Busby's Bore | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Busby's Bore

Item details

Name of item: Busby's Bore
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Utilities - Water
Category: Water Tunnel
Primary address: Centennial Park To College Street, Sydney, NSW 2000
Parish: Alexandria
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Sydney
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Centennial Park To College StreetSydneySydneyAlexandriaCumberlandPrimary Address

Statement of significance:

Busby's Bore is a unique engineering achievement which played a crucial role in the development of urban Sydney. As a product of convict labour and a major factor in the establishment of local administration in NSW (in the form of the Sydney Corporation) the bore is associated with the important steps that changed Sydney from penal colony to colonial trading port.

The fabric of the bore and associated archaeological deposits possess research potential relating to substantive historical and scientific questions relating to 19th century work and technology and to changes in the environment.

The intactness of the bore and the fact that it is still in use make it a rare survivor from the first half of the 19th century within urban Sydney. (Godden Mackay 1996: 10)
Date significance updated: 10 Sep 97
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: John Busby
Builder/Maker: Convicts
Construction years: 1827-1837
Physical description: The tunnel is constructed through sandstone and varies in size from 4 to 10 feet in height and from 2 to 3 foot 6 inches width. It is lined in some sections with dressed stone slabs to carry water from Lachlan Swamps, Centennial Park at west side, Lang and Cook Roads, beneath the Sydney showground, Victoria Barracks and Oxford Street to the corner of Liverpool and Oxford Streets, Hyde Park - a distance of about 2 miles (Brady 1975)
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Archaeological Potential - Good
Date condition updated:30 Jul 97
Modifications and dates: 1881 - Some pipes laid inside tunnel in Oxford Street to reduce tainting from coal tar laid on road surface.
1934 - Partly filled in when weight of tram traffic caused stone slabs under Oxford Street to collapse.
(Brady 1975)
Further information: The Permanent Conservation Order is only on the section from Centennial Park to College Street.

Heritage Inventory sheets are often not comprehensive, and should be regarded as a general guide only. Inventory sheets are based on information available, and often do not include the social history of sites and buildings. Inventory sheets are constantly updated by the City as further information becomes available. An inventory sheet with little information may simply indicate that there has been no building work done to the item recently: it does not mean that items are not significant. Further research is always recommended as part of preparation of development proposals for heritage items, and is necessary in preparation of Heritage Impact Assessments and Conservation Management Plans, so that the significance of heritage items can be fully assessed prior to submitting development applications.
Former use: Sydney Water Supply


Historical notes: The "Eora people" was the name given to the coastal Aborigines around Sydney. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as "Eora Country". Within the City of Sydney local government area, the traditional owners are the Cadigal and Wangal bands of the Eora. There is no written record of the name of the language spoken and currently there are debates as whether the coastal peoples spoke a separate language "Eora" or whether this was actually a dialect of the Dharug language. Remnant bushland in places like Blackwattle Bay retain elements of traditional plant, bird and animal life, including fish and rock oysters.

With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Cadigal and Wangal people were decimated but there are descendants still living in Sydney today. All cities include many immigrants in their population. Aboriginal people from across the state have been attracted to suburbs such as Pyrmont, Balmain, Rozelle, Glebe and Redfern since the 1930s. Changes in government legislation in the 1960s provided freedom of movement enabling more Aboriginal people to choose to live in Sydney.

(Information sourced from Anita Heiss, "Aboriginal People and Place", Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani )

The construction of Busby's Bore, a water supply tunnel extending from Centennial Park to Hyde Park, began in September 1827 and was completed 10 years later. The bore was designed to carry water from the Lachlan Swamp, now Centennial and Queen's Parks. It would supply the 'rising capital of Australia', as Sydney was described in the Report of a Committee of the Legislative Council appointed to enquire into the state of the tunnel and outstanding wage claims in 1837.

The water was gravity fed, the fall being 1 foot 9 inches (53mm) over the 2 miles from end to end, to feed out at Hyde Park at a height sufficient to allow the supply of the General Hospital in Macquarie Street. The tunnel had to be re-routed around the sites of the Sydney Football Stadium and Cricket Ground and through the Showground because of quicksand encountered in Moore Park.

John Busby had been employed as a mineral and water surveyor in England, Ireland and Scotland. He applied to the English Colonial Office for employment in NSW. Bathurst, then Secretary of State, appointed him as Mineral Surveyor and Civil Engineer with particular attention to 'the management of coal mines [and] in supplying the Town of Sydney with water'. Busby arrived in Sydney in 1824 aged 59. He was employed as engineer at the Newcastle Coal Mines and on the breakwater then under construction there. However, his major task was to undertake surveys with a view to obtaining a permanent and adequate water supply for Sydney.

During Busby's time at Newcastle, the Sydney domestic water still came from the virtually defunct and certainly highly polluted Tank Stream and a spring at Ultimo and another near Oxford Street. These were supplemented by wells both public and private. Many of these, especially those in the north of the town, were contaminated.

