Sewers seaward
Toothless watchdog
Toxic fish
Sewer-side surfing
Public relations battle
Events of 1989
Beyond Sydney

The shape of things to come

Before Sydney became a city the colonial government provided the odd drain here and there but refrained from constructing any general system of sewers because of the expense. On 7 May 1842, the Herald joined the chorus of complaints against the government: ‘With a mass of fi1th which is everyday accumulating in its reeking depositories, we have scarcely a single sewer to carry it off!’ But whilst some complained, others steadfastly tried to delay the day when ratepayers would have to finance a sewerage system.

Aversion to taxes and rates has dogged the history of Sydney’s sewerage system, forcing those in power to adopt low cost, short-term, less effective measures for dealing with sewage collection, treatment and disposal. Those who paid the most rates in the nineteenth century had least to gain from public expenditure on sanitation because they usually lived well away from the squalid conditions of the inner city. Those who suffered most had the least say because only property owners could vote. The incorporation of Sydney as a city with self-government and the sanitary reform that was likely to follow were both delayed because of the strong opposition of influential ratepayers.

The First City Council was continually confronted by complaints and criticism because they did not sewer the city but they claimed that they did not have enough money to do so. They were unable to get finance from the colonial government and did not have access to money raised by the government in the city by way of tolls and licences. They were reluctant to raise rates because they feared this would lose them office and even if they resolved to, their ability to do so was severely limited by government legislation. The Herald editorials criticised the Council for not building sewers but also expressed concern about rates. Just before the 1850 Council elections the editorial read: ‘What we want in the City Council are men of good character and active business habits… and who from having large properties in the city will themselves feel the full weight of the taxation that may be imposed, and will therefore see that every farthing that is raised is economically expended’ (Herald 4/11/1850).

The tardiness in building sewers had its effect. In 1856 it was reported by a subcommittee of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales that the sanitary condition of Sydney was worse than that of London and that the death rate in Sydney was higher, despite a year of cholera in London. In Britain the sanitary reform movement had become a veritable moral crusade amongst elite groups and professionals who subscribed to the Victorian social doctrine that social progress and morality depended an physical well-being and a pure environment. These concerns found expression in Sydney where the connection between dirt and poverty was interpreted as an indication of the inferiority of the poor. In a series of articles in 1851 the Herald took its readers through a chain of cause and effect from bad drainage to drunkenness, prostitution, and crime. ‘Vice and dirt are so nearly allied,’ the paper stated, ‘that the former seeks to hide itself in the repulsive mantle of the latter’ (15/3/1851). The Herald argued that the ‘great unwashed’ had no stake in the state, they became bitter and hateful and could be easily persuaded by ‘agitators’ who sought to further their own political ambitions. It cited as evidence ‘that wild democracy under the name of Chartism’, which took root in the English ‘dens of fi1th and fever’ (8/3/1851).

The opposition to public health spending in the nineteenth century was such that sanitary reformers attempted to justify water, sewerage and drainage schemes on economic grounds, including the cost of reduced production when workers were sick, the cost of caring for the sick, and the cost of vice, crime and destitution. The Herald warned that if a fatal disease were to break out ‘amongst the dense masses of our Capital’ it would spread throughout the land bringing personal suffering and industrial ruin. ‘It would be a species of taxation more grinding and oppressive than any which human laws can impose—taxation which none could resist or evade’ (6/11/1850).

In September 1853 the colonial government dismissed the City Council and instead appointed three commissioners to supply the city with basic public services such as water and sewerage. The commissioners embarked on city improvements seemingly regardless of cost. In the first five months they spent twice as much as had been spent in the preceding ten years. The level of rates that the commissioners were able to levy was limited by the colonial government, so they soon built up a debt. Under pressure from disgruntled ratepayers, a series of government committees found fault with the performance of the commissioners. Although the commissioners had constructed a whole sewerage system in just three years, they were dismissed and the City Council was reinstated in 1857.

