Since Blackwattle Bay is currently threatened with overdevelopment this may be the right moment to look back at a little of its history and that of the creeks that drained into it.

A little exploration inland from Sydney Cove when Philip and the ‘First Fleet’ arrived would have brought them to a freshwater creek running from what are now the grounds of Sydney University and Victoria Park down to a swampy bay where Wattle St and Bay St now start. Archaeological finds make it clear that the clans living around the area used the fresh water and drew fish and rock oysters from the bay, and ate plants and animals from the area surrounding it. The area was soon allocated to incomers. Glebe was given to the Anglican Church via Richard Johnson but thirty-four acres to the east of the creek which became known as Ultimo were granted to John Harris the surgeon, who in 1804 built a stately two-storey house on the rise overlooking Cockle Bay. This was said to be at Blackwattle Swamp and was robbed a number of times. He ran a dairy in the area and it remained largely farmland until Harris’s land was subdivided and sold in 1859. There was also a farm which originally belonged to William Minchin. From time to time cattle were stolen or strayed from the farms.

A bridge over the creek on the road to Parramatta was soon needed and is mentioned in the newspapers as it became the marker for the corners of the district of Sydney, Bullanaming and Petersham. It was well known enough for the poet M Robinson to include the swamp in a poem for an Anniversary Dinner on 1 Feb 1826:

If reflected in one glass of whisky.
If you take a short tramp,
To Black-wattle swamp
You may see what a Cooper has gain’d;
With his vats and his casks,
His coolers and flasks,
You’d swear they could never be drain’d!

In 1810 the swamp was Sydney’s water supply when the Tank Stream dried up. In 1824 it was being recommended that reservoirs be established at the swamp for fresh water in dry years and it was (optimistically) expected that the government would ‘ever secure this spot from the clutches of private individuals.’ There was a reservoir beside the bridge. From an early moment there was a distillery jointly run by Mr Underwood and Mr Cooper near the Military Garden. There was trouble over title in Glebe because of the nature of the original grant to the church but as yet little habitation.

Detail from a map of the City of Sydney by Woolcott & Clarke, 1854.
Detail from a map of the City of Sydney by Woolcott & Clarke, 1854. Blackwattle Cove can be seen at the top of the image, between Lyndhurst and the Ultimo Estate. Blackwattle Creek enters the bay at approximately the base of Cowper St. Waterways flowing into the Creek can be seen at Grose Farm (now Victoria Park) and near the Brewery close to Parramatta Rd near Abercrombie Place, amongst others (source: Historical Atlas of Sydney).

In April 1826 heavy rain broke the mill dams which destroyed the Parramatta Rd bridge and a temporary passage had to be established. In November the new bridge was said to be nearly completed, but the newspapers tell us that in September ‘Mr Robt. Cooper’s buildings at Black-wattle Swamp suffered some damage from the late gales of Monday night and Tuesday. A dam, which this enterprising individual had with much labour, and at a considerable expense completed, and which served to let off or retain at pleasure. The waters of a romantically situated lake, elevated many feet above the level of the sea, and immediately in rear of the Brisbane Distillery, was swept away, and the labour of many days thus rendered useless.’

By March 1827, however, Cooper’s dams were again supplying Sydney with water as well as the water needed for his growing mill, and there were plans to convey the water to the town through pipes.

By then on the Ultimo side of the Swamp Saunders and others began excavation for sandstone and various industrial activities were established along the shoreline of the Bay with access by water.

By 1831 Blackwattle Swamp, was rapidly becoming a small town and in 1832 the area opposite Ultimo House and adjacent to Blackwattle Swamp Brook – an area of water in which people could still swim sometimes with fatal results – was sold for villa residences with water frontage that would enable access by boat to Darling Harbour. Impressive buildings like Lyndhurst and Strathmore were immediately erected overlooking the bay with identifying marks relying on points like the highwater mark of the waters of Blackwattle Bay.

Sketch of Blackwattle Swamp
This sketch clearly shows the branches of Blackwattle Creek that were enclosed in drains, as well as the main branch of Blackwattle Creek that remained open prior to full reclamation (source: Shirley Fitzgerald & Hilary Golder, Pyrmont & Ultimo Under Siege, 1994; p.68. The sketch is based on tracings of engineering documents)

From 1842, water and sewerage had become the responsibility of municipal governments, and complaints about the industrial activities began to emerge. When Glebe municipality was established in 1859 the need for culverts and other structures along and across the creek and around the Bay was apparent but evidently costly. Private activity was permitted. In 1857 the Pyrmont Bridge Company constructed a toll bridge that linked Pyrmont to Glebe Island. To do this, an embankment (with water on both sides) was built across the swamp to give road access from Glebe to Pyrmont, and to enable an abattoir – and, by 1860, boiling-down works – on Glebe Island. At the same time in 1857 the first Sydney sewerage system was being constructed. The Blackwattle Bay stormwater system, still in existence underground and of major heritage importance, was one of the five original combined sewers that were responsible for greatly improving public health. Stormwater and sewerage were diverted from the streets and carried by the sewer into the Harbour.

By the 1870s Sydney’s water shortages and growing public health problems attested to the gross inadequacy of existing arrangements. The Glebe Council was not only involved with this but was also struggling with the frequent overflowing in times of heavy rain of the reservoirs on the upper stream.

Plans were debated that eventually led to the ‘reclamation’ of the Swamp between 1876 and 1880 by infilling with silt and the construction of more sea walls and in 1885 the resulting Wentworth Park, attractively designed with trees and lakes, was dedicated for public recreation although it had been in use as such since 1882 with cricket, rugby, soccer and brass bands performing. In 1893 it was transferred to Glebe municipality. In 1932 Greyhound racing was added to the mix.

Meanwhile on the Glebe side the land of the big houses like Strathmore were being subdivided and streets of smaller houses constructed that overlooked the bay.

The introduction of the Bondi Ocean Outfall Sewer (BOOS) in 1889 diverted sewer flow to the ocean and eventually led to the drains being used predominantly for stormwater, hence further improving public health.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, industrial and maritime use of the bay was increasing on both the east and west side. In the 20th century there was more industrial development. In 1903 a new toll bridge with the latest in technical devices (it was one of the first electronically controlled bridges) replaced the original. A railway was also built running on a viaduct through the park, cutting off its northern end. The new shoreline on the harbour side of Bridge Rd saw the erection of several wharves – originally for the offloading of timber, particularly kauri from New Zealand and later from the 1920s for coal. The dilapidated coal bunker that still (barely) remains is unique. The wharves remained in use until the 1980s when Hansons took over some of the land for concrete batching – structures which are now being demolished. A facility for construction materials may now be built on Glebe Island.

In 1949 when it was felt desirable to establish a fish market in Sydney. A site in Pyrmont on the east side of the Bay was selected initially as a public facility but privatised in 1994. The smaller ship repairing and other business were by this time losing business and were shut down leading to the creation of a walk from the head of the bay round to the parks on the Johnstons Creek side.

In 1992 planning for the construction of a new bridge – today called the Anzac Bridge – to replace the 1903 bridge that linked Rozelle to Pyrmont over Blackwattle Bay began and it was opened in 1995.

Sybil Jack