In 1770 Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay, and made in his journal the fateful observation for future Australian settlement:
I found a very fine stream of fresh water on the north side in the first sandy cove within the island before which a ship might lay land-locked and wood for fuel may be got everywhere.
Descriptions of the country along Cooks River by the early explorers were not optimistic about the land's potential for food production. Captain John Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley both mentioned the shallowness of the water and the large swamps, in place of Cook's fine meadow, so it was to the alluvial terraces of the Parramatta and Hawkesbury Rivers that the farmers of the colony went.
When the property was sold to William Cox in 1800, it included livestock, two acres of vineyard, and another acre of orchard with orange trees, nectarines, peaches and apricots.
The original land grants bordering the river tended to be fairly large (averaging 100 acres), but very few were used for other than grazing, timber getting, and food production for individual families. Major industries of the area were fishing and lime burning, especially around the mouth of the river and in Botany Bay. In a new settlement, three basic needs had to be satisfied: the need for food, the need for water, and the need for shelter for the inhabitants. Although brick-making clay was abundant, nothing could be found for a long time to hold these bricks permanently together. Lime, essential in making mortar, was in such a short supply that most brick buildings collapsed in a heap of rubble as soon as the walls were leant on, and Governor Phillip constantly appealed for limestone to be sent out as ballast in the ships from home. Shell middens left by the aborigines on the shores of the Cooks River and Botany Bay proved to be a vital source of lime, and many colonists managed to make a living gathering the remnants from thousands of years of aboriginal meals to supply their kilns.
The river formed a convenient natural boundary to land grants, and an effective barrier to people wishing to bring their produce to Sydney. As early as 1810, evidence of a bridge, probably at the end of Beamish Street, is found in Governor Macquarie's diary:
After resting for half an hour at Mrs Laycock's, we pursued our journey to Canterbury; thus crossing Cook's river twice over a very slender bad Bridge within two miles of Mrs Laycock's Farm and is rather dangerous for a carriage.
Despite the discouragement caused by regular floods and caterpillar plagues, pressure for available land grew, as food remained so expensive in Sydney that families had to become self-sufficient in order to survive. The alluvial soil of Cooks River became attractive despite comments about its infertility, and the original grantees in many cases leased or sold their properties to people prepared to try farming in this previously unused region. After 1831, settlement along the river spread, and roads and crossings were made in several places.
River CrossingsCornelius Prout built a punt to give him access to his property, Belle Ombre (along the river from today's Canterbury Road to Clissold Parade, Campsie); a punt also operated somewhere about the same time at Undercliffe, known as Thorpe's Punt. This was a link on one of the roads to the Illawarra district. Fords existed at Tempe and further up the river, but with the spread of settlement and eventually industry, permanent bridges were needed.
The Colony of New South Wales was filled with optimism through the 1830's. Government-sponsored immigration brought an enthusiastic workforce without the defeatist attitude of the convicts; merchants made large profits from these new immigrants and immediately invested the money in speculative ventures; and new companies sprang up in an economy built on taking chances. A B Spark, Leslie Duguid, and F W Unwin all built country houses beside Cooks River in the late 1830's, and by 1840, three bridge crossings were in use; Unwin's Bridge at Tempe, (to give access from Sydney to his house, Wanstead); Prout's Bridge, replacing the punt, at Canterbury; and the dam at Tempe, continuing the line of Cook's River Road (Princes Highway) past the house of Alexander Brodie Spark. His diary tells some of the story of the river:
5th November,1838. . . Had a conversation with the Governor on the subject of damming up Cook's River for the purpose of obtaining a constant supply of fresh water for Sydney . . .
