Modernising our waterfront

In 1900 the NSW government declared a rat plague in Sydney. To solve the crisis, it resumed most properties around our headland and created the Sydney Harbour Trust to modernise the entire port around Darling Harbour.

From 1901 to 1918, the trust’s annual reports included detailed progress summaries written by its engineer-in-chief, Henry Deane Walsh. These clarify how and when our precinct was redeveloped to facilitate a new era of steamships and motor transport.

City of Sydney 1910 map showing the headland wharves before redevelopment.

Some of the trust’s reports are missing from the collection now stored at NSW State Archives and Records—but here are most of the local improvements that Walsh recorded.

1903-1904 Night crews on the tug ‘Octopus’ steam-cleaned the sheet piling and substructures of the wharves, while the Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board fumigated nearby sewers. Around the waterfront, spoil from sewers and stormwater outlets was dredged and removed. A new sea wall, including 80 ft of Monier concrete fascia panels, was installed at the Union Steamship Company’s wharf, costing almost 450 pds. The trust continued upgrading houses and business premises, including new plumbing. The lower part of Moore’s Road was widened to 66 ft and work began on the upper section. Approaches to Central Wharf, Tysers Wharf and Town’s Wharf were rebuilt. Sheds and structures at Central Wharf, Parburys Wharf and Moores Wharf were repaired.

Dawes Point in the 1910s, before construction of the Harbour Bridge (RAHS).

1904–1905 Two scavenging boats were constantly removing rat-attracting rubbish from around the waterfront—including dead dogs, cats, rats, fowls, bags of meat and fish, rabbits and hares, pigs, calves, sheep, wallabies, eels and an albatross. The tug ‘Octopus’ continued steam-cleaning the piles and substructures of the wharves. More Monier sea-wall panels were installed. Moores Road was widened and regraded from Argyle Street to Towns Place. To accommodate larger steamships, the trust removed underwater rock at Central Wharf (costing 479 pds). Repairs were completed at Tysers Wharf, and the Parbury and Towns bond stores. More houses, business premises and cargo sheds were repaired, including new water services.

1906-1907 The launch ‘Scylla’ continued steam-cleaning under the wharves to remove rats. Earlier upgrading of houses and business premises, including running water, had ‘greatly improved’ sanitary conditions around Millers Point. Tysers Wharf was rebuilt; 440 ft-long on the east side, 200 ft on the east side and with a 155 ft-long lighter berth beside the western shed. Two double-decker sheds (each 135 x 130 x 50 ft) were built, including a lift, wool shoots, offices and other ‘modern conveniences’. Rat-proof Monier plates were installed along the shore behind Tysers wharf; costing 12,000 pds. Another new wharf, between Tysers and Dalgety White Star Wharf at Millers Point, was almost finished construction; it would provide 32 ft of water (low tide) for ocean-going steamers; the platform measured 492 x 40 ft.

1907-1908 The trust continued steam-cleaning under the wharves, scavenging dead animals and rubbish from the harbour, and repairing and plumbing business and residential buildings. With larger ships increasingly visiting the port, it was necessary to provide more long and deep berths, and extra cargo sheds. Planning began for an extensive wharfage scheme between Dawes Point and Millers Point. At Millers Point the new wharf was completed and leased to Messageries Maritimes, and a leading light (for visiting ships) was installed on a 60 ft high column at the north-west corner of this wharf. Work began at Tysers Wharf to widen the jetty by 40 ft and extend it by 40 ft, and to build a new cargo shed measuring 220 by 42 ft. Twenty two workmen’s dwellings (flats) were built on the western side of Dalgety Road, costing 6280 pds. Dalgety Road was widened to 66 ft; a project requiring considerable rock excavation and construction of a substantial retaining wall on the south side. Several bond stores on Windmill Street were repaired and some trust-owned hotels were upgraded to conform with the Licensing Act. Some dilapidated sheds and jetties were demolished.

1908-1909 A new low-level road (now Hickson Road west) was under construction to connect Darling Harbour with the wharves between Millers Point and Dawes Point, This project included a concrete retaining wall supporting a parallel high-level road (now High Street). The kindergarten buildings in Munn Street were demolished and a new school was built in Bettington Street. A curbed road leading from Argyle Street to Dalgetys No 1 and No 2 wharves was widened to 66 ft and regraded. A large new cargo shed and a three-storey storehouse for heavy machinery were built on the Dalgetys site. A tunnel under Munn Street was planned. Work finished on the expansion of Tysers Wharf. Sandstone steps (named Ives Steps) were constructed at the north-west corner of Dawes Point. Engine stations and wagon lifts at Central Wharf and Parburys Wharf were in good order. The trust prioritised upgrading its fleet of dredges, tugs, hopper punts, pile drivers and steam lighters—needed to build more new wharves.

