip sailed to Sydney, he first sailed into Botany Bay as this was recommended as an appropriate settlement site by Captain Cook 18 years earlier. But the lack of a fresh water supply prompted Phillip to look elsewhere, bringing him to Sydney Cove where the water was deep enough to dock ships and a wide mouthed freshwater stream entered the harbour providing an ideal location to set up camp. It’s hard to believe but at the time he could sail his smaller boats all the way up the Tank Stream to what is now Bridge Street.
For about the first 40 years of European settlement the Tank Stream provided the colony’s main fresh water source for both people as well as their livestock. Governor Phillip recognised the need to maintain water quality and as a result, in 1795, he ordered a ban on grazing stock, cutting trees and other polluting activities within 15 metres either side of the stream. He also faced the challenge associated with Sydney’s erratic rainfall patterns, navigating through periods of high rainfall and flooding of the stream through to droughts where the stream would be reduced to a trickle. Droughts in 1792 prompted Phillip to order it to be deepened, with three storage tanks to be cut into the sandstone. One at Pitt and Spring Streets, and two more on Bond Street, clearly these were the reason behind the naming of the “Tank Stream”. Each tank was 5 metres deep and could hold 20,000 litres of water.
Over the years, as the population grew and Governor Phillip left the colony, houses and pigsties crept into the 15 metre protection bands that Phillip had set up. The stream began being polluted and causing illness. Several attempts were made by subsequent Governors but by 1826 the colony gave up and it basically became an open sewer. In 1858 it was diverted below Pitt Street and the first section was covered.
The growing city eventually fully covered the tank stream, and today it acts as a working stormwater drain, carrying water from the lower CBD to a discharge outlet into Sydney Cove at Circular Quay. It was protected by a Permanent Conservation Order in 1989 and was put on the NSW State Heritage Register in 1999.
It is amazing to have visited such a significant site from Sydney’s history. If it wasn’t for this small creek Sydney may not be where it is today. This is a true gem and what a privilege it was to be able to join the tour. Thank you once again to Sydney Water and Sydney Living Museums for a professional, informative tour and for creating such a friendly vibe throughout.