At the start of construction Busby engaged his son Alexander as his assistant, but the appointment was disallowed in London. William Busby then acted as assistant at his fathers expense. There were three free overseers but these were for the first year only. Apart from these, the whole of the work was performed by convicts. Between 50 and 140 were employed working 24 hours a day in three 8 hour shifts, a common practice in mining since it prevented and unnecessary build up of underground water. Busby claimed that not 1 in 10 of the men were trained stone miners, that the rest had to be trained on the job. He also complained of their 'vicious, drunked and idle habits' and alleged that they were often absent as they preferred to work illicitly on their own account in the town. False returns of work were made by their convict overseers. 'One third of the time lost [could] be ascribed to the workmen, and the villainy of the overseers' sent to the bore. Such was the character of the men employed, that theyr equired constant vigilance, though such was their character that Busby was afraid ever to enter the underground workings.' This is not surprising given the working conditions. The prisoners were often up to their waists in water. Most of the work was by pick through rock. Gunpowder was used occasionally, but when this occured the blast fouled the air in the tunnel and filled it with smoke.

Work started at the Hyde Park end and progressed along South Head Road, now Oxford Street, turning west of that road at Dowling Street, then across the west corner of Victoria Barracks to Moore Park Road. The route traversed several springs and low lying basins which drained into the bore. Thus by 1830, with the tunnel well short of the Lachlan Swamp, a pipe at Hyde Park began to supply pure, filtered water and the supply increased with the length of the bore. Offcuts from the tunnel also trapped sources of ground water.

In 1837 the tunnel reached a point near what is now the corner of Cook and Lang Roads. The only work outstanding was an open cut into the swamp itself and the construction of reservoirs or holding dams at each end. There is no evidence that these were ever built, though some sort of channel seems to have been cut at the south end of the tunnel. Major Barney, Commander of the Royal Engineers, was called to inspect the work. Although critical of the site of the tunnel Barney considered the structure to be of professional merit and fairly done.

Busby, the 72 years old, retired to his property, Kirkton, between Branxton and Singleton in the Hunter Valley where he died in 1857.

The creation of a municipal water supply in the form of Busby's Bore highlighted the need for an administration to control its use. Municipal instructions were discussed for the colony in the early 1830s but met with fears in the community that such institutions would impose a burden of taxes of levies.

In 1842 the Sydney Corporation was formed. The Sydney Corporation endeavoured to squeeze as much revenue as possible from Busby's Bore and ignored public demands for planning towards the development of new and more suitable sources. In 1851 Sydney manufacturers expressed a total lack of confidence in the Sydney Corporation after its failure to fulfil its contracts with new industrial developments such as Tooth's Brewery and Sugar Company.

The length of time to complete the bore, that it relied on the simple mechanism of mechanical feed and that it and its successor, the Botany Bay Swamps Scheme, tied up land suitable for industrial development in water reserves had a significant impact on the shape and development of Sydney. The bore can also be seen as having a critical role in forcing the creation of municipal administration in the colony. (Godden Mackay 1996: 3-5)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Utilities-Activities associated with the provision of services, especially on a communal basis (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
Busby's Bore, as a most important public work between 1827 and 1837 and Sydney's main water supply between 1837 and 1852, is a physical remnant of many of the major processes which have shaped modern Sydney.

Busby's Bore was an important factor leading to the establishment of the Sydney Corporation in 1842. It highlights the Colonial Government's lack of interest in managing the problems caused by Sydney's fast growing urban population.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The bore is associated with Busby and Commissioner Bigge and symbolises their aspirations for Sydney and themselves. (Godden Mackay 1996: 8)
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
Contemporary Community Esteem - The community has demonstrated its esteem for this item through the making of a Permanent Conservation Order. It is known to be valued by groups such as the Institute for Engineers, The National Trust and Local Historical Societies. (Godden mackay 1996: 8)
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The bore's fabric possesses research potential regarding its construction techniques, the technology and materials available in the colony at the time, convict working conditions, the history of its use through changes made to it over time and the success of government regulation of the water supply through evidence of illegal entries.

The archaeological deposits surrounding the bore may also provide evidence of its use and construction. Archaeological deposits within the curtilage of the bore may possess research potential relating to; aboriginal occupation of the area, environmental changes since colonisaton including the introduction of new species, grazing, draining of swamps and development and the development of the Royal Agricultural Society's Showground. (Godden mackay 1996: 8-9)
SHR Criteria f)
The intactness of this early 19th century, convict built water supply makes it a rare survivor from this period within urban Sydney. As the main water supply to Sydney from 1837 to 1853 the bore is a unique item. Godden Mackay 1996:9)
SHR Criteria g)
The bore is representative of English rock mining techniques of the period and of rock mining in other parts of Australia. It is also representative of public works carried out by convict labour and 19th century engineering techniques. (Godden Mackay 1996
Integrity/Intactness: It is an intact example of it's type. (Godden Mackay 1996: 9)
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

The site should be conserved with significant archaeological deposits left undisturbed, vibrations from construction works monitored, non intrusive building foundations used and overall assessment of Showground site made. (Godden Mackay 1996: 11-12) The building should be retained and conserved. A Heritage Assessment and Heritage Impact Statement, or a Conservation Management Plan, should be prepared for the building prior to any major works being undertaken. There shall be no vertical additions to the building and no alterations to the fa├žade of the building other than to reinstate original features. The principal room layout and planning configuration as well as significant internal original features including ceilings, cornices, joinery, flooring and fireplaces should be retained and conserved. Any additions and alterations should be confined to the rear in areas of less significance, should not be visibly prominent and shall be in accordance with the relevant planning controls.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental PlanSouth Sydney LEP 1998189 97 
Heritage study     

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenAnita Heiss Aboriginal People and Place, Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City
WrittenGodden Mackay1996Busby's Bore. Heritage Impact Statement.
WrittenI.A.Brady1975Busby's Bore or the Tunnel

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 2420164
File number: HC 33455 & S90/03388

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