Local History, Social Life

No Water, No Life

There is something very enticing about that sign on Cherry Tree Hill, yet how many of you, like me, passed it regularly for sixteen or more years and never stopped? The “Wishing Well” piques childhood enchantment but perhaps I was always too focused on the present or future to stroll down a leaf-littered path into the past.

Margaret Piddington relates its history in Over Cherry Tree Hill. One hundred and eighty years ago, or thereabouts, local trooper James Minehan unlocked a spring by making a small hole in the side of a rock. It became a life-support for weary travellers, stockmen and stock after a long journey on a hot day up a formidable hill. In 1879 road contractor George Harris developed the well and was paid two pounds by the Inspector of Roads for his inventiveness. Fifty years later the arch was added, built from stone from an old house in Ilford and engraved with the words “Wishing Well”. A Bicentennial grant funded a parking area, walking path and plaque thus making the wishing well a place of historical significance as well as a tourist attraction. Except that currently it can only be inspected from a distance of about thirty metres, while balancing on a couple of logs, which inevitably unload you into six-inch-deep watery marsh. We couldn’t tell if the plaque is still there.

There is another watering item of historical value in our area – a beehive well in Pat Amos’s garden in Rylstone which featured in the Kandos Gardens Fair. There are only a few left in Australia I believe, but at one time they studded the landscape. It’s called a beehive well because of the domed top, usually built of stone or fired brick and coarse cement over a well. Rainwater collected in the well and a space at the top of the dome allowed water to be collected in a bucket. The dome ensured the water stayed relatively clean. Pat still collects and draws water from it to irrigate her garden.

From his first step on Australian shore, Arthur Phillip’s priority was to find potable water. When he found none at Botany Bay, he moved the colony to Port Jackson and founded Sydney. You won’t be surprised to learn the little stream which ran into the harbour from a swamp at the western end of Hyde Park, beside which the colony grew, was soon polluted, what with clothes washing, sewage, butchering, stock drinking and early industries like tanning. Phillip’s solution was to carve tanks into the sandstone banks of the stream for water storage. That word tank confused me until I reached for the Oxford and discovered it is not just the water container that one has in the back yard, but also a pool, lake, pond or reservoir. Phillip’s tanks were three rectangular holes which formed reservoirs. So now you know how the Tank Stream got its name. Over the last few years, tours have been held in the underground Tank Stream. Not sure if they still operate.

Pollution continued to be a problem in the Tank Stream and its reservoirs, and most people avoided using it for drinking. In the 1820s water carters carried in water from outlying streams, though at sixpence a bucket (the price of a pound of pork) it was usually only for the well-off. However water was also available in wells sunk in most of Sydney’s principal streets.

And so we come to the next innovation to provide water for Sydney. Known as Busby’s Bore it was designed by engineer John Busby to draw water from the Lachlan Swamps (now Centennial Park) to Hyde Park at the corner of Park and Elizabeth Streets. It took about one hundred convicts ten years from 1827 to 1837 to dig three and a half kilometres of tunnel through sandstone. Some water was piped to the rich who could afford to pay. Most was delivered by water carters. Though it is still largely intact it was superseded by other schemes towards the end of the nineteenth century, and continuing¬† right up until the present day. Its historical value is recognised through its listing on the NSW State Heritage Register and a memorial cairn on Grand Drive Centennial Park.

We no longer pull water in a bucket from a well, but despite all our technology and all the schemes that followed Busby’s, it is still our scarcest and most valuable resource. The current responses to the ongoing water crisis in our arid country, seem as unlikely to succeed as throwing coins into a wishing well.

Beehive-Well-kandos-historyBeehive Well Mernda Victoria

Beehive well in Mernda Victoria and Beehive well in Pat Amos’s garden

2 thoughts on “No Water, No Life”

  1. Hi Colleen,

    Many thanks for the piece on water, the Tank Stream, etc. Very timely – and I have often wondered about the spring on Cherry Tree Hill. How was it discovered? Now I know.

    All the best.




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