New shops, housing and the Munn Street bridge at Millers Point, 1913 (SHT/SAR).

1909-1910 Building operations were suspended for five months because of a strike by coal workers—yet Walsh said the trust completed more work than in any of its previous years. Hickson Road was metalled, and the retaining wall between Hickson Road west and High Street (now known as the Hungry Mile) was completed, as well as the Hickson Road tunnel under Munn Street. Building began on a new Wharf No 9 (now Pier 8-9) east of Tysers Wharf (No 10). This jetty would measure 500 by 130 ft and this year’s work on it cost 3535 pds. Forty buildngs in Thornton Street, Munn Street and Argyle Street, as well as six wharves and jetties, were demolished to prepare for new wharves between Millers and Dawes Points.

1910-1911 Monier (concrete) sea walls were now continuous around the west side of the headland, making this part of the waterfront impervious to rats. The new wharf (Pier 8-9) was completed, despite delays obtaining hardwood piles. The shoreline behind it was reclaimed to create 670 sq yards of new land, and a new shore wharf, measuring 100 x 30 ft, was built. Timber and iron had been ordered to build a new double-decker wharf shed and three-storey shore shed on this jetty. In August 1910, building began on another wharf at Dawes Point (now Pier 1), following earlier demolition of the Ives public baths, the colonial artillery barracks and a stone store at the rear of Walkers Wharf, and a reclamation of 1866 sq yards. The new Pier 1 would be 540 ft long and would have twin double-decked sheds measuring 180 x 70 ft; the upper floor would be connected to George Street North (now Lower Fort Street) by a bridge across Hickson Road. Construction of Hickson Road continued, including new reinforced concrete bridges at Munn Street and Windmill Street. Five two-storey shophouses were built at the corner of Kent and Argyle Streets. A restaurant in Argyle Street and 16 workmens dwellings in High Street were finished (with another 28 High Street dwellings still under construction). The launch ‘Scylla’ continued steam cleaning under all the wharves and scavenger boats again collected a large quantity of dead animals, fish and birds.

Pier 1, extended at the south end (MSB/SAR).

1912-1913 Final completion of the new wharf sheds at Pier 1 and Pier 8-9 was delayed due to labour troubles in England holding up deliveries of necessary materials. Two gantry platforms were ready to be erected at Pier 1. Two flights of stone stairs (costing 1800 pds) were constructed to link Dawes Point Park to Hickson Road. A block of land was acquired to widen George Street North (now Lower Fort Street) to 50 ft. Excavation of 14,500 cubic yards of rock along the south side of Hickson Road was completed from Dawes Point to Parburys Bond Store at Millers Point. Hickson Road was kerbed and guttered between Dawes Point and Circular Quay. New dredges were operating to deepen the waterway to 35 ft between Pier 1 and Berth No 2 (now Pier 2-3). A watermans shelter and waiting room was constructed at Dawes Point. A new streetfront, alignment wall and offices were built at Towns Bond Store. A footbridge between Windmill Street and Pier 8-9 was built (costing 4836 pds). The Gilchrist, Watt and Sandersons store was cut back to make way for Hickson Road at the junction of Towns Place. A reinforced concrete bridge was being built from Argyle Street across Hickson Road, Millers Point. Water leaks and shrinking deckboards in the upper floors of some cargo sheds were repaired by covering affected floors with strips of tacked-on felt, floating on a layer of Val de Travers, then laying 2 in sheathing and filling all joints with bitumen. A 15-ton travelling bridge crane, two 30 cwt pivot wall cranes, travelling geared pulley blocks and six 2-ton travelling blocks were ordered for installation at Pier 8-9. A 20-ton stationary derrick crane was ordered for installation at Pier 1.

New ladder dredges and hopper barges, 1915 (SHT/SAR).

