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.

Sydney’s Garden Palace 1879-1882

My GGgrandfather George Coleman Robinson was born into a coach building business at Cheshunt on the northern outskirts of London.  The London to Greenwich railway was completed between 1836-38 and in his memoirs, he tells of his father taking him to see it and declaring that it is going to spell the end of coaches and their coach building business. 

As a consequence, George was apprenticed to a blacksmith or metalworks where he completed his apprenticeship making gas lights for the new Crystal Palace Exhibition building.   In 1852 as the Duke of Wellington lay in state, he sailed off to Victoria to try his luck on the gold fields.  And lucky he was.

The connection for me?  The Garden Palace building for the 1859 Sydney International Exhibition. 

While the Crystal Palace building, which was built for the 1851“Great Exhibition, was a cast iron and sheet glass structure designed to demonstrate the new technologies of the industrial revolution, the Garden Palace was a timber and brick clad building. 

Crystal Palace was 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) of exhibition space and 1,851 feet (564 m) long, with an interior height of 128 feet (39 m).

The Garden Palace was over 244 metres long and had a floor space of over 112,000 metres.  The dome was 65 metres high. 

It’s only when you look at photographs taken from a distance, particularly from the north side of the harbor that you appreciate what a massively large building it was.  “It was”?   On the 22nd September 1882 it burned to the ground.

I’ve been aware of the building for many years and always lamented that it burned down, and we in Sydney don’t have a building that is very similar to the Melbourne Royal Exhibition building. Always lamented, however recently I felt saddened.  How stunning would Sydney’s city skyline be with the Opera House in the foreground, the Garden Palace in the middle ground and the business center high-rise as the background?

I can’t do a better job of describing the history of the Garden Palace than the State Library of NSW has at this site:


It’s worth the visit.  So is the State Government’s State Archives & Records site:


What I can do is share some images that should stun you and hopefully sadden and gladden you, as they do me. I’v eposted a large number of photographs and paintings at “Behance”, just click through fro the home page.

Aboriginal skin cloaks


by Fabri Blacklock Assistant Curator, Koori History and Culture, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Aboriginal people throughout south-eastern and western Australia wore skin cloaks, as these temperate zones were much cooler than the northern parts of Australia. The cloaks were made from the skins of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other fur bearing animals. Early European observations noted that many of the local Aboriginal people wore skin cloaks. These observations were recorded in literature, paintings and photography.

The many processes involved in the making of these cloaks were complex and often time consuming. Some cloaks were made using up to seventy skins taking over a year to collect before beginning the process of making them into a cloak. Once the skins were removed from the animal, the flesh was scraped off using a sharp stone implement or mussel shell. The skins were then stretched over bark and hung out to dry often near a fire as this would slightly tan the skins and protect them from insect attacks . After the skins were dried out they were then rubbed with fat, ochre and or ashes to make them pliable and keep them supple. The cloaks were sewn together using sinew, which was taken from the tail of kangaroos. Holes were pierced through the skins using a sharp pointed stick or a pointed bone needle. The sinew was then threaded through the pre made holes to sew the skins together making them into a cloak. There appears to be some difference in the manufacture of the cloaks across Australia. In New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia the skins were shaped into square pelts and then sewn together. In Western Australia the skin’s used were mainly kangaroo and the whole skin was sewn together with another leaving the tail to hang at the bottom of the cloak. The cloaks from Western Australia are called Buka or Boka.

Skin cloaks were often the main items of clothing worn by Aboriginal people in the cooler temperate zones. The cloak was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other it was then fastened at the neck using a small piece of bone or wood. By wearing the cloak this way it allowed for movement of both arms without any restrictions and allowed for daily activities to be carried out with ease. The cloaks were worn both with the fur on the outside and on the inside depending on the weather conditions. If it was raining the fur would be worn on the outside, providing the same waterproof qualities it did to the animal from which the skins came. The cloaks were also used as rugs to sleep on at night. Many women wore cloaks that had a special pouch at the back in which they could easily carry a small child. This is illustrated in the photo to the right of Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; this photo was taken in about 1880.

