Lost Sydney: Tank Stream

Location: Pitt Street, Sydney
One of the major influencing factors in Gov. Arthur Phillip's choice of Sydney Cove above other bays in Port Jackson for the site of the settlement of the Colony of New South Wales in 1788 was a little ferny creek. It flowed north from swampy high ground located within the area bounded by Market, Park, Elizabeth and Pitt Streets through a small, closed valley and into the cove through a tidal estuary. It was fed and filtered from the seepages of mosses and undergrowth that provided the spongy cover of its porous sandstone base. Sydney Red Gums (Myrtles), Banksias, Acacias (Wattles), Cabbage Tree Palms and Tree Ferns shaded an undergrowth which Jof orchids, ferns, plants and flowering shrubs which thrived in the shaded environment of rotting leaves, bark and boughs of fallen trees. The nature reserve of Parsley Bay at Vaucluse, some six kilometres west of Sydney Cove, with its riverlut, small closed valley and rainforest vegetation, gives an inkling as to what Sydney Cove of 1788 must have been like, being today much as it was when Captain Philip first found it. A wander through this reserve is like a walk back in time.

A definite channel through which the water could flow was formed from King Street. A small weir was built to catch the water and to stop rising tides from making the water salty where Pitt and Crane Streets intersect today. A simple log bridge was built across Tank Stream near the the military barracks, giving rise to the walkway which later was to cross the stream at this point being named Bridge Street. In 1804, Gov. King had the log bridge replaced by a more sturdy stone bridge It was remodelled in 1810 by John O'Hearne whose labour was paid for with 675 gallons of rum.

View up Hunter Street and Tank Stream from Pitt Street

So what happened to the little rivulet that once flowed into Sydney Cove? The first settlers did not realise that clearing the trees and underbush loosened the topsoil which kept the mosses, ferns and undergrowth in their moist state. Within two years, the creek had become polluted. Construction of new dwellings in the 64 Ha catchment area was belatedly banned and tanks were built near Bridge Street to retain what little water still flowed, hence its name Tank Stream. In 1804, a last ditch effort was made to protect the stream. The Governor stopped and a a 15-metre wide green belt declared on either side of the stream where cutting timber and grazing stock was forbidden, but the damage already done was irreparable. By 1826, The Tank Stream had ceased to be used as a water supply, being replaced by an underground channel which brought water from Lachlan Swamps in Centennial Park to a reservoir in Hyde park.

As there was no need to retain what was left of the stream, the land around it was sold and developed, and what was once the lifeline of the town became an underground drain. The system of tunnels through which Tank Stream flowed into Sydney Cove still exist today, taking away the excess rainwater from Sydney's streets. A brick section of the tunnel between Angel Street and Australia Square is over 120 years old. When Australia Square was built, Tank Stream was diverted around the new building's foundations via a new concrete tunnel. Today its memory is recorded in the names Tank Stream Way, Tank Stream Arcade and Bridge Street. The latter was thus named because it once crossed a over the creek at the spot where Tank Stream Way and Bridge Street now meet.

Tank Stream Way

The first bridge over Sydney's main water supply was a simple log bridge erected in October 1788. It was replaced on numerous occasions with more substantial timber structures. In 1803 Gov. King asked the semi- retired Augustus Alt to have the log bridge replaced by a more sturdy stone arch tall enough for small sea-going vessels to pass under it. King laid the corner stone for the new 9m long bridge at roughly where Bridge Street intersects Pitt Street today.

Continual rock hewing activities by convicts for government buildings and public works had sapped the strength of the few able bodied men capable of carrying out the erection of the bridge. This led Gov. King to appeal to the colony's free settlers to help in its construction. Struggling to survive a drought, colonists refused point-blank to labour on the bridge under the hot sun, and the job was left to five convicts supervised by stone-mason Isaac Peyton. Built in haste, it was opened to traffic on 5 January 1804 but collapsed nine months later due to a combination of poor workmanship and heavy rains which caused the creek to flood. Repairs were under taken immediately and again in 1806. The road which crossed the Bridge, formerly known as Governors Row, was named Bridge Street by Gov. Macquarie when he renamed Sydney's streets in 1810. In the following year he had the bridge completely remodelled by John O'Hearn, which included widening and lowering of the arch. O'Hearn's labour was paid for with 675 gallons of rum. The bridge was demolished in the 1840s when the Tank Stream was channeled underground and the area beyond the bridge reclaimed and remodelled as part of the construction of Circular Quay.

The Ship Inn

The Ship Inn was erected in 1905 directly over the mouth of The Tank Stream on what used to be mudflats. The hotel was built on Blackbutt piles driven into the mud to a depth of 30 metres. The building is also believed to have been built over the hulk of the schooner, Governor Bligh, which was built on the Hawkesbury River.

Tank Stream Fountain

This fountain, opposite Circular Quay, recalls man's past dependence on this stream as the colony's first source of water, and the colony's links with the life around it. The fountains depict a variety of flora and fauna which used to be found on the Tank Stream's banks. Sculptor: Stephen Walker.

Tankstream - into the head of the cove

Tankstream - into the head of the cove ... , a series of street markers, celebrates The Tank Stream, its importance in the founding of the city and its continued survival under the city streets. The artwork marks the course of the Tank Stream with five key sites through the city from Pitt Street Mall to Alfred Street. Coloured glass modules lit from within evoke the existing subterranean stream flowing beneath the city streets. Created by Lynne Roberts-Goodwin.

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