9th November, 1838. . . Major Barney called on me afterwards in town and said that if I did not object to it the dam might be run across below the Bathing house, and the only apprehension was that my garden might be flooded. To be surrounded with the fresh water instead of salt would be highly desirable and I did not object to his proposal if he could previously ascertain that no bad consequences would follow. . .In fact, Cook's River water above the dam remained brackish, and was not used as Sydney's water
To the left and behind Tempe, rock rises steep, but is of most insignificant height, though styled Mt Olympus - forms a sort of small promontory, at the foot of which is a small wharf or jetty and bathing house - the intended dam begins a little higher on the opposite bank, takes a curve or bow upwards, and is to abut on this promontory - Sir G begins to think it will never be done for want of convict labour, no ships have come in for some time . . . view from Olympus of winding of river in flat bush and swamps, and see heads of Botany Bay - all ugly enough . . . garden walks at right angles crossing and Norfolk Island pines at intersections . . . orange and lemon trees . . . casuarina trees stripped of leaves with convenient branches planted in aviaries for perches of birds.
The Sugar House is placed within one hundred feet on Cook's River which is shortly expected to be fresh water, the Dam being quite close and is built of beautiful white sandstone. (Sydney Herald, 4 October, 1841)
Because industry meant workers, and workers needed amenities, the Village of Canterbury developed as a settlement with a school, a church, and, more importantly, a road from Sydney. Robert Campbell, on the Ashfield side of the river, and Cornelius Prout, on the other side, each agreed to dedicate part of his land for this road, and further, Prout promised to build a bridge using convict labour if enough money could be raised by public subscription to pay for it. The funds raised were 120 pounds short of the total cost, but the bridge was still built in 1840 on the understanding that Prout could charge the public a bridge toll until the debt to him was discharged. He was still doing this in 1853, and may have continued to do so, if an impulsive resident named John Chard had not lost his temper.
In September 1853, Cornelius Prout, injured at the unsympathetic public reaction to his continuing the charge, locked the toll gate and refused to allow anyone across. The long-suffering people of the district (who must have by now felt a certain suspicion that the debt was paid years ago) all revised their plans for travel - all but John Chard, who, having used that road for ten years saw no reason to change now, broke through the lock and went home to Kingsgrove. Prout, incensed, told the police a dramatic story about the violent nature of Chard, and even though the fine involved was only 5 pounds, had a warrant issued for his arrest. The police serving this warrant 'missed their way in the bush', having had to pass Prout's public house on the road; and appeared at midnight to get Chard out of bed, arrest him, and take him ten miles through the dark to the Watch House. After he was freed, he wrote an aggrieved letter to the Inspector General, and had his case brought up in the Legislative Council, with the result that the Government took over the Bridge and the road, removing Prout's extra source of income for ever.
On Holt's side of the river the banks were for the more part rocky, while on the other side they were alluvial . . . Nature had done much but she had been materially assisted by art. The sight of a rabbit or two scampering off now and then to their burrows gave life to the scene. Holt had erected a very picturesque little building for a Turkish bath near the river and on the opposite side of the river stood a large bathing house belonging to Campbell . . . A little further on there was a great bend in the stream, leaving on the right bank a large, horse shoe shaped flat, richly grassed and furnished here and there with a fair proportion of timber and shrubbery, which was a favourite resort of picnic parties on Sundays and holidays.
Despite the increasingly doubtful consistency of the water, the river was a popular place in the late nineteenth century for boating, picnics and swimming, although some men took their freedom too far according to an angry gentleman from Petersham who wrote to the Herald in 1891:
Sir, - I have often heard it said that it is impossible to take ladies down to Cook's River on Saturday afternoons and holidays. Last Saturday afternoon there was abundant evidence that this is the case. From 'Starkey's Corner' to Tempe there could be counted 30 to 40 men and boys openly bathing in a perfectly nude state, some standing on projecting rocks without the slightest show of concealment. This is a state of things calling for summary treatment, and should not be allowed to continue. A few convictions would have a magical effect . . .
The 1880's in Australia were land boom years, rather like the early 1970's, and all sorts of property, suitable and unsuitable, were sold to home builders. Clearing of ground meant, faster stormwater runoff and silting of surface dust into river mudbanks. Reed beds spread wider into Cooks River, fed by this rich urban silt - causing an ominous blockage.
Shortly before 1 pm . . . the driver found that the volume of water had covered the bridge much more than when he left for Sydney on the morning trip. Nevertheless, he decided to try and cross the bridge. After getting some distance the four horses attached to the vehicle were swept off their feet, and the animals and vehicle were swept away with the current.
