Environmental History of the Cooks River

Cooks River at Steel Park showing steel piling 2007

Cooks River at Mahony Memorial Reserve between Marrickville Golf Course and Illawarra Road, showing straight edge river bank made of steel piling, 2008. Steel piling was installed in the 1960s along sections of the Cooks River to aid water flow, stabilize banks and control floods. The river was still being dredged at this time, and "waste" deposited on surrounding parks and wetlands, including the section illustrated. Mangroves have subsequently colonized the banks as further siltation occurred.

Artificial beach overrun by Mangroves, Marrickville, 2007

Artificial beach overrun by mangroves, near Warren Park, Marrickville, 2008. This “beach” was part of the renovation of the river in  the post-dredging period, and was probably done in the 1980s.   

Ian Tyrrell, “The Cooks River and Environmental History”
Adapted from the 2004 Botany Bay Forum
University of NSW – [Nov 30, 2004]
Afternoon Session

Chairperson: Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson
Thank you Sue. And now I call upon Professor Ian Tyrell from the School of History at UNSW. Ian is a very new kind of social scientist. He’s an environmental historian and it’s about time. It’s a great thing to see this emerging.

Sixth Speaker: Ian Tyrell

As a resident of the Bay area, I certainly heard quite a few interesting things in the papers that I’ve listened to today, especially about the industrial contamination that was mentioned a little earlier and the aircraft noise. They both affect me and also what Sue had to say about the aboriginal heritage.

As a self-conscious discipline, environmental history can be dated only from the 1980s, but it does have antecedents going back to the work of French (Annales) and other historians, back to the turn of the 20th century. Today there are over a thousand environmental historians operating in the United States alone and many in Europe as well. They are very inter-disciplinary and they are often closely connected with public history, including the idea of making history useful for public policy. So what does history offer that is different? I would argue that a great deal of environmental discourse, including our public discourse, is implicitly historical, whether this is recognised or not. Environmental damage occurs over time. It involves comparing the present with previous states of environmental damage, and then explaining these environmental changes. Environmental historians can help establish benchmarks. Similarly, environmental perceptions can be charted historically to throw light on present movements. How different today are our environmental concerns? What mistakes have been made before? Are we simply reinventing the wheel? These are the sorts of questions that historians can ask and help answer.

As far as Botany Bay is concerned, environmental historians were present in the project of the 1970s, the Botany Bay Project, of that era of which some of you would be aware, a project which involved the vital contribution of historian Sir Keith Hancock, who was one of the driving forces in that project, which was effectively scuttled by disagreements between the Federal and the State Governments over funding and access to materials. And the residues of that exist in our library in the form of such books as Dan Coward’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” on the Botany Bay region. So there is a kind of an earlier history to all of this.

Environmental historians typically acknowledge the intervention of indigenous land management over many millennia. History is not marked off at 1788 and started then. Historians agree that both continuity and change and indigenous input into landscape must be assessed, and this includes Botany Bay. My own work has been in comparative environmental history in the 19th and 20th centuries to do with social movements. My principal area of interest is actually US and Australian comparisons, but for the purposes of Botany Bay and environmental studies within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, I have done research on and directed projects on the history of the Cooks River, in which students have looked at patterns of recreational use, the changing engineering concepts governing the fashioning of the river by governments, etc.

The River, as you’ll probably know, is said to be Australia’s most polluted and one of the most altered rivers in the country. It has been affected by wave after wave of European land settlement since 1788. Principally the effects of agriculture for the period 1788 to 1880 were considerable in adding to problems of siltation of the river due to excessive land clearing. This case has never been closely studied. The river’s catchment and the adjacent Botany area was, from the early days of European occupation, a place outside of European settlement, a provider of resources in the shape of water and spare places into which waste could be dumped. The tale of Botany Bay is really a tale that needs to be seen in the light of the choice of Sydney Harbour as the place of white settlement. Botany Bay became the “other,” in post modern terms – a service centre in which less desirable things like noxious industries and their waste products could be safely located, particularly after 1848. The Cooks River shared this industrial heritage. The sugar mill of the 1840s in Canterbury provides the best known archaeological remnant of this activity, which included dams, tanneries, wool scouring and a number of other industries. Sewerage was also conveyed to the area in the 1880s to 1918 period to the Arncliffe sewerage and Botany farms and used for market gardening. The vestiges of the former sewerage farm at Arncliffe still remained in recent times as market gardens.

