Efficient and sanitary removal of sewage, along with the provision of a fresh and uncontaminated water supply, were central concerns for people living in Sydney in the nineteenth century.

Initially, individuals dealt with their own waste, using cesspits in their backyards for the disposal of sewage, as well as general household rubbish. There was no such thing as rubbish collection in the first half of the nineteenth century!

By the 1840s, the population of Sydney was growing rapidly. There was an influx of free settlers at this time, which was beginning to put strain on the existing cesspit system, and had the added effect of putting the citizens of Sydney at direct risk of disease. As well, the end of the convict transportation system meant that there was no longer the funding, or the labour force, to carry out capital works.

Sydney Municipal Council, formed in 1842, began to levy rates to building and land owners in the city, to pay for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure. This included roads, water supply, construction of municipal buildings, and the provision of an effective sewerage system.

Making the new sewer in Pitt Street, Sydney by J.R. Clarke, 1857
Making the new sewer in Pitt Street, Sydney by J.R. Clarke, 1857

By the 1850s, the Council had embarked on a program to build Sydney’s first planned sewerage system. As a water-carrying system had been decided upon to dispose of Sydney’s sewage, it was built at the same time as the water supply. This was a major undertaking, involving ripping up streets and pavements, and laying kilometres of pipes. The sewerage pipes connected to each house joined an outfall system, with raw sewage being discharged into Sydney Harbour at five points: Blackwattle Bay, Darling Harbour, Sydney Cove, Bennelong Point and Woolloomooloo.

The centrepiece of the new sewerage system was an obelisk on the edge of Hyde Park, where Bathurst Street meets Elizabeth Street. Modelled on Cleopatra’s Needle in London, the obelisk had decorative features including stone sphinxes, and was topped with an ornate copper vent. Nicknamed the stink pipe or ‘Sydney’s scent bottle’, the obelisk’s main function was to release noxious fumes from the sewer.

Within twenty years, the Council realised that discharging raw sewage into the harbour had become untenable, not to mention totally disgusting! In 1877, the Sewerage and Health Board recommended that this system be replaced with an ocean outfall at Bondi, which was ready for operation in 1889, and a sewage farm at Botany.

In 1882, land was acquired at the mouth of the Cooks River, on the site of today’s suburb of Kyeemagh. Known as the Botany Sewage Farm, it was based on the principal of intermittent downward filtration, the idea being that sewage was filtered before being discharged into Botany Bay.

The farm was ready for operation by the late 1880s. In perhaps a  fortaste of more environmental times to come, the sewage farm was used for growing crops of cabbage, turnip, lucerne and sorghum, which were sold at a profit. Pigs and cattle were fed on the unsold crops, and fattened up for sale. By 1908, more people were moving to the area, and complaining about the smell – not in my backyard! Added to this, the sewage was overflowing, and the farm was no longer a going concern.

In 1916, Botany Sewage Farm was closed and replaced with the ocean outfalls which discharged at Malabar, North Head and Bondi. The ever-expanding population of Sydney, however, meant that despite all these extensive works to provide a comprehensive sewerage system, more than half of Sydney residents did not have a connection to the sewer until after World War Two. The dunny man remained a ubiquitous part of Sydney life through to the 1970s. And now with people turning to on-site sewage management systems, it seems we are back to the cesspit, in one form or another…