Australia in the 1790s

Protecting the environment

Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) established the New South Wales penal settlement near a freshwater stream that flowed into Sydney Cove. The stream was the settlement's first and main source of fresh water for about 30 years. For the Cadigal people, the original occupants of Sydney Cove, the stream was a vital source of life. The Tank Stream had provided them with fresh clean water for thousands of years as well as freshwater fish. Water sources were often sacred sites for Indigenous groups across the country and played a vital role in the lifestyles and cultures of the groups.

In order to protect the water from pollution, Governor Arthur Phillip declared that no trees were to be cut down, cattle left to graze, or debris and house waste thrown into the water for 15 metres on either side of the stream. Colonists couldn't wash their clothes or clean fish in the stream. Transgressors would be fined or have their houses demolished. In 1790, after a drought, Phillip ordered that the stream be deepened. As a result, three water tanks were excavated into the sandstone rock, next to the stream. Each tank was capable of holding up to 20,000 litres of fresh water and this engineering became the origin of the name 'Tank Stream'.

After Governor Phillip left the colony in 1792, the quality of the stream was allowed to deteriorate. Officers built houses within the 15-metre zone and farm animals were allowed to graze near it. The stream became smelly, polluted and undrinkable and was eventually covered over to become part of the drainage system underneath the city.


A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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