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Marrickville History - Part One


Historically, Marrickville region featured high canopy forests, sandstone escarpments, mangroves and a massive, tidal swamp called ‘Gumbramorra’.

Marrickville history in Sydney

This is part one of a two-part Marrickville history. Read part 2 here.

Marrickville History and Origins

For the Aboriginal clans that hunted, fished and gathered in this region, which they called ‘Bulanaming’, the Cooks River (known as Goolay'yari = ‘pelican’) and its estuaries were a rich source of food, including shellfish, crabs, fish, birdlife, plants and animals.

To capture their prey they utilised a range of weapons and tools, such as shell or bone-tipped, multi-pronged fishing spears (‘mooting’), clubs (‘duwinal’), spears (‘gunang’), and throwing sticks (‘boomerangs’).

Bark canoes (‘nawi’) were the principal means by which Aboriginal people cruised along the waterways. These were made from large sheets of bark prized from trees, heat-treated on an open fire to dry and open them out, then bound tightly at the ends to create a stable, watertight vessel.

According to the publication Aboriginal History along the Cooks River, “Both men and women fished from the shore and in flotillas of bark canoes… Their canoes often contained a small fire burning on a clay pad, which women used to cook fish and shellfish as they fished. They also spat chewed up shellfish into the water as burley to lure fish onto their hooks..

“Groups of Aboriginal hunters used fire to herd and encircle kangaroos and wallabies. Possums and gliders were also hunted by smoking them out of trees and racing up the trunks using axe cut toe-holds to club them. Other animals that were most likely hunted around the Cooks River valley included bandicoots, echidnas, fruit bats, goannas, blue tongue lizards and long-necked tortoises. Aboriginal people also hunted birds and gathered bird eggs from the wetlands and forests along the river.”

But for the British arrivals, whose diet and lifestyle was heavily dependent upon agriculture, requiring treeless fields and fenced-in stock farms, the dense forests and muddy mangroves surrounding Cooks River were inhospitable and treacherous.

Especially the large Gumbramorra quagmire 13km south of Sydney Cove, prone to flooding and swarming with ferocious mosquitoes in summer.

In 1790, Watkin Tench, who published two journals detailing the arrival of the First Fleet and the first four years of Sydney penal colony, described the swamp as ‘high coarse rushes, growing in a rotten spongy bog, into which we were plunged knee-deep at every step.’

Aboriginal activity in Marrickville

Until the devastating 1789 Smallpox Plague eradicated large swathes of Sydney’s Indigenous people, the area now known as Marrickville was shared between at least two Dharug-speaking clans, the Cadigal and Wangal, which had their own distinct dialects.

The Cadigal clans’ approximate interface with the neighbouring Wangal ran south-northeast from Gumbramorra swamp to the Pyrmont peninsula (Pirrama = ‘rocking stone’). There they shared a freshwater spring (which Britons named Tinker’s Well) on the headland overlooking Darling Harbour (Tumbalong = ‘place where seafood is found’).

The Wangal lived west of the Cadigal, between the tidal upper reaches of Cooks River and the southern shores of the Parramatta River, and inland to the mangroves of Parramatta (Burrammatta = ‘place of eels’).

The British Arrival in Marrickville

Marrickville history changed dramtically with the establishment of the British penal colony, which expanded south with the arrival of the Second, Third and Fourth Fleets (1789-1792) bringing over 3500 prisoners and hundreds more settlers. In 1799 emancipated convict John Fincham was granted 12.1 hectares of the swampy Gumbramorra. However, he found it useless and uninhabitable, and instead relocated to Balgowlah.

Carpenter Thomas Moore, appointed Master Boatbuilder to Governor Hunter in 1796, was issued land grants around the Cooks and Georges rivers to harvest timber for shipbuilding. This included forested land between Petersham Hill and the Cooks River in 1799, which he named Douglas Farm.

Moore built the first ship in the new colony, the armed cutter HMCS Integrity, launched Jan 1804 by Governor King. In June 1805, Integrity sailed for Valparaiso, Chile, with a crew of 10 to escort home two Spanish ships seized by a privateer, but was never seen again.

After Moore retired from shipbuilding in Oct 1809 to become a magistrate, barrister Robert Wardell, close friend of explorer-politician William Wentworth and founder of The Australian newspaper, settled in the Marrickville area.

Wardell, for whom Wardell Rd is named, purchased more than 800 hectares, including the former estate of Thomas Moore, 10 hectares of which he converted to wheat growing. He also employed lumberjacks, although he sold timber mainly for firewood, not shipbuilding, and, like Moore, issued legal threats to deter rival timber-cutters. Eventually he enclosed his forests with fencing and imported English deer to establish a game estate to hunt with friends.

Gumbramorra for Convicts

Gumbramorra, meanwhile, developed a reputation as a sanctuary for escaped convicts. In 1834, Wardell announced plans to return to the UK, but on 7 Sept, whilst inspecting the southern Cooks River boundary of his property on horseback, he came across three escaped convicts in a makeshift humpy. He remonstrated with them to surrender to authorities, but the exchange became heated and John Jenkins, the leader of the trio, fatally shot Wardell through the heart.

The irony is that Wardell, along with William Wentworth, were outspoken emancipists, championing the rights of convicts and those released into the community. They published articles calling for a democratically elected assembly and the abolition of military juries - much to the chagrin of the tyrannical Governor Darling (Wardell once fought a duel with Darling's brother-in-law).

Suspicion remains that the powerful and progressive Wardell may have been deliberately murdered on the orders of persons unknown.

Wardell’s body was found the day after his murder. The three convicts were recaptured almost a week later, one of whom, 16yo Emmanuel Brace, gave evidence for the prosecution, thus ensuring the other two, Jenkins and Thomas Tattersdale, were hanged.

After his death, Wardell’s estate was administered by Wentworth and Wardell’s three sisters, who opened it up for subdivision to market gardeners, home builders and stonemasons assisting Sydney’s rapid expansion. Among the latter, Adam Schwebel, a German immigrant, established a stoneworks at Undercliffe, on the southern side of Cooks River, and quarried sandstone from across the district.

Marrickville Population Grows

The suburbanisation of Marrickville was underway, but the swamp still had to be drained..

Marrickville history of swamps

Neighbourhood Media has written histories of several suburbs in Sydney. Read more on Balmain history here, Cronulla history here, and history of Sydney ferries here.


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