Busby’s Bore

The first pond you come across, when you enter Centennial Park at the Entertainment Quarter gates, is called Busby’s Pond.  In the mid 1820’s, the chain of fresh water ponds that are now enclosed within Centennial Park were known as “Lachlan Swamps”.  It was the closest source of fresh water for colonial Sydney.  It was also at a higher altitude, which meant that the water could be channelled to the city by gravity feed, rather than requiring pumps. 

To the west of the city, much of the country from Victoria Park and around the Sydney University campus, was swamp or wetlands.  Escaping convicts could hide out in the bush or disappear quietly into the Gumbramorra swamp, which was a natural boundary between Marrickville and what now comprises the suburbs of St Peters, Sydenham and Tempe. The swamp was almost always impassable.

Much of the land between Parramatta Road and the Cooks River (today’s Newtown-St Peters area, including Sydney Park), was known as the District of Bullanaming (or Bulanaming) in the beginning of the 19th century. The Newtown-St Peters area was also referred to as the ‘Kangaroo Ground’. Local Aboriginal people, the Gadigal and Wangal, hunted kangaroo on the grasslands here, and fished and camped at the swamps, creeks and rivers that crisscrossed the area.  This would later replace Macquarie Swamps as a source of fresh water but would require pumps and an extensive network of plumbing.

By the mid-1820. Sydney had a water crisis.  After 30 years, the Tank Stream water had become undrinkable, through its use as a sewer, outdoor bathing and livestock watering.  Residents had been digging wells for a number of years to supplement the fresh water the stream once provided, but drought years and an increasing population meant another source was desperately needed.

John Busby had been employed as a mineral and water surveyor in England, Ireland and Scotland. He applied to the English Colonial Office for employment in NSW. Lord Bathurst, then Secretary of State, appointed him as Mineral Surveyor and Civil Engineer with particular attention to “the management of coal mines, and in supplying the Town of Sydney with water”. Busby arrived in Sydney in 1824 aged 59. He was employed as engineer at the Newcastle Coal Mines and, on the breakwater, then under construction there. However, his major task was to undertake surveys with a view to obtaining a permanent and adequate water supply for Sydney.

In 1825 he recommended that a tunnel or bore could be built linking the fresh water Lachlan Swamps in the east to the city, where the water could be stored in a large reservoir. With the approval of the Governor, work began in 1827.

At the start of construction Busby engaged his son, Alexander, as his assistant, but the appointment was disallowed in London. William Busby then acted as assistant at his father’s expense. There were three free overseers but these were for the first year only. Apart from these, the whole of the work was performed by convicts. Between 50 and 140 were employed working 24 hours a day in three eight-hour shifts, a common practice in mining since it prevented and unnecessary buildup of water.

Busby claimed that not 1 in 10 of the men were trained stone miners, that the rest had to be trained on the job. He also complained of their “vicious, drunken and idle habits” and alleged that they were often absent as they preferred to work illicitly on their own account in the town. False returns of work were made by their convict overseers. “One third of the time lost could be ascribed to the workmen, and the villainy of the overseers” sent to the bore. Such was the character of the men employed, that they required constant vigilance, though such was their character that Busby was afraid ever to enter the underground workings.’ This is not surprising given the working conditions. The prisoners were often up to their waists in water. Most of the work was by pick through rock. Gunpowder was used occasionally, but when this occurred the blast fouled the air in the tunnel and filled it with smoke.

In the 1870s the Bore was cleared of debris and in doing so one of the reasons it had taken so long to build was revealed.  Busby and his team of overseers had managed the project from the surface, not wanting to go into the dark tunnels with the convict workers.

The workers then had managed the underground work unsupervised.  The tunnel was discovered to not go in straight lines between each shaft, but rather to run the course of least resistance.  If a particularly hard area was in the way, the convicts backed up and tried a different route.  There are blind alleys, exploratory drives and irregular passageways all through the system.  The tunnel also varies from just under 1 metre square in places to large caverns of over 3m high and 3.5m across.

Work started at the Hyde Park end, near the present-day corner of College and Liverpool/Oxford Streets.   At the time, it was the colony’s Racecourse.  The process involved sinking shafts down to the required depth along the route and then tunneling through to each shaft, before sinking the next series and continuing.  For 10 years convict gangs worked under the streets cutting the tunnel with hand tools through the sandstone, and shoring up the sides and roof with Pyrmont sandstone, when it moved into the sand dunes of east Sydney.

The route progressed along South Head Road, now Oxford Street, turning west of that road at Dowling Street, then across to the west where Victoria Barracks would be built many years later and on to Moore Park Road.

The route traversed several springs and low-lying basins which drained into the bore. Thus by 1830, with the tunnel well short of the Lachlan Swamp, a pipe at Hyde Park began to supply pure, filtered water and the supply increased with the length of the bore. Offcuts from the tunnel also trapped sources of ground water.

In 1833, pipes were laid to the Port to allow ships to be supplied. In 1837 the tunnel reached a point near what is now the corner of Cook and Lang Roads. The only work outstanding was an open cut into the swamp itself and the construction of reservoirs or holding dams at each end. There is no evidence that these were ever built, though some sort of channel seems to have been cut at the south end of the tunnel. Major Barney, Commander of the Royal Engineers, was called to inspect the work. Although critical of the site of the tunnel Barney considered the structure to be of professional merit and fairly done. Starting in 1844, reticulation pipes were laid, allowing houses to be connected, as well as the establishment of a number of public fountains. In 1854, supply was supplemented with the installation of a small pumping station at the lower end of the swamp, as well as a number of small dams.

 In 1872, when the Bore was cleaned and some irregularities removed, it increased the tunnel flow to about 4.5 megalitres (160×103 cu ft) per day.

Water began to flow from seepage streams from 1830, with sufficient water to provide drinking water to the public.  This was delivered by an elevated pipe line on a trestle erected in Hyde Park.  In 1833 pipes were extended to Circular Quay and water sold to visiting ships there.

When it was completed the bore delivered between 1, 360, 000 and 1,818,000 litres per day.  Water was collected in water carts at the pipe end and sold around the city.  In 1844, reticulation pipes were connected delivering water direct to about 70 homes in the city, with more connected in the following years.  Fresh water delivered to homes and pubs, transformed domestic life in Sydney at the time.  Public water fountains were also set up throughout the city.

The bore was supplement in 1854 with a small pumping station near Centennial Park to push water through it and remained as the sole source of fresh water to Sydney until 1858, when the Botany Swamps Water Supply Scheme started.  However, it continued to supply water to the city, Woolloomooloo and other inner suburbs into the 1880s and was still running and used in the Botanic Gardens into the twentieth century.

Although long closed off it is still all there.  28 shafts remain under the surface of Oxford Street, through Victoria Barracks, at the back of the football stadium and Fox Studios and into Centennial Park, with the stone lined tunnel a hidden reminder of the convict workforce that built the city we live in.

Busby, at 72 years old, retired to his property, Kirkton, between Branxton and Singleton in the Hunter Valley where he died in 1857.

Published by gavinhamiltoncrawford

Retired from paid work but not from living. Actively engaged in writing cultural, social and family histories, reflecting on a meaningful life and volunteering.

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