The area in the 19th century, as today, was subjected to conflicting land uses between the demand that the aquifer be used as water for Sydney’s water supply, but that it also be a place in which waste could be dumped. Later on towards the end of the 19th century, when Sydney secured a new water supply further west, the area became an area of conflict between these industrial uses and the residential uses, because from the 1840s onwards, the Cooks River Valley became a place in which there was an extension of the European idea of garden landscape settlement, mixing the best of town and country for the gentry in the 1850s and 1860s and their middle class descendants by the late 19th century. Not until the 1920s and 30s, especially the 1930s, was this conflict partly resolved, and then only temporarily. The urban infill and industrialization of the inner west of Sydney converted this partly bucolic landscape into the working class and ethnic working class set of enclaves that it became by the 1950s and 1960s. This is a prime example of the operation of the social geography of class about which historians have written.

The decision to establish Sydney Airport in the vicinity of the river actually began after World War I, but having a small impact until the late 1940s, must be seen as part of the same social geography and also one with profound natural impacts. The mouth of the river was extensively sculpted in the mid 1950s, to produce a flow and direction reminiscent more of a canal than of a river. Subsequently the Bay itself suffered in this manner, although writ on a much larger scale, of course, with the extension of the runways into the Bay after 1964, and then the third runway after 1989.

The same period of the 1940s also saw the pinnacle of ideas of technological manipulation of the river, with depression era and 1940s projects to line the banks with concrete and steel piles to make the river flow; an extensive drainage of the river, too. This, of course, has subsequently been changed because we don’t think that it is really such a good idea any more. Finally, there has been the revival in the interest in the river in the form of new cultural landscape ideas for recreation, for example, parks and bike paths and since the 1980s, increasing concern about the level of pollution in the river, but also with the demands for an aesthetic of recreation. These developments stem in part from the development of new ecological ideas

Environmental historians can tell you much more about the ideas of cultural management, landscape management and cultural landscape that underlie these successive changes, but the research projects that need to be done are paradigmatic of the need for the wider bay area. Historians can help to chart the extent of land alteration through access to historical documents and pictorial sources, such as works of art depicting the natural and built landscapes of the period. Historians can help to benchmark the changes with the help of other disciplines. For example, it would be interesting and important to be able to know more about the composition and types of silting that have occurred in the river – when this occurred, what the chemicals were in the river, and when those chemicals were added – and this could be done, for example, through the analysis of mud cores. This has certainly been done in studies of the late 18th and early 19th century for Scotland and other 19th century industrial areas, using a wide variety of scientific techniques. I think this could also be accomplished here with the co-operation of scientists.

Historians could then help to explain the context of these changes, correlating the data with evidence of land settlement uses and also provide explanation as to why these changes and impact occurred and what the attitude of people was towards these changes. Environmental history is also vital to the understanding of how heritage impacts upon the subsequent renovation of the landscape occurred and the understanding of those heritage changes. There is little evidence in the way that the recreational and other attempts to revive the river over the last 20 years have had any sense of its significant European or indigenous cultural heritage, a heritage which could engender greater respect for the landscapes created and their need for preservation. All in all, history has a vital part to play; it is part of the larger picture. In some respects, many other disciplines are also doing work which is essentially historical, using different sources and providing dividing different data which needs to be put together in an inter-disciplinary effort.

History repeating itself? Cooks River Remediation? Or Renovation?

The renovation of the Cooks River in the vicinity of Ewen Park, between the suburbs of Earlwood and Hurlstone Park is a classic case of attempted remediation of the river that reproduces certain faults of the earlier renovation of the river in the 1930s. In time the planting of salt marsh and other species may soften the look, but the formidable sandstone banks erected will never approximate the banks before the era of steel piles. The decaying steel pile banks prompted this action on the part of a local council, but the replacement blocks of sandstone reproduce the essential features of the canalised river. The visual pollution of the new sandstone wall is complemented by the provision, presumably for the sake of bikers who might skid off the path into the river and fall over the substantial sandstone ledge, of a visually polluting steel rail along large sections of the river. Arguably the so-called remediation is in fact yet another environmental ‘renovation’ of the river, adding new layers of human change to the river environment.

Cooks River Remediation? Or Renovation?

Cooks River Remediation? Or Renovation?

1940s concrete wals near Canterbury Sugar Mill, at low tide

1940s concrete walls near Canterbury Sugar Mill, at low tide

Cooks River Pollution

The Cooks River has been the subject of extensive pollution. The latest in a long line of human transformations of the river concerns the inundation of unsightly plastics. The Age of Plastics really only dates from the 1970s. As chemical pollution has lessened on the river since the 1990s, this has been replaced by flotillas of human refuse that travel up and down with the tides. Ultimately these end up in Botany Bay, but the mangroves serve as collectors. These thoughtless human actions contribute to the plastic soup accumulating in our world’s oceans and harm marine life. This image shows plastics accumulating amid mangroves at Undercliffe, May 2010. In a period of increased rainfall such as this last few months, the street refuse is swept into the river. The resistance of the current Labor government at the national level to deposit legislation for plastic bottles is a testimony to the gutlessness of that government in the face of the plastic bottle producers.

