Culture and heritage

Heritage

Historic dockyard unearthed

The discovery of the remains of Australia's first government dockyard next to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay late last year offers a rare glimpse of the earliest days of European settlement in Australia. Uncovered during archaeological testing, the nationally significant stone walls will be conserved and interpreted for the public.

When the MCA embarked on a redevelopment program to enlarge its exhibition and education spaces in 1997, it engaged archaeologists to undertake a heritage and archaeological assessment of its proposed new site. In September 1997 initial investigations by Casey & Lowe Associates revealed stone walls underneath the MCA carpark - remains of the oldest dockyard in Australia.

The dockyard, near the corner of Argyle and George streets in the historic Rocks area, was first established by Governor Hunter in 1796 and is of State and national significance.

Sydney Cove West Side, 1810. Sheds and a boat in the stocks can be seen on the site of the dockyard on the far right. Watercolour attributed to John Eyre. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Sydney Cove West Side, 1810. Sheds and a boat in the stocks can be seen on the site of the dockyard on the far right. Watercolour attributed to John Eyre. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

This pencil drawing on paper watermarked 1820 is the first to show the docks clearly. Detail from View of Sydney New South Wales. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

This pencil drawing on paper watermarked 1820 is the first to show the docks clearly. Detail from "View of Sydney New South Wales". Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Further archaeological investigations earlier this year revealed that beneath the surface are remains of two docks from the first government dockyard. The northern dock is thought to have been a dry dock because of its stepped stone walls. Archaeologist Tony Lowe says, "While we fully expected to find evidence of docks in the area, the integrity of the remains could only be guessed at". Very few early 19th-century remains survive in Sydney and the discovery is of major importance. Caitlin Allen, archaeologist at the NSW Heritage Office says "Not only will they provide us with valuable information about the workings of early docks, but they will provide the people of Sydney with a unique physical reminder of the earliest phase of European history in Australia, right in the place where it all started."

Casey & Lowe's study indicates that the site was part of the general area for the landing of the First Fleet. From 1796 it was part of the government dockyard established by Governor Hunter - the first official dockyard in Australia. The stone docks were apparently constructed during Governor Macquarie's period in office, the dockyard later taking on its more developed form as shown on the 1822 plan of Sydney.

The docks were mainly used for the maintenance and repair of British naval ships but were also used to repair transports, supply ships, sealing ships and whaling ships. They were no longer in use by the 1850s after the extension of the semi-circular quay, and were superseded by the government dockyard at Cockatoo Island.

The discovery has had important implications for the MCA's proposed extensions and the museum is endeavouring to incorporate the archaeological relics into the design for the new extensions. The MCA has been liaising with the Heritage Office and Sydney Cove Authority regarding the management of the site. It is intended that the highly significant remains will be publicly accessible and provide a focus for the interpretation of this important period of our early history and development.

The MCA project and the discovery of the archaeological site have significant implications for the future development of this section of West Circular Quay. Due to its heritage significance as the birthplace of European settlement in Australia, this area of Sydney is a key focal point in the continuing development of the city and an important centre for tourism.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012