History dig at Barangaroo

Three minutes walk from Walsh Bay is a busy construction site for the future Barangaroo Metro train station: to be built largely underground and due to open in 2024.

Since the site geared up in early 2018, archaeologists and excavation crews have located many items of historical significance—including substantial sandstone and timber relics of 19th century shipbuilding yards, wharves and jetties. And they found a trove of small artefacts—glass and pottery bottles and jars, metal coins and lids—that were used by people living and working on this shore.

One important discovery is the wreckage of a nine metre-long, clinker-built utility boat found buried under a small beach that was used to store old boats during the 1830s and 1840s. A report on the boat and a summary of the history dig are on the Sydney Metro website. Watch a video here.

Originally the Barangaroo area (like Walsh Bay) was used by Aborigines to spear-fish, collect cockles and share convivial evenings around campfires on the sandstone rocks.

This north-east shore of Darling Harbour, once known as Mill Port, was developed for ship building by British settlers James Munn and Henry Tompson Bass in the 1820s and 1830s. Canberra architect and maritime historian Roger Hobbs noted that after Munn’s death in 1848, his yard was leased to Kenneth Matheson (from 1851), then purchased in 1858 by an Irish shipbuilder, John Cuthbert.  He extended the property southwards and added another patent slip at King Street; underpinning Sydney’s largest ship building operation between 1853 and 1873.

In the 1860s-1880s, three new roads were laid on the Cuthbert site: Unwin Street, Wentworth Street and Clyde Street, and two new jetties, named Cuthbert and Dibbs Wharves, were built to the foreshore (as it was before later reclamations). By 1903, McLean’s Wharf had been added just south of these.

They were all demolished when the Sydney Harbour Trust developed a new ‘wharfage scheme’ for Darling Harbour in the early 1910s. Today’s Barangaroo station site became the location of a modern finger wharf named Darling Harbour 3 (operated by Huddert Parker Ltd).

The trust quarried a great deal of sandstone from the north and west sides of Observatory Hill and claimed new flat land from the harbour, to form Hickson Road, then the widest street in Sydney. It also built a long, colonnaded brick and sandstone warehouse building along the west side of Darling Harbour. Designed by then Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon, this impressive structure was similar in its ‘Federation Free Style’ to the shore sheds that Vernon’s successor, George McRae, designed later at Walsh Bay.

The colonnaded warehouses, and most of north-east Darling Harbour’s early maritime activities, were obliterated by container shipping in the late 20th century.  Today’s suburb of Barangaroo was paved entirely with a concrete deck to berth giant cargo ships and carry stacks of their metal containers.

In the early 21st century, this container wharf was abandoned. The land is being redeveloped as a new suburb with a major transport hub, high-rise commercial district, waterfront promenade and parklands. The train station will connect residents of Sydney’s north shore and western suburbs to a vibrant zone of post-internet global commerce, with hotel and apartment towers, a casino and many restaurants and shops. Also included in the new suburb is a foreshore park, with a large event centre and carpark now operating under the headland hill once named Cockle Bay Point, then Millers Point.

More details

Barangaroo Delivery Authority website.

Barangaroo Station‘, Sydney Metro website.

Gregory Blaxell, 2009, ‘The Port of Sydney: Part 2, The Sydney Harbour Trust and beyond‘, Afloat website.

Roger Hobbs, 2017, A Shipwright in the Colonies: John Cuthbert 1815-1874: Shipbuilder, Ship-owner, Merchant Entrepreneur, Philanthropist. Melbourne: Nautical Association of Australia.