When wearing the fur on the inside the spectacular designs incised onto the skin could be seen and this is well illustrated in the paintings of Aboriginal artist William Barak. Barak’s paintings illustrate the magnificent designs that the cloaks were decorated with. Many of his paintings depict ceremonies with people singing and dancing in their cloaks.

Designs were incised into the leathery side of the skin, this was done using a sharp mussel shell. The design’s incised onto the cloak were important to the wearer and their clan group. The combination of designs helped identify who the wearer was and what group they came from. The design’s often found on the cloaks from south eastern Australia include naturalistic figures, cross hatching, wavy lines, diamonds, geometric designs, lozenges and zigzag patterns.

In his book The Aborigines of New South Wales Fraser (1892:45) discusses the meaning of the designs found on the cloaks. He suggests that each family had their own design or what Aboriginal people called a ‘mombarrai’ incised onto the cloak, which helped identify who the owner was. He states:

…a friend tells me that he had an opossum cloak made for him long ago by a man of the Kamalarai (sic) tribe, who marked it with his own ‘mombarai’. When this cloak was shown to another black sometime after, he at once exclaimed, “I know who made this; here is his ‘mombarai’.”

Alfred Howitt also notes the importance of the designs found on the cloaks and how these could be used to identify the wearer. He states:

…each man’s rug is particularly marked to signify its particular ownership. A man’s designs from his Possum-skin rug were put onto trees around the site of his burial. Passing references by others note individual designs on each pelt could represent rivers, camps, animals like grub, snakes and lizards, and plants.

There are many reasons why the majority of skin cloaks did not survive to the present day. One of these reasons was because when a person died all their belongings were disposed of, also some people were wrapped in their skin cloaks after their death. During the early colonial days there was not an institution that was capable of collecting and preserving these cloaks and they were also highly susceptible to insect attacks. Also the introduction of European style clothing and with the annual issuing of blankets from the Crown in 1814 the manufacture and use of skin cloaks began to cease. The issuing of these blankets to the Aboriginal community also caused them to suffer colds and serious respiratory problems especially when it rained, as they did not provide the same waterproof qualities of the skin cloaks. Within Australia the most spectacular cloak is the Lake Condah cloak made in 1872 and held in the Museum of Victoria. The designs on this cloak feature square and diamond shaped lozenges, wavy lines, circles and naturalistic figures. Some of the pelts on this cloak have also been decorated with ochre. Diamond and square shaped designs were commonly used on cloaks as decoration, and they also made the skin more pliable. Louisa Eggington a Narranga woman from Southern Yorke Peninsula made one of the most beautiful cloaks I have seen. This wallaby cloak was made in the early 1900s. It features square pelts and magnificent geometric diamond shaped incisions on the skin. In 1928 Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale from the South Australian Museum interviewed Ivaritji a Kaurna woman from the Adelaide area. She specifically requested to be photographed in this wallaby skin cloak and this was typical of the clothing she remembered wearing as a child. This cloak is currently on display in the South Australian Museums Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery.

There are only fifteen skin cloaks located in Museums within Australia and overseas. In Australia there are skin cloaks held in the Western Australian Museum, Gloucester Lodge Museum, Western Australia, the South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria. Overseas there are cloaks in the Smithsonian Institution – Washington DC, The British Museum – London, Museum of Ethnology -Berlin, Germany and the Pigorini Museum in Italy. European anthropologists collected most of the cloaks found in museums overseas during field trips to Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

During the International exhibitions of the 1800s there were two skin cloaks that were displayed. The Sydney International exhibition held in 1879 displayed an opossum rug from Tasmania, which was awarded a honourable mention. In the Centennial International Exhibition held in Melbourne during 1889, platypus and opossum rugs from NSW were displayed under the category of travelling apparatus and camp equipage.

Today many Aboriginal people have new cloaks and rugs made from kangaroo skins. They are used in performances or often as they were traditionally as a nice warm rug or cloak.

Creation and The Dreaming

The western world has a tradition of written history.  It is detailed and extensive and dates back some thousands of years.  The first peoples of Australia have an oral tradition, which is perhaps less detailed and extensive, but is focused on what is most important, and it dates back some 65,000+ years. 

