Being an Account of Rain and The Various Ways to Capture It

by Tessa Zettel on April 14, 2013, no comments

There is a little well at the back of the cottages, bound by a wire fence on which the bike tour company next door leans their bicycles. The man who came to blow leaves around earlier this week is surprised to see there is water in it at the moment. The well dates back to 1831, not long after these two dwellings – the oldest of their kind to remain in the Rocks – were built on orders of Thomas Ryan, transported for forgery and making the most of his position in this new world as chief bureaucrat in the Superintendent Convict Officer to reshuffle the books and land himself a leasehold on this particular patch of land, displacing a hapless baker to whom it had already been officially granted.1 The property was onsold the following year to Irishman William Reynolds, an ex-convict blacksmith, and his wife Mary, who went on to build a property empire housing prostitutes in the surrounding block.2 The well was dug to service the whole area, and on its discovery and excavation in the mid-eighties was found to contain hair combs, medicine bottles and a Jew’s Harp.

At that time, wells were not only a notorious hazard for small children (drownings were frequent) but also a critical source of drinking water, supplementing and then replacing what was initially given for free by the Tank Stream, a watercourse moonlighting as ‘a line of social demarcation and administrative control’.3 The story of the Tank Stream is both a depressing and predictable one – after bringing freshwater down through the mudflats to Sydney Cove (albeit more intermittently than the colonists would have liked) ever since the valley was flooded out into a harbour some thousands of years ago, and being a key reason for Governor Philip siting the colony here – within twenty years of occupation by the straggly British outpost it had been reduced to little more than an open sewer, en route to eventually being covered over by the asphalt of the growing city.

Europeans have always had trouble recognising weather patterns and phenomena to their advantage in this place. Emily O’Gorman writes that variable river flows and long periods of drought and flood were a source of real losses and bafflement to the early colony, and a contributing factor in tensions between pastoralists and Indigenous groups. In the mid nineteenth century the fledging field of meteorology was called on ‘to aid settlement and test the ‘traditions’ circulating about weather, climate, and river flow that people had developed’.4 O’Gorman cites amateur meteorologist William Stanley Jevons calling for scientific investigations into weather in 1859:

In Australia, the extraordinary irregularity of rainfall escapes no one’s observation, while all who now inhabit it have either experienced or been informed in the manner of tradition more than history, of these more singular eccentricities of the climate termed floods and droughts which have on so many occasions impaired the prospects, and even endangered the lives of settlers… It must, therefore, be a work of some scientific importance as well as popular interest, to investigate these commonly received notions of a periodic recurrence of wet and dry seasons, becoming as they do sometimes so lengthened as to appear secular that is non-recurring. 5

Bado-go-bally-vuida, I am dry, or I want water to drink 6

28 Harrington Street was never brought into the modern world of pipes stretching out to dams a great distance away, and on the third day of our residency our closest reliable water source (the public toilets across the courtyard) suddenly shuts off. As part of our improvised observation activities we’ve been collecting rainwater in glass jars, and though rain has fallen all week, our store is paltry. There’s plenty of room at the back of the courtyard, but in keeping with the rest of this strangely water-blind city, perched on the edge of its glittering harbour, there are no rainwater tanks in sight.o
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well1

  1. Ryan owned up to burning four bushels of public papers in the Colonial Secretary’s Office in 1820. Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser, 25 October 1832, cited in Melissa Holmes, Dictionary of Sydney ‘Reynolds Cottages’ http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/reynolds_cottages accessed 13/4/13
  2. Melissa Holmes podcast on ABC 702 http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/12/02/3382383.htm accessed 13/4/13. Holmes observes that the shifty ownership of 28 Harrington is emblematic of Sydney’s colonial history, being ‘the result of a shonky land grant between a corrupt bureaucrat and opportunistic developers’. With the development car-crash that is Barangaroo playing out just over the hill (the largest remaining stretch of previously undeveloped public land on Sydney’s foreshore), this could be said to be a continuing hallmark of the neighbourhood and indeed of our city in general.
  3. MacLaren North, Dictionary of Sydney ‘Water’ http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/water?zoom_highlight=tank+stream accessed 13/4/13
  4. Emily O’Gorman, ‘Soothsaying or Science’ unpublished paper, 2013
  5. W.S. Jevons, ‘Some Data Concerning the Climate of Australia and New Zealand’, Waugh’ Australian Almanac, 1859, 47-104, 61. Cited in Emily O’Gorman, ‘Soothsaying or Science’ unpublished paper, 2013
  6. Philip Gidley King, A Sydney Vocabulary 1790 (Sydney: State Library of NSW), 2006

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