The Historic River

At the official gathering held at Kurnell on 6th May, 1899, to set apart 251 acres as a public reserve and a National Memorial to Captain James Cook, Mr. Joseph Cook (Minister for Lands) referred to the fact that Cook discovered the river so named after him. The following is an extract from his speech:

“I have in my possession temporarily (thanks to the courtesy of Mr. Huntington) a facsimile of Cook’s own chart of Botany Bay, and it shows that he proceeded in his boats up Cook’s River as far as the dam.”

Chart of Botany Bay by James Cook (courtesy National Museum of Australia)

The earliest reference we have to the name Cook’s River is in the year 1800, when Surveyors Grimes and Meeham, in their field books for the years 1799 to 1802 refer to surveys of farms at Cook’s River. it is interesting to know that in the early days and for many years, wild flowers grew in great profusion along the shores of the river. It was described as a peaceful and beautiful river, and the banks, especially in the upper reaches, were covered with tall trees.

The river, from the source at Rookwood, near the eastern boundary of Liberty Plains to the dam at Tempe, is 9.25 miles long, and from the dam to Botany Bay it is 3.25 miles long, making a total length of 12.5 miles.

About eleven years ago the river was diverted in an almost straight line from Tempe to Botany Bay.

That portion of the river from Shea’s Creek to Botany Bay was filled in so as to enlarge the Mascot Aerodrome.

The first place of interest on the banks of the filled in portion of the river at the entrance to Botany Bay, was to be seen the ruins of the old Macquarie style building with a high chimney. After the river was filled in the chimney of his historic building was removed. This building was used from 1858 to 1888 as a pumping station for the water supply of Sydney. The Botany and Randwick swamps, known officially as the “Lachlan Swamps”, were linked up as a chain of ponds. A tunnel was commenced in September 1827, to convey this water to Sydney. This work was under the direction of Mr. James Busby, Mineral Surveyor, and it was completed a few years later. The tunnel was known as the “Busby Bore” or Busby Tunnel.

Busby’s Bore stand pipe at Hyde Park, watercolour possibly by C. H. Woolcott

At the former Cook’s River tram terminus, the road bridge crosses the river within about 100 feet of the site of the original bridge, owing to the river altering its course, and the old river-bed forming a dead-end. The dam at this old bridge was constructed by convict labour, under the superintendence of Mr. Colvert, during the year 1835. On the Sydney side of the river stood a little wooden toll bar at the entrance to the bridge. The toll gate was closed at night. All horses and vehicles were charged a small fee to pass through, but foot passengers went through free.

On the Arncliffe side of the river from the bridge was the line mansion known as “Tempe”, built and occupied by Mr. Alexander Brodie Spark.

Further along the river was the old Unwin’s Bridge, formerly a wooden structure, built by convicts in 1836, and so named after the Unwin family who resided in a pretty home at Undercliffe known as “Wanstead House”, named after their native home in Essex, England. Further along the river on the right hand side was the old home of the Hon. Thomas Holt, known as “Warren House”, with its beautiful lawns and gardens. The estate consisted of about 140 acres.

When nearing Canterbury, on the banks of the river, was an old stone building erected by the Australian Sugar Company, and it bears the inscription: A.S. Co., 1841. A dam was built across the river to ensure a supply of fresh water. The first sugar was placed on the market during 1842 and the business was transferred to Sydney in 1855.

Sugar Works, Canterbury by Frederick Garling 1840s

This article was first published in the February 1964 edition of our magazine.

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