Sydney Cove was chosen as the site of the colony because the harbour was a good safe haven for ships and the Tank Stream appeared to offer a good supply of water. But after 30 years of cutting down trees and creating a township, Sydney Cove was silting up, the Tank Stream was polluted and the wells were inadequate.
Happily for Sydney, over in Ireland, John Busby, an engineer and water-borer, applied to Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, to be employed in NSW as a surveyor and engineer. Busby had fallen on hard times as the result of a swindle, despite his fame as inventor of a bore that provided water to Leith Fort in Scotland, and a commendation from the Duke of Wellington when his water-boring technique was used in the Peninsular Wars to provide the troops with water. Lord Bathurst appointed him NSW Mineral Surveyor and Civil Engineer in 1823.
John and Sarah Busby, their sons James, John, Alexander, William and daughter Catherine arrived in Sydney on February 24 1824. Their older son George joined them later, becoming Assistant Colonial Surgeon 1826-44. Their second son James more famously became the British Resident in New Zealand 1833-40 and his and his wife’s descriptions of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed at their house in February 1840, make for rivetting reading.[i]
But it was John Busby snr, and later William, who were to make the difference in Sydney. The family’s letters and journals are collected into four weighty volumes that tell, among other things, how John and William laboured over ‘Busby’s Bore’. Work commenced in September 1827 to bring water in a tunnel from the Lachlan Swamps (now Centennial Park – you can still see ‘Busby’s Pond’ there near the Robertson Road gates) to Hyde Park. Busby’s job was complicated by his uneven access to labour. He fumes that his convict labourers are lazy and incompetent, that if not chained together they abscond to do odd jobs for other people, and that sometimes he loses them altogether when they are re-allocated to the building of the Great North Road.
The tunnel was dug from both ends simultaneously, and by 1831 water from pools and underground streams in the tunnel reached Hyde Park.
The water ran out of a pipe with a raised end, and poured into large barrels on wheels and was retailed about the city at so much per bucket full. The price varied according to the distance from the standing pipe, being sometimes 2d [pence] a bucket, sometimes 3d a bucket and even for one period of drought, 5d a bucket.[ii]
The two excavations met below the intersection of Moore Park Rd and Driver Ave. It must have been with great relief that John Busby wrote to Deas Thompson, the Colonial Secretary, on 12 January 1837 to say that the tunnel was completed. However, it was not until 1852, when his son Alexander petitioned for payment for Busby’s work on the tunnel, that a government Select Committee found that the job was well done and that Busby deserved the £333/6/8 that he was owed. They also awarded a £500 gratuity to compensate for the long wait.
[i]A History of the Busby Family, Vol 3. Collected letters. Viewed at Woollahra Local History Library June 2006.