Subterranean Sydney: historic tunnels (Part 1)

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Deep below Sydney’s bustling streets and archetypical high-rise buildings lies an eerie ‘underworld’ of structures and a network of tunnels hewn out of the sandstone bedrock. And like the city above, underground Sydney has its own unique architecture, defined by a maze of mythical passages, some of whose existence has never been proven.

Convict-built tunnels – Tank Stream

In the early days of the colonised Sydney Town, a number of tunnels and passageways were carved by convict labour – some for access, some to solve geographic difficulties and provide routes to previously unreachable areas, others to aid commerce or deliver vital water and sewer systems after the colony’s fresh water supply, the Tank Stream, was polluted and eventually enclosed.

Tank Stream in Surveyor General’s sketchbook, 1841, NSW State Archive

The freshwater Tank Stream was the reason Captain Arthur Phillip chose Circular Quay as the site of the new colony and it provided Sydney’s first water supply for 40 years until it became too polluted by farming practices and infrastructure works. By 1826, villagers had stopped using the stream as a source of drinking water. Today the stream lies two metres underground, after being covered by sandstone blocks carved by stone masons and laid by convicts, and slowly hidden beneath the growing city.

Argyle Cut

One of the earliest excavations, and a significant engineering feat, was the Argyle Cut – a tunnel started in 1843 and initially shaped by chain gangs using picks to chip away at the giant sandstone cliffs that enclosed The Rocks. Dirt, silt and spoil was used to infill the swampy mouth of the nearby Tank Stream, and the sandstone cut into blocks to use for kerbing Sydney’s streets.

Argyle Cut in 1901, NSW State Archives

This large stone ridge was a natural barrier between Sydney Cove and Dawes Point, Millers Point and the Darling Harbour wharves. For decades and in the days prior to the introduction of a railway line, a more direct route between Port Jackson’s two main wharf areas was needed, to provide direct and easy access to the woollen stores, and move cargo from Darling Harbour to the overseas-bound ships that tied up at Circular Quay.

The Hero of Waterloo

Other tunnels had a more sinister use. In Sydney’s oldest hotel, The Hero of Waterloo built in 1796, there is an enduring legend of a secret tunnel running from the cellar of the hotel to the harbour that was used for rum smuggling and the involuntary recruitment of sailors. The underground tunnel and cellars were accessed by a trap door under the bar. Unsuspecting drunks were reputed to have been dropped down into the cellar, dragged through the tunnel and later sold to any ship’s captain looking for crew.

Hero of Waterloo, 1901, NSW State Archives

Darlinghurst Courts

A system of narrow passageways and cells located beneath Darlinghurst Courts began at the Darlinghurst Police Station and ended at Victoria Barracks. It included holding cells beneath the courts and cells for prisoners – petty criminals, prostitutes, murderers and bushrangers (including Captain Moonlight and Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the only female bushranger held there). Once condemned, they made the grisly return journey from the cell via the tunnel to Darlinghurst Goal to be hanged at the entrance gate.

Captain Moonlight, Darlinghurst Gaol, 1879, NSW State Archives

 Tunnels for Commerce and Communications

At the end of the 19th Century and for the first few decades of the 20th Century, underground tunnels were constructed to conduct the electricity, gas and, possibly, goods required by the growing city. Sydney’s original harbour tunnel, from Balmain to Greenwich, was constructed between 1913 and 1924 in order to carry electricity to the North Shore Tramway, the first electric tramway in Sydney and New South Wales.

Lavender Bay tramway – under construction, 1924, NSW State Archives

Tunnels were also excavated for early communications, utility and transport purposes. Under Pitt Street is a series of tunnels built over 130 years ago and stretching from Circular Quay to Newtown. These were used for storing government telephone cables when the wires above ground could no longer meet the demand for a “telephone” machine.

There are reputed to be numerous tunnels, large enough to drive a van through, beneath the main shopping precinct of the CBD. Former employees of the David Jones and the (then) Grace Bros Department Stores have told of tunnels used by the stores’ delivery vehicles to transfer goods. Legend has it that there are other undocumented tunnels accessed by steel doors in the basement of the Queen Victoria Building and Town Hall Station, which were rumoured to be fitted with equipment and used as command posts of the Prime Minster and Cabinet during World War II.

Main Reading Room, State Library of NSW, 1942, NSW State Archives

During World War II, General Macarthur is believed to have had his first Australian headquarters and operations room at St James in the northbound siding tunnel intended for the Gladesville line. The tunnel ends under the State Library, with its entrance accessed by wooden steps that were located opposite the library. Poor ventilation in the tunnel led to it being relocated to a picture theatre in Bankstown.

Don’t forget to read Part 2 of Subterranean Sydney right here

Subterranean Sydney: rail tunnels (Part 2)


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