The western world’s description of this oral tradition, is of “songlines” and “the dreaming”.  Sadly, for all of the 20th century, and to a certain extent, still today, it is so misunderstood as to be called “Walkabout”: a derogatory term to imply that first peoples are lazy and will just walk away from work and vanish for a long period.   

Far too complex for me to explain, I am quoting “What is the Connection Between the Dreamtime and Songlines?”. Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery. 26 October 2017. Retrieved 16 January 2020.

“The Dreaming, or the Dreamtime, has been described as “a sacred narrative of Creation that is seen as a continuous process that links traditional Aboriginal people to their origins”. Ancestors are believed to play a large role in the establishment of sacred sites as they traversed the continent long ago. Animals were created in the Dreaming, and also played a part in creation of the lands and heavenly bodies. Songlines connect places and Creation events, and the ceremonies associated with those places. Oral history about places and the journeys are carried in song cycles, and each Aboriginal person has obligations to their birthplace. The songs become the basis of the ceremonies that are enacted in those specific places along the Songlines.”

The Dreaming stories, told in word, song, dance and art are a road map, a history and a bible.  They are the laws of “country”, the glue that has perpetuated social cohesion and allowed first peoples culture to survive invasion.

A 65,000 year old dreaming story, describes the first people to come onto this continent.

Barnumbirr, the creator-spirit, guided the first humans, the two Djanggawul sisters and their brother, to “Sahul”.  

Barnambirr and the Djanggawuls lived on Baralku, the island of the dead.  Barnumbirr rises every day into the sky as Venus and one day, after crossing the coastline, Barnumbirr flew across the land from East to West, creating a songline which named and created the animals, plants, and natural features of the land. He brought the two sisters and brother to people the land.

As they travelled in country, the older of the Dianggawul sisters gave birth to a child and her blood flowed into a water hole. Galeru emerged from the water hole and ate the sisters, however when bitten by an ant, it regurgitated the sisters.   The Serpent was then able to speak in the sisters’ voices and taught sacred ritual to the people of that land.

These first people were the Yolngu of north-eastern Arnhem Land.  Just as the people of coastal Sydney were called Eora by the early Europeans, both mean “people”.

“Barnumbirr in Yolngu culture. She is often associated with death, and is said to guide the spirits of the dead to their spirit-world.  Barnumbirr was a creator spirit who left her island of Baralku to lead the first humans to Australia. After crossing the coast of Australia, she continued flying across the land, describing the land below her in great detail, naming and creating the animals and places. As she flew westwards across the land, she named waterholes, rivers, and mountains in considerable detail, including defining the territory of clans, and the areas where people had fishing rights. Her song therefore not only forms a basis of Yolngu law, but describes a navigable route across the land. The path that she followed is now known as a ‘songline,’ or navigational route, across the Top End of Australia, so that her song is effectively an oral map.”


Our Seasons

If you are like most people, you’ll be checking on the weather you can expect to experience when visiting Sydney and taking a walking tour.  Climate change is responsible for more changeable and volatile weather in Sydney and like any city of over 5 million people, it creates its own microclimate. Dharuga have experienced changing climate patterns for tens of thousands of years and unlike the western world, record their seasons according to experience of country rather than day’s weeks or months. Seasons are fluid.  They are what they are, for as little or long a time as the conditions apply.  Some years shorter seasons, sometimes longer.

Indigenous people also have a longer-term understanding of weather patterns. Aunty Fran Bodkin’s Bidiagal clan has two other cycles that run considerably longer than the yearly cycle, the Mudong, or life cycle which covers about 11 or 12 years, and the Garuwanga, or Dreaming, which is a cycle of about 12,000 to 20,000 years. They have an oral tradition that is thousands of years old, and have passed down dreaming stories that describe major climatic changes, such as the ending of the last ice age.

When joining me on a walking tour, look to experience what season it is.