The irony of the “greenway”.
The Roads and Traffic Authority’s vision of the Cooks River: cycleways. In the 1960s, the DMR, predecessor of the RTA planned a roadway for the area. After all, it was only “useless” river bank. Now the river is seen as a solution to the traffic chaos of the city by encouraging “greenway” bikepaths. Fortunately, the bike paths are not heavily used, but when they are, they are a potential danger to pedestrian traffic and the dogs that people walk and, in places, the degree of concreting has been excessive. The result in some areas is a further industrialization or rather “concretization” of the river environs.

7 responses to “Environmental History of the Cooks River

  1. I agree about the absence of historical information along the river, and the benefits that might flow from stimulating the public’s interest and understanding. All nine Councils along the river commissioned an interpretive study in 2007 – I wrote the history for this – but to my knowledge there has been no real action to use this history for informing the people who use the river about the landscape. My background is historical geography, a field related to yours, and it is my experience that adult audiences particularly are very curious about the landscape and how it came to look like it does today. One of the Councils had a very active program of placing “heritage panels” at strategic places until 2004, and we still see walkers and bike riders stop to read them.

    I also agree with you about the Ewen Park attempt at “bank restoration”. The railings are particularly unfortunate – legal compensation advertising has a lot to answer for.

    • Lesley,

      Nice to hear from you. I know of your work, of course. The information on the Canterbury Council historical markers that you mention is exactly what is needed throughout. The councils need to get together to give residents and visitors a sense of the history and heritage of the river.


      Ian Tyrrell

  2. I want to know that how environmental history can help in management or taking any decision? I have gone through the environmental history of Cook River and few resources on council’s website but could not find that how it has helped them. Can you give me an example or a case study where any council or organisation has used environmental history and how it has helped them?

    • Heritage and Rivers

      I think that’s a very good question. It’s hard to see where councils (or other governments) have acted to implement changes based on the historical information about negative (or positive) effects of environmental change. Lesley Muir has pointed out that in regards to the Cooks River, Canterbury Council has been the most active in promoting knowledge of the river’s history, probably connected to Muir’s own efforts as the chief historian of the Cooks River Valley area. This commemoration of the river now includes that of Aboriginal occupation. See the indigenous mosaic at http://www.canterbury.nsw.gov.au/www/html/1577-indigenous-mosaic.asp?intSiteID=1

      Canterbury council seems to have done more in regards restorationist affects, notably around Gough Whitlam Park (The provision of tidewater areas for growth of salt marsh is an example.) I don’t think this correlation of action and historical/heritage attentiveness is entirely accidental. There may be a connection between greater long term awareness of the historical importance of the river as part of the council area and the subsequent efforts at river restoration, which have gone much further than the paltry efforts of Marrickville Council on the opposite bank, where there has been no history of the river. Indeed there is an urgent need for Marrickville Council to undertake such a study, and to provide passers-by by and residents a history of the human and non-human changes to the river. This could be achieved in part by provision of a similar set of plaques to those provided on the Canterbury side. Better still, all of the nine councils should provide an in-depth history of the catchment area and the people who have shaped the history of the river.

      The point of using heritage is to raise awareness of the river as a resource for the people of the region. My argument is that unless the area is looked after, and that connections between people and river are re-made, the river will continue to be treated as a dump. Most people don’t know it exists, and, if they do, many outsiders regard it as a muddy drain. History is one way that the knowledge of and caring about the river can be raised. Erica Nathan has made this point about the need for humans to connect with rivers and how rivers and people have been discontented by a whole range of boundaries. See Erica Nathan Lost waters: a history of a troubled catchment (2007). The excellent work of Jennie Price on the LA River is intimately connected to this theme of human detachment from the river there, which has become a concrete drain far more than the Cooks River has.

  3. Dear Dr Tyrrell
    can you direct me to any information about indigenous pre european use of the river? Do we know the name the Cadigal people used? We have a beautiful cave above our street that was apparently a birthing cave; its hidden and so protected by horrible weeds but within are hand stencils and heaven knows what else. Apparently its never been investigated. I am hoping to get the indigenous name used alongside the european name.

  4. Hi Dr Tyrrell,

    I have linked to this page and used one of your images. I credit you, of course, I hope this is OK.

    All the best,

  5. Pingback: WALKSHOP: Thinking through the environment of Wolli Creek & the Cooks River | Earlwood Farm

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