Busby's Bore

Location: Centennial Park, Eastern Suburbs
The construction of Busby's Bore, a water supply tunnel extending from Centennial Park to Hyde Park, began in September 1827 and was completed 10 years later. The bore was designed to carry water from the Lachlan Swamp, now Centennial and Queen's Parks. It would supply the 'rising capital of Australia', as Sydney was described in the Report of a Committee of the Legislative Council appointed to enquire into the state of the tunnel and outstanding wage claims in 1837. The water was gravity fed, the fall being 53mm over the 3.2 km from end to end, to feed out at Hyde Park at a height sufficient to allow the supply of the General Hospital in Macquarie Street.

The tunnel is constructed through sandstone and varies in size from 1 to 3 metres in height and from 0.6 to 1.2 metres width. It is lined in some sections with dressed stone slabs to carry water from Lachlan Swamps, Centennial Park at west side, Lang and Cook Roads, beneath the Sydney showground, Victoria Barracks and Oxford Street to the corner of Liverpool and Oxford Streets, Hyde Park.

The tunnel had to be re-routed around the sites now occupied by the Sydney Football Stadium and Cricket Ground and through the Showground because of quicksand encountered in Moore Park. John Busby had been employed as a mineral and water surveyor in England, Ireland and Scotland. He applied to the English Colonial Office for employment in NSW. Bathurst, then Secretary of State, appointed him as Mineral Surveyor and Civil Engineer with particular attention to 'the management of coal mines [and] in supplying the Town of Sydney with water'. Busby arrived in Sydney in 1824 aged 59. He was employed as engineer at the Newcastle Coal Mines and on the breakwater then under construction there. However, his major task was to undertake surveys with a view to obtaining a permanent and adequate water supply for Sydney. During Busby's time at Newcastle, the Sydney domestic water still came from the virtually defunct and certainly highly polluted Tank Stream and a spring at Ultimo and another near Oxford Street. These were supplemented by wells both public and private. Many of these, especially those in the north of the town, were contaminated. At the start of construction Busby engaged his son Alexander as his assistant, but the appointment was disallowed in London. William Busby then acted as assistant at his fathers expense.

A well at Victoria Barracks, used to extract water from Busbys Bore below

There were three free overseers but these were for the first year only. Apart from these, the whole of the work was performed by convicts. Between 50 and 140 were employed working 24 hours a day in three 8 hour shifts, a common practice in mining since it prevented any unnecessary build up of underground water. Busby complained that not only 1 in 10 of the men were trained stone miners and that the rest had to be trained on the job. He also complained of their 'vicious, drunken and idle habits' and alleged that they were often absent as they preferred to work illicitly on their own account in the town. False returns of work were made by their convict overseers. 'One third of the time lost [could] be ascribed to the workmen, and the villainy of the overseers' sent to the bore. Such was the character of the men employed, that their acquired constant vigilance, though such was their character that Busby was afraid ever to enter the underground workings.' This is not surprising given the working conditions. The prisoners were often up to their waists in water. Most of the work was by pick through rock. Gunpowder was used occasionally, but when this occurred the blast fouled the air in the tunnel and filled it with smoke.

Work started at the Hyde Park end and progressed along South Head Road (Oxford Street), turning west of that road at Dowling Street, then across the west corner of Victoria Barracks to Moore Park Road. The route traversed several springs and low lying basins which drained into the bore. Thus by 1830, with the tunnel well short of the Lachlan Swamp, a pipe at Hyde Park began to supply pure, filtered water and the supply increased with the length of the bore. Offcuts from the tunnel also trapped sources of ground water. In 1837 the tunnel reached a point near what is now the corner of Cook and Lang Roads.

The only work outstanding was an open cut into the swamp itself and the construction of reservoirs or holding dams at each end. There is no evidence that these were ever built, though some sort of channel seems to have been cut at the south end of the tunnel. Major Barney, Commander of the Royal Engineers, was called to inspect the work. Although critical of the site of the tunnel Barney considered the structure to be of professional merit and fairly done. Busby, then 72 years of age, retired to his property, Kirkton, between Branxton and Singleton in the Hunter Valley where he died in 1857.

The creation of a municipal water supply in the form of Busby's Bore highlighted the need for an administration to control its use. Municipal instructions were discussed for the colony in the early 1830s but met with fears in the community that such institutions would impose a burden of taxes of levies. In 1842 the Sydney Corporation was formed. The Sydney Corporation endeavoured to squeeze as much revenue as possible from Busby's Bore and ignored public demands for planning towards the development of new and more suitable sources. In 1851 Sydney manufacturers expressed a total lack of confidence in the Sydney Corporation after its failure to fulfill its contracts with new industrial developments such as Tooth's Brewery and Sugar Company. The length of time to complete the bore, that it relied on the simple mechanism of mechanical feed and that it and its successor, the Botany Bay Swamps Scheme, tied up land suitable for industrial development in water reserves had a significant impact on the shape and development of Sydney. The bore can also be seen as having a critical role in forcing the creation of municipal administration in the colony.

Busby's Bore is a unique engineering achievement which played a crucial role in the development of urban Sydney. The intactness of the bore and the fact that it is still in use make it a rare survivor from the first half of the 19th century within urban Sydney.

Modifications and Dates: 1881 - Some pipes laid inside tunnel in Oxford Street to reduce tainting from coal tar laid on road surface. 1934 - Partly filled in when the weight of tram traffic caused stone slabs under Oxford Street to collapse.

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