1913-1914 The trust continued to deepen harbour channels and berths for increasing numbers of increasingly large ships visiting the port. The shed at Pier 1, measuring 421 x 70 ft, was completed and its first floor was extended at the south end, with the floor coated in asphalt for waterproofing. Two hand-powered gantries and 12 manually operated transporter cranes were installed and two 3-ton electrical transporter cranes were being installed. After demolition of Parburys No 2 wharf, building of Pier 4-5 had begun, but was delayed by a failure to obtain piles for splicing to the 130 ft length needed to drive them through 70-90 ft of ballast, clay, silt and sand. The high level section of the jetty had been completed to 260 ft beyond the reclaimed shoreline and piles had been driven for a further 40 ft. The low level section of the 4-5 jetty had been built to a length of 160 ft and the piles and substructure for a further 80 ft, and the new sea wall was well advanced. Construction of Pier 6-7 began in September 1913 after demolition of the earlier jetty and sheds. This new wharf would measure 600 x 130 ft and also would need piles to be spliced to be driven through deep water. By the end of June Pier 6-7 had been built to 120 ft from the reclaimed shoreline and piles and substructure were complete for another 50 ft. Pier 8-9 and its three-storey shore shed (now 21a Hickson Road apartments) were handed over to tenants. The shore shed was constructed of wood and iron with a brick and stone facade to Hickson Road and a glass sawtooth roof. The reinforced concrete bridge and woodblocked road approach allowed access to the first floor of this Shore Shed from Windmill Street. The whole property was well equipped with modern electrical cargo handling appliances—including three wool bale elevators, one 15-ton travellij g bridge crane operating across the jetty shed, one 20-ton job crane, two 30-cwt pivot cranes, one 30-cwt job crane, one hyrdraulic lift, two hydraulic jiggers and eight hand-powered gantries. The Dawes Point horse-vehicle ferry terminal was extended 40 ft on its western side. Hickson Road was completed from Dawes Point to Pier 8-9 and work was well under way on the road between George Street and Dawes Point. Some excavated rock was used for retaining walls. George Street North was widened from 30 ft to 50 ft and steps were constructed at the lower end of the road to lead to Dawes Point Park; 2000 cubic yards of sandstone was removed. Work progressed at New Pottinger Street—extending Pottinger Street to connect Hickson Road and Windmill Street by a curved road with an easy gradient; 4400 cubic yards of rock was removed. Parburys wool store was converted to a bond store and Parburys wharf was demolished in late 1913 to allow construction of Hickson Road. A new two-storey bond store was built under the road bridge to Pier 8-9 from Windmill Street. The Argyle Street bridge at Millers Point was opened to traffic. Three new timber punts, each 60 x 24 x ft, were built at Glebe Island for use in constructing new wharves and sheds.

Parburys Bond Store under construction at Windmill Street (MSB/SAR).

1914-1915 World War I was declared. Hickson Road was open to traffic between Circular Quay and the gasworks (at today’s central Barangaroo). The trust expected the gas works to close in 1916 so Hickson Road could be joined to the north end of Sussex Street. Pier 1 was completed. Work began on building Pier 2-3, following demolition of Parburys No 1 wharf. Pier 4-5 was partly constructed to 380 ft beyond the reclamation line.

1915-1916 Pier 4-5 and Pier 6-7 were nearly complete and work was under way on Pier 2-3. Due to a shortage of steel, the trust decided to build the first floor of the Pier 2-3 shed in timber, allowing it to be completed more quickly.

1916-1917 Pier 4-5 was in use as an ore shed. The single-storey shed on Pier 6-7 was nearly completed.

1917-1918 Building continued at Pier 2-3 and New Pottinger Street. A bridge was planned to connect Pottinger with the first floor of the Pier 2-3 shed. The trust banned storage of highly flammable copra (coconut material) in any of its city bond stores.

Parburys Bond and Free Stores on Hickson Road, c1920 (MSB/SAR).

1918-1919 The sea wall between Pier 1 and Pier 2-3 was constructed, including hand-railing. After a long delay caused by the war, work resumed to build Pier 2-3. Its jetty, measuring 415 x 130 ft, and shore shed were completed. Many tons of ballast were poured under the centre of Pier 2-3 and Pier 4-5 to support their piles where the bottom of the harbour was soft. The New Pottinger Street viaduct was road metalled and 553 cubic yards of rock was excavated at the Windmill Street end of Pottinger Street. Between July and October 1918, 10 bays (for business premises) were constructed along 250 ft under the viaduct and timber forms were erected for a further one and a half bays, before the project was suspended because of wartime shortages of materials.

1919-1920 Pier 2-3 was extended to 525 x 130 ft and about 11,000 cubic yards of ballast was tipped under this wharf to stiffen the piles. Work began to repair a subsided section of Pier 4-5, including tipping about 2000 cubic yards of ballast under this wharf. About 1420 square yards of tarred macadam was laid, and about 426 square yards of footpaths were completed along New Pottinger Street. Another 2146 cubic yards of rock and 1537 cubic yards of soil were excavated at the Windmill Street end of Pottinger Street. Three more bays of the Pottinger viaduct were completed, giving a total length of 300 ft. Wharf 10 was extended by another 100 ft and six more bays of piles were driven, with caps and girders fitted on five bays; the shed was also extended work began on upgrading the old buildings. A new cargo shed at No 11 berth at Millers Point was completed and was occupied by Dalgety and Co. The jetty sheds were extended on Piers 2-3 and 4-5.

Aeroplane photo of completed wharves at Walsh Bay and East Darling Harbour, 1922 (SHT/SAR).