A Tour of Macdonaldtown (Erskineville) in 1882

Macdonaldtown Parish of Petersham

In 1882 a series of articles appeared in Sydney’s Evening News describing several municipalities and boroughs on the outskirts of the city of Sydney. Over many weeks between July and September 1882 the boroughs and municipalities of Paddington, Waverly, Randwick, Redfern, Darlington, Waterloo, Alexandria, Macdonaldtown (Erskineville), Newtown, St. Peters, The Glebe, Camperdown, and Balmain are described in detail. Introducing the first of the localities surveyed the unknown author established their premise:

If we go outside the city proper — to which we shall advert by-and-bye — and view the environs, old and new… what do we find in the way of roads and streets, house drainage and sewage, land drainage, house building? The sub-division of portions of land, and other matters peculiar to the surrounding of that solitude so much desired by the many who do not believe, with Bryant, in dwelling,

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ amidst the crowd,
Through the great city rolled,
With everlasting murmur deep and loud —
Choking the ways that wind,
Mongst the proud piles, and the work of human mind.

But rather, when tired of the world’s incessant noise, seek the rural bower where in reflection they would sit enjoying a calm retreat, and casting their eyes around are softened by the charmer  — nature’s silent voice.

Evening News (Sydney) Wednesday, 5 July 1882
Poem: Hymn of the City William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Fortuitously, 1882 would see the establishment of Higinbotham, Robinson and Harrison, draughtsmen, map publishers and lithographers with premises in Macquarie Place Sydney.

Macdonaldtown, Parish of Petersham Higinbotham, Robinson & Harrison 1886

Macdonaldtown, Parish of Petersham c. 1886-88

They would go on to publish the Atlas of the Suburbs of Sydney from 1885 onwards, and so the drafting of the maps may be taken to be not far removed in time from the publication of the articles.

Our intrepid author recorded their journey through the suburban municipalities, their travails inspiring damning criticism, spontaneous poetic interludes and tangential analyses of their surrounds.

So, with map in hand, we will follow our guide through the streets of 1880s Macdonaldtown. Take a deep breath, for our guide does tend to go on a bit, and, well, as will become apparent, there is quite a lot of sewage about the place…

Extract of map Macdonaldtown Parish of Petersham Toll bar.png

Suburban Municipalities.


On leaving the borough of Alexandria for Macdonaldtown by the main artery of communication, we pass from bad to worse in respect of drainage and the general state of the road; but, to mend matters, there is a veritable toll-gate. Shame! Yes, a thousand shames on the man who proposed such a thing in such a place, and the same number on each of the persons who approved it. On inquiry we learned that the Municipal Council – those unselfish guardians of the public weal – are waiting to have a drain cut sumptibus publico. Till then this quagmire, often a lagoon of considerable area, with an every-day replenishment of filthy drainage (which an Old English farmer told us in all seriousness, as he viewed its many coloured hues by the roadside, would be highly prized in England), must spread across the road and surroundings, making it dangerous to life, limb, and health. If the writer was a descendant of the famous Erskine, objection would be raised as to the use of that name in such way as is done here. It may be that after waiting for years – and all this time man and beast wading through seas of mud or clouds of dust, for the Government to do a work that would not cost £50, something of the kind may be done in connection with the Illawarra Railway. Although the reason why the Railway Department or any other department should do this work, does not appear plain. Of course obtusity on our part may be the cause of not seeing eye to eye with the fathers, for is it not said – “In the multitude of councillors there is wisdom.” The day may come when those brilliant men may make the Council chamber or some other place ring with self-congratulations of far-sighted policy, singing of the “Waesome Carl,” who wrote of their delightful haven –

There cam a man to oor toon-en,
An’ a waesome carl was he;
Wi’ a snubbert nose, an’ a crookit-mou’,
An’ a cock in his left ee.
And muckle he spied, and muckle he spak;
But the burden o’ his sang,
Was aye the same and ower again:
“There’s nane o’ ye a’ but’s wrang
Ye’re a’ wrang, and a’ wrang,
And a’ the gither a’ wrang;
There’s no a man aboot the town,
But’s a’thegither a’ wrang.”

∗       ∗       ∗       ∗       ∗

And bye he gied his nose a thraw,
And aye he cockit up his mou’;
And aye he cockit up his ee,
And said-, “Tak’ tent the noo,”
We leuch ahint oor loof (palm) man,
And never said him nay;
And aye he spak’ –jist lat him speik!
And aye he said his say:
Ye’re a’ wrang, &c.

It would seem our writer was not immediately enamoured of Macdonaldtown. As they approached Macdonaldtown from Alexandria they passed through the Alexandria toll gate, and didn’t much appreciate having to pass through the Macdonaldtown toll-bar shortly thereafter:

It may be here said that [in Alexandria] there is one of those antiquated institutions called “turnpike gates,” and yet there is no gate, at which a man stands demanding toll from the owners or guides of quadrupeds going to and fro. A little further on, but in the borough of Macdonaldtown, we observe another of these, which “Rebecca and her daughters,” of some 40 years ago, would have removed with perfect ease. What a villainous thing, to collect toll for passing a few hundred yards of a quagmire!

Evening News (Sydney) Saturday 19 August 1882

The reference to ‘the famous Erskine’ is a reference to Erskineville Road (this section since renamed Railway Parade) and to Wesleyan minister, Reverend George Erskine (whose home Erskine Villa, would eventually lend its name to the renamed municipality). The suggestion that drainage works be undertaken in connection with the Illawarra Railway was made due to the Illawarra Railway line being under construction at the time of our writer’s visit in 1882.

