Busby’s Bore, which runs under Sydney’s streets between Centennial Park and Hyde Park remains as one of the most impressive pieces of convict built infrastructure in Sydney.

In the mid-1820s, Sydney was in the midst of a water crisis.  In the space of 30 years, the European settlers had managed to make their main fresh water source, the Tank Stream, undrinkable through its use as a sewer, an outdoor bathing system and a livestock watering place.  Residents had been digging wells for a number of years to supplement the fresh water the stream once provided, but drought years and an increasing population meant another source was desperately needed.

In 1824, the mineral surveyor John Busby arrived in Sydney.  Seeing the problem he suggested to Governor Darling that a tunnel or bore could be built linking the fresh water Lachlan Swamps in the east to the city, where the water could be stored in a large reservoir.

Busby was commissioned to build the tunnel in 1825 and work started in 1827.

Busby's Bore delivery system in Hyde Park (SLNSW SSV1/WAT/1)
Busby’s Bore delivery system in Hyde Park (SLNSW SSV1/WAT/1)

Using convict labour, the bore was started at the city end near the present day corner of College and Liverpool/Oxford Streets.  The process involved sinking shafts down to the required depth along the route and then tunneling through to each shaft, before sinking the next series and continuing.  For 10 years convict gangs worked under the streets cutting the tunnel with hand tools through the sandstone and shoring up the sides and roof with Pyrmont sandstone when it moved into the sand dunes of east Sydney.

Water began to flow from seepage streams from 1830, with sufficient water to provide drinking water to the public.  This was delivered by an elevated pipe line on a trestle erected in Hyde Park.  In 1833 pipes were extended to Circular Quay and water sold to visiting ships there.

When it was completed the bore delivered between 1, 360, 000 and 1,818,000 litres per day.  Water was collected in water carts at the pipe end and sold around the city.  In 1844, reticulation pipes were connected delivering water direct to about 70 homes in the city, with more connected in the following years.  Fresh water delivered to homes and pubs, transformed domestic life in Sydney at the time.  Public water fountains were also set up throughout the city.

Inside the tunnel, stone lined and capped (City of Sydney Archives)
Inside the tunnel, stone lined and capped (City of Sydney Archives)

The bore was supplement in 1854 with a small pumping station near Centennial Park to push water through it and remained as the sole source of fresh water to Sydney until 1858, when the Botany Swamps Water Supply Scheme started.  However it continued to supply water to the city, Woolloomooloo and other inner suburbs into the 1880s and was still running and used in the Botanic Gardens into the twentieth century.

In the 1870s the Bore was cleared of debris and in doing so one of the reasons it had taken so long to build was revealed.  Busby and his team of overseers had managed the project from the surface, not wanting to go into the dark tunnels with the convict workers.

The workers then had managed the underground work unsupervised.  The tunnel was discovered to not go in straight lines between each shaft, but rather to run the course of least resistance.  If a particularly hard area was in the way, the convicts backed up and tried a different route.  There are blind alleys, exploratory drives and irregular passageways all through the system.  The tunnel also varies from just under 1 metre square in places to large caverns of over 3m high and 3.5m across.

Although long closed off it is still all there.  28 shafts remain under the surface of Oxford Street, through Victoria Barracks, at the back of the football stadium and Fox Studios and into Centennial Park, with the stone lined tunnel a hidden reminder of the convict workforce that built the city we live in.