Marrickville history part 2: Gumbramorra Swamp
By ALEC SMART
When Britons colonised Sydney in 1788, much of what is now South Marrickville was an impenetrable quagmire connected to the Cooks River. Now, in the 21st Century, despite over 200 years of ditches, dams and drainage, the area is still prone to flooding, especially when storms roll in during high tide.
Unwins Bridge over Cooks River, Marrickville, 1874
Marrickville wasn’t actually named ‘Marrickville’ until Nov 1861, when William Dean, publican of the Marrick Hotel on Illawarra Road (now the site of the Henson Park Hotel) proposed it for the newly developing suburb. Previously, from 1809, a large part of the region was enclosed within barrister Robert Wardell’s 800 hectare estate, which stretched from Petersham to the Cooks River.
After Wardell was murdered by escaped convicts on 7 Sept 1834, Thomas Chalder, a wealthy merchant who emigrated from the town of Marrick in North Yorkshire, England, in 1842, purchased a substantial proportion of his estate, which he named ‘Marrick’.
Chalder arrived as an ‘agricultural labourer’ but the industrious entrepreneur made his wealth during the 1850s Gold Rush trading a wide variety of consumer goods. In 1855 his ‘Marrick’ estate was subdivided into streets and houses, and formally named ‘Marrickville’ six years later.
But it took Chalder 20 years to sell off the subdivisions and recoup his investment. Although he sold land to create Marrickville Public School and the first Marrickville Council chambers, he also lost a lot of money on an iron works foundry and land purchases in Mittagong.
Towards the end of his life he was indebted and all he had left was his large house, ‘Heathcote’, which stood where the Southern Cross Hotel now stands on Prince’s Highway, St Peters.
One of the main reasons the Marrick estate was difficult to sell was because much of it was a boggy marshland, known to the Aboriginal clans as Gumbramorra, connected to the tidal Cooks River by the Gumbramorra Creek (now a stormwater drain alongside Tempe Station).
A stream that flowed into it from the north was converted to an enclosed drainage channel in 1913 by the Australian Army, because it ran through their newly-acquired barracks on Addison Rd. Now the site of Addi Road community, the civic centre in the midst of the former parade ground is called the Gumbramorra Hall.
The swamp, which swelled to double its size during high tides and the wetter months of the year, occupied the region within Victoria Rd to the west and Unwins Bridge Road to the east (the latter of which led to a bridge spanning Cooks River that was constructed by convict labour in 1836). A track traversing through it was shored-up and named Swamp Rd (now Sydenham Rd).
Between 1839 and 1842, following a severe drought in NSW, a dam was built across Cooks River between Tempe and Wolli Creek, where the present vehicle bridge on the Prince’s Highway stands. Public demand for a reliable source of freshwater for the expanding city of Sydney identified the Cooks River as the most convenient and reliable, and Alexander Spark, who constructed Tempe House (now surrounded by high-rise apartments in Wolli Creek), successfully pitched the idea to Governor George Gipps.
Governor Gipps approved the dam, announcing it would “preserve an inexhaustible supply of fresh water through a course of nearly twenty miles.”
However, the ambitious Cooks River Dam, built by convict labour (with sluice gates at its northern end, and paid for by the Colonial Treasury), was a dismal failure as a fresh water supply.
Although the bridge atop the dam – with a toll payable to Alexander Spark - created a convenient north-south crossing and many of those involved in its construction settled in the region, the water beneath remained unpotable and brackish due to centuries of tidal sea salt and recent industrial effluent.
Furthermore, it quickly became an environmental disaster as it stranded species of migratory fish, trapped silt above its walls and, worse, collected toxic pollution from upstream industries like tanneries, the Canterbury Sugar Mill (operating 1842-54), and, on the opposite bank, Clissold and Hill Wool Washing (operating 1868-75).
Several infanticides were also reported of unwanted babies drowned in the river whose bodies washed down to the dam wall whilst household waste and sewerage from cesspits and home chamber pots dumped upstream congealed at the stinking dam wall. In the 1890s a health inspector found cows drinking the water were infected with typhoid.
The dam itself became submerged by floodwaters frequent times until its demolition between 1896-99.
The construction of a lime kiln at Tempe in the 1850s brought a huge influx of labourers, many of which set up camps along the Cooks River and around Botany Bay. Shells, sourced from the shoreline or Aboriginal middens thousands of years old, were piled onto boats and rowed to the Tempe kiln. There they were burned and used for mortar in house construction.
However, the area was prone to flooding and makeshift camps were often submerged during seasons of heavy rain.
In 1881, during a year of drought, town planners adopted an ill-conceived scheme to construct a suburb for labourers in south Marrickville, on the edge of the Gumbramorra Swamp. A tramway (now Victoria Road) was constructed along the western boundary of the sodden quagmire that led to this new suburb, known as ‘Tram Vale’ where 160 residential allotments were created on either side of Railway Pde adjacent to Marrickville (now Sydenham) Station.
Tram Vale Flooding, May 1889 – Illustrated Sydney News
But, in addition to the susceptibility of the Gumbramorra to flood in heavy rains (and plagued by mosquitoes in summer), authorities failed to construct adequate sewage drains. Tram Vale soon developed a reputation as, literally, a shithole, and the stench could be smelt several kilometres away.
In May 1889, after five days of intense rain, the entire Tram Vale was completely submerged by 3.5 metres of water, and many residents had to be rescued by boats.
Those that could afford it relocated, whilst authorities allowed Tram Vale to deteriorate without repairs in the wake of the flood. However, the poorest remained in their flood-damaged stinking homes for many years until the area was eventually rezoned for industrial units by the NSW Govt at the turn of the century. A few of the original houses remain today amidst factories and warehouses.
Gumbramorra swamp was not drained and levelled enough to reliably build upon until after the 1890s, when three brick-lined, concrete-covered stormwater drains were built to extract water to the Cooks River.
Eventually, during the 1930s Great Depression, the NSW Govt’s Department of Public Works relief work program utilised unemployed labourers to construct a huge drainage pit nine metres deep and 170 x 125 metres wide.
The Sydenham Stormwater Basin (now Heritage-listed) with pumping station alongside, was completed in 1941 and is still located next to Garden St, Marrickville (adjacent to the current Metro Rail station construction works).