Because the pressure for the first sewers came from fears about social disorder rather than from a desire to clean up the environment, and because of financial constraints on the commissioners, the sewers merely removed the sewage from residential areas to the nearest waterway. The decision to discharge raw sewage directly into the Harbour at Fort Macquarie (now Bennelong Point, the site of the Opera House) was made by the City Engineer in the face of opposition from the Governor, whose residence was nearby, and warnings that the Harbour would become polluted. The City Engineer claimed that a strong seaward current would carry the sewage away (the same engineers wishful thinking that apparently still plagues engineers today) but within 20 years the Harbour was foul and stinking.

In 1875 a petition signed by 3800 people complained that the existing system of sewerage ‘has resulted in depositing a11 the fi1th of the city in the harbour, rendering a1l business occupations upon its shores disgustingly offensive, largely increasing the sickness of the citizens, and silting up year by year navigable water to a large extent’ (NSW Legislative Assembly, Votes & Proceedings, 1876–77, p. 685). The petitioners complained that the state of the harbour was well known overseas and was ‘discouraging immigration and hindering trade’. Owners of waterside properties were especially disadvantaged by having the ‘excreta and offscouring of a hundred thousand people’ cast upon them. ‘The sewer evil’ had been caused by be government and should be cleaned up by the government. Complaints had also been received from the Imperial naval authorities, about the unhealthiness of the anchorage grounds.

As the pollution problems were increasingly becoming a focus of public complaint the sewerage authority did what Sydney sewerage authorities have been doing ever since—they recommended that the sewage be diverted from the trouble spot to elsewhere. In 1875, the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Hea1th Board advised that the dry-weather sewage at three of the outlets be carried into deeper water ‘as the only measure immediately available for effecting any mitigation of the evils at the outlets of those sewers’. They also advised that in the long term the city sewage be intercepted and diverted. They proposed that the north draining sewage be piped to Bondi and discharged into the sea at Ben Buckler Point and that the south draining sewage, including that of Surry Hills, Redfern and Newtown, be piped to a sewage farm, either on the lower part of Shea’s Creek (now Alexandra Canal) near Botany Bay, or on Webb’s Grant on the southern edge of Botany Bay.

This opening episode of Sydney’s sewerage story indicated the shape of things to come: the irresponsible attitudes of individual polluters; the need for government intervention; the unwillingness of ratepayers to pay for anything more than a short-term solution to immediate concerns; the warnings of environmental damage that were ignored; the reliance on engineering advice that supported the cheapest technological solution; and the consequent environmental disaster that could have been averted with sufficient foresight and planning. However, when the New South Wales government decided in 1880 to act upon the Board’s advice and divert Sydney's sewage to the northern end of Bondi Beach it became clear that many people had learnt the lesson that discharging sewage into waterways caused pollution. There was considerable opposition to the idea. At this time Bondi Beach was undeveloped and considered to be fairly remote from the city. The whole of the beach right down to the low-water mark was privately owned by one man who allowed public access ‘only by sufferance’. Moreover, bathing in the sea was still considered to be somewhat improper and dangerous, and it was illegal during daylight hours. Nevertheless, the beach was a popular picnic and promenading spot and large numbers of people went there on Sundays and public holidays. The sea air and water were considered therapeutic and beaches at this time were regarded as health resorts.

Poem, 1880
This poem, published in the Evening News in 1880, put in words the popular view that ocean disposal of sewage would cause pollution and was a waste of resources that should be used for fertilising the land.

The newspapers were flooded with letters. The local councils in the area were also aghast. A meeting of mayors roundly condemned the proposals. The Mayor of Randwick, a suburb incorporating several kilometres of beaches south of Bondi Beach, said the Bondi outfall was just a stop-gap measure, and that eventually ‘an enormous quantity of filth’, carried by currents, would line the city foreshores from Botany Bay to Broken Bay. The Mayor of Waverley, a suburb incorporating Bondi and nearby beaches, agreed.

Because of the public controversy, the government asked W. Clark, an eminent English engineer, to review the proposals. He endorsed the Board’s plan to divert the sewage to Bondi and claimed that sewage released at Ben Buckler would not create a nuisance. Thus began the Australian tradition of bringing in ‘independent’ experts whenever the public objected to a sewerage scheme; often experts from overseas with no knowledge of local conditions who would stay for a short time, deliver their pronouncements and leave.