The fare boy and all four horses were drowned, the bus reduced to a heap of splintered driftwood, while the driver and passenger managed to reach safety, being dragged out of the flood by rescuers. One ended up in a tree, and the other in the remains of a Chinese garden. Notwithstanding all this tragedy: 'A man named Chard had a miraculous escape from drowning at the same spot in attempting to ford the swelling current of water'. That family did seem to have an exaggeratedly determined streak in their character.
At the height of the flood, Canterbury Road Bridge was covered by water 6 feet over the handrail, and it was 10 feet over the Sugarworks Dam. Ornamental gardens prepared for Harcourt Model Suburb were flattened, bridges over the river damaged, and people in the Tramvale Estate, Marrickville, were evacuated to higher ground. Questions were later asked about the ethics of selling such land, especially since it was settled by poorer people, labourers and artisans, who could not withstand the expense of being flooded out every few years.
The Chinese market gardeners were the real losers: in 1889 there were fifteen Chinese householders along the river bank. By 1891, there was one left.
The report was not forgotten, though: in 1925 a body of citizens, formed into the Cooks River Improvement League, published a book, Our Ocean to Ocean Opportunity, designed to arouse public anger, in which they demanded that at least stage three of the canal scheme be constructed, and active efforts be made by the Government to clean up the river. Wolli Creek sewage overflow outlet was seen as the chief culprit, making the river dangerous to health; a letter from the local member of Parliament, Varney Parkes, predicted that the watercourse would become a 'miasmatic morass' within thirty years if it continued to be ignored. But it took until halfway through the depression before money was found, partly through the Unemployed Relief Council, to dredge part of the river and to begin what seemed a good idea at the time - the concreting of the banks. The Cooks River Improvement Act of 1946 established as a policy this tidying up of an undisciplined stream within neat cement boundaries with no unruly reed beds to spoil the line. It wasn't pretty, but at least it was orderly. Engineers even managed to divert completely the original river mouth to accommodate Mascot airport runways; several other minor diversions have been made over the years of suburban settlement to the natural course of the stream for reclamation or for road and bridge work.
The Cooks River Project Report of 1976 made recommendations that could bring this nineteenth-century harmony back again. Some need major restoration work on the environment - these are long term objectives; others are short term, easily achieved through cooperation of local bodies. A measure of compromise has been found necessary, as we are an urban people, needing services which sometimes clash with the environment; but within this framework great advances can be made. The Cooks River Valley Association has been associated as a citizens' pressure group for a great many years with the work of cleaning up the river. The building of a cycle track, tree planting and landscaping have been started, largely because of the enthusiasm of concerned people. It is only through the continuance of this involvement that the ecosystem can be restored for everyone to enjoy.
ABBOTT, Graham and LITTLE, Geoffrey. The Respectable Sydney Merchant: A B Spark of Tempe. Sydney University Press, 1976.
COOK, Captain James. Journal. Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1969.
Cooks River Environment Survey and Landscape Design. Report of the Cooks River Project, 1976.
The Empire, 1 October 1853.
FREAME, William. The Old Hawkesbury and Cook's Rivers. Newspaper cuttings, Mitchell Library
HENSON, H.B. 'Cook's River: Its Condition and Its Destiny'. Proceedings of the Engineering Association of NSW, Vol. xi, 1895-96.
MACQUARIE, Lachlan. Journal of His Tours. Public Library of NSW, Sydney, 1956.
MADDEN, Brian J. 'Beamish Street, A Very Old Road'. Canterbury and District Historical Society Journal, no.10, 1978.
SAWKINS, H.W. Our Ocean to Ocean Opportunity. Cook's River Improvement League, Sydney, 1925.
Sydney Morning Herald. 28 May 1889; 6 January 1891.
Prepared by Canterbury City Council
© Lesley Muir, Cooks River Festival Committee and Canterbury City Council.
SourceMUIR, Lesley for the Cooks River Festival Committee. A history of Cooks River. Sydney, N.S.W.: L. Muir,