The time of the Burran (Kangaroo) is Gadalung Marool—hot and dry, and it could be any time from December to February

Some days are warm and others very hot.  Some days wet, others dry and others hot with an afternoon thunder storm. Male kangaroos become quite aggressive in this season and he Dharuga are forbidden to eat them or other animals because hunting occurs in the morning and eating at night and the heat might cause food poisoning if the meat rots.  It’s also bush fire season, a time when the lighting of fire, except well away from the bush and on a bed of sand is forbidden by the D’haramuoy or Keeper of the Flame.  This is signalled by the flowering of the Weetjellan (Wattle).  It also signals that there will be violent storms and heavy rain, so camping near creeks and rivers is not recommended.

The time of the Marrai’gang (Quoll),  Bana’murrai’yung – wet becoming cool  and it could be any time between late February and June. 

This is the time of the year when the cries of the Marrai’gang (Quoll) seeking his mate used to be heard through the forests and woodlands, Unfortunately, the spotted tail or tiger quoll, is extinct in the Sydney region. The small Tasmanian-devil-like marsupial would growl and screech in the night to attract a mate.   It’s also the time when the Lilly Pilly fruits ripen.  These miniature apple shaped red fruits are prized by Dharuga, animals, birds and bats but unfortunately the last two can make a hell of a mess if they poo on your courtyard or car.

It’s also the time when the Dharuga would mend or add skins to their cloaks.  Women wore possum skin cloaks, with the leather decorated with symbolic designs. Additional skins would add to the childens clokes as they grew.

Men primarily wore kangaroo skin cloaks, particularly after the achieved manhood and were allowed to hunt kangaroo. 

This is the time they would look to move to their winter camps closer to the coast.

The time of Burrugin (Echidna),  Tugarah Tuli—cold, frosty, short days  and it could be any time between May, June or July

This is the time of the year when the echidna mates and when the delicate white blooms of the Burringoa or gum tree flower.  You would need to find some extensive bushland to witness long lines of male echidnas following a female and hoping to mate.  It’s also when the native birds begin nesting, and that includes noisy minors and magpies who are the most aggressive in defending their nests.  The most common bird you will see however is the very colourful Rainbow Lorikeet. Absent from the city for over a century, it has returned as more and more native trees have been planted in the city.

It is also time for the Dharuga to collect the nectar of certain plants for the ceremonies which will begin to take place during the next season. It is also a warning to them, not to eat shellfish again until the Boo’kerrikin blooms.

The time of Wiritjiribin (Lyrebird),  Tugarah Gunya’marri—cold and windy,  pretty well always August. 

Again, you’ll need to find some bushland, or even the backyards of the residents of Wahroonga or Turramurra where the lyrebirds’ calls ring out through the bushland as he builds his dancing mounds to attract his potential mates. It is the time of the flowering of the bright golden Marrai’uo (wattle tree) which is a sign that the fish are running in the rivers.  If you suffer sinusitis, now is the worst time.  With luck, there is also gentle spring rain.

Time of Ngoonungi (Flying Fox), Murrai’yunggory—cool, getting warmer, September-October

This is the time of the gathering of the flying foxes.  There are still 19 flying fox camps in Sydney, and they swirl over the Sydney area in a wonderful, sky-dancing display just after sunset, before setting off for the night-time feeding grounds, particularly wherever there are Moreton Bay or Port Jackson Fig trees.  It is also a very important ceremonial time for the Dharuga, and begins with the appearance of the splashes of the bright red Miwa Gawaian (Waratah)  in the bushland.

The Gymea Lily comes into full bloom at the same time as the Waratah and when the flowers are starting to dry up, it is time for the Dharuga to make their way up onto the cliffs, to sing the whales home from their migration.

The time of Parra’dowee (Eel), Goray’murrai—Warm and wet, November-December

This season begins when the whales have finished their migration and the Great Eel Spirit calls his children to him.  They are ready to mate, and make their way down the rivers and creeks to the ocean.  It is the time of the blooming of the Kai’arrewan (Coastal wattle) which announces the arrival of fish in the bays and estuaries.  This used to be the time that the Dharuga would go prawning on moonless nights.  It’s also the season for afternoon storms and flooding is common so don’t camp near rivers, carry an umbrella and remember to put your car windows up even on the driest, brightest sunny days.