The History Of Sheas Creek, Alexandria

October 20th, 2022 - by Brad Gillespie

Wander down Bowden or Maddox Streets in Alexandria and you might not notice the modest-looking waterway passing under the road.

But this waterway – Sheas Creek – once stirred up public sentiment and shone a light on an ancient and unexpected Sydney visitor.

Early days

Sheas Creek runs through the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. Before colonisation, the creek provided local people with food and resources, its banks shaded by casuarinas and swamp mahogany trees.

Shea's Creek 16th June 1886 pipline running over a small creek -- Photo from Wikipedia

The creek, once narrow and winding, is fed by an underground spring in Surry Hills and was named after First Fleet Captain John Shea.

In the 19th century, the creek provided for a new local population, as Chinese migrants planted market gardens along its banks where Perry Park stands today. But European settlers saw little value in the creek and looked elsewhere – to the Hawkesbury and Parramatta regions – for alluvial land to sustain their crops.

From creek to grand canal … almost

Coming into effect in 1848, the Slaughterhouses Act would have a dramatic effect on Sheas Creek. The Act banned polluting industries from the city, pushing them into areas such as Alexandria.

Abattoirs, tanneries and other industries new to the area began dumping waste into Sheas Creek, quickly making it one of the city’s most polluted waterways.

As the century progressed a plan was hatched to give Sheas Creek a much-needed makeover. Inspired by Birmingham's industrial canals, a series of connected waterways would be built to transport goods all across the city, and the creek’s fetid condition would be improved in the process.

Work began on transforming Sheas Creek into Alexandra Canal.

“A refuge or the destitute”

The canal project seemed doomed from the start.

In 1889, just a year after the project was launched, labourers went on strike. The men claimed they were being forced to do more work for the same rate, and had to work up to their knees in water in often slippery and dangerous conditions.

But while work eventually continued, progress was slow and increasingly unpopular. By 1900, the project’s total cost had reached more than £163,000. And despite the time and money, the creek’s condition was still dire, with one Alexandria Council alderman labelling it as being in “a very objectionable state”.

Public sentiment was not on the project’s side. Of the cost, one letter to The Truth newspaper remarked, “you might just as well wheel the sovereigns into the harbour at Circular Quay”. Another called it “simply a cesspool”, while yet another described it as “a refuge for the destitute”, an unkind reference to the project’s labourers.

Dugong discovery

In 1896, workmen got an unexpected glimpse into the past when they turned up bones in the creek bed.

Excavation of dugong remains at Shea's Creek in 1896, during construction of the Alexandra Canal. - Photo from Wikipedia

Unearthed near the Ricketty Street bridge, the bones were those of a dugong. This was a significant find. The waters around Sydney were not warm enough for this marine mammal, so the discovery suggested the climate must have been warmer, and sea levels higher, in the past. Recent radiocarbon dating puts the bones at around 6000 years old.

Some of the bones bear markings that can only have been made by tools, indicating Indigenous people lived in the area at the same time as the dugongs. This is supported by the discovery of three stone hatchets found just a few hundred metres from the bones.

The bones and the three hatchets are now housed at the Australian Museum.

A canal that goes nowhere

The project dragged on for so long that rail and road overtook water for transporting goods, and the multi-canal project was abandoned.

Today, Alexandra Canal, and the remaining section of Sheas Creek at the Alexandria end, serves as a stormwater outlet for the surrounding area and is largely overlooked as it quietly drains into the Cooks River.

Alexandra Canal, looking upstream towards the Sydney CBD - Photo from Wikipedia

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Photo credit: Pocket Guide to Sydney website