So… what to make of the poem? The Waesome Carl is by Scottish author, poet and Christian Minister George Macdonald. The poem (available in full and in audio form and accompanying ‘Saxon’ translation here) describes the ‘Waesome Carl’ (the sorrowful, ill-bred fellow as best as can be identified), and our writer applies it to the Councillors of Macdonaldtown, effectively describing those ‘waesome carls’ as men who are firmly possessed by the notion that everybody is wrong but themselves, or that they think of everyone as hopelessly stupid but themselves.

An interesting analogy for our visitor to apply given their outspoken opinion of Macdonaldtown!

So onwards through the fair borough of Macdonaldtown:

Extract of map Macdonaldtown Parish of Petersham North Ward.png

Poetic effusions apart, we trace the stream of sewage by devious course right away upward, through field, under dwellings, through back yards close by the side of bedrooms, under unsightly culverts erected across streets, right away through the centre of the northern division of the municipality. The feeders are neither few nor far between and the loss of kerbing and channeling, the more objectionable in appearance is the pools and streams of house drainage. To particularise every stink, or what might very properly be considered a plague spot, would be a work which must be left to the inspector of nuisances, if such an officer exists. But it might not be considered amiss if the Council were to accept a piece of advice tendered in all meekness and humility without expectation of a fee or other reward—to see that something be done, and that promptly, towards ameliorating the crying evils already mentioned, and these we shall presently deal with.

Advice tendered in all meekness and humility without expectation of a fee or other reward? That’s nice.

The writer is tracing a stream that runs through the northern part of Macdonaldtown. Long since covered over, its location today is evidenced by the low points and drains in Burren, Charles and John Streets, the dips in the roads becoming less pronounced progressing further upstream.

Moving on then, to Union Street:

Extract of map Macdonaldtown Parish of Petersham Union Street.pngIn passing along Union-street—the boundary line on the west between Macdonaldtown and the borough of Newtown—we cross something in the shape of a culvert, although ingress and egress are scarcely distinguishable, through which much of butcher-shop and other sewage from Newtown finds its way. We here see (on the Newtown side) a receptacle broad, wide, and deep; that far surpasses anything that we beheld, even in the early days of Collingwood-flat or Richmond-flat, Victoria. Whether it is the cream that flows there-from or the more diluted portion thereof, was not ascertainable, but of a certainty that which we did see flowing through builder’s yards and other premises, meeting with kindred spirits en route, was far from prepossessing. The man that builds near this purlieu of filth should be indicted for an attempt to kill. We go a little further and we see a footpath made, which acts as a nice little dam to the sewage of many dwellings. The liquid is, with all possible tractability, being lodged and solidified in the middle of a street in embryo. It would be a waste of energy for the rainbow to reflect its rays on the deposit, for the colours are already there.

Union Street runs downhill from Erskineville Road, coming to the bottom of the valley in the vicinity of Munni Street, which is the likely point of the culvert at which the stream ‘through which much of butcher-shop and other sewage from Newtown finds its way.’ The land flattens out in the vicinity of Munni Street and Toogood Street, and in the absence of a natural gradient to draw the sewage and filth away make it a suitable location for street rainbows…

Walk on… Eastward ho!

Extract of map Macdonaldtown Parish of Petersham Macdonald Street

As we get still further eastward ho! the scene does not improve, for drain after drain, hole after hole, large and small, are laden with that which even a child of four years seemed ashamed. The little fellow having perceived our stare, and perhaps expression of surprise and disgust, said as we moved along—”Will you send your wife to sweep that out.” The reply given was not in the affirmative, but most assuredly if we had the ordering of the sanitary matters in the borough the Mayor and aldermen should do duty in something like chain-gang style until a remedy was effected, and the promise of better behaviour for the future was given—even Municipal Councils should know that—

“Things done well,
And with care, exempt themselves from fear;
Things done without example, in their issue
Are to be feared.”

In reference to this most south-easterly portion of the municipality we would unhesitatingly express our surprise even in the presence of the “practical men,” whoever they may be, that the steps have not been taken ere now to cut an outlet-drain from the lower end of Macdonald-street, through the paddock into the main-drain already cut from Alexandria towards Shea’s Creek. If it was a question involving a nice point of engineering science, or much cost, excuse might be received; but where the matter is as plain as two and two makes four, and the cost but about £30 at most, it is apparently a case of malfeasance that they should know that miasmata appear most prevalent at low levels; they hover over swamps grounds, and would seem to gravitate as though composed of solid particles. In several particulars they have close points of resemblance with atmospheric spores and germs. Sir Humphrey Davy, in his “Consolations in Travel,” asserts that the line of malaria above the Pontine marches is marked by a dense fog, morning and evening, and that most of the old Roman towns were placed upon eminences out of reach of this fog. Whatever the nature of this miasma, it is certain that marshes and swamps are by no means the only sources. The mud left on the drying up of ponds and lakes, and neglected sewers and drains, is capable of producing the subtle poison.

Given our writer’s interest in watercourses it is supposed that the party continued to follow the course of the stream across the paddock to Macdonald Street, then, leaving the line of the watercourse, headed eastwards along Macdonald Street, to meet up with the drain running along the boundary of Macdonaldtown and Alexandria.

The land here is flat and low-lying, barely 25 to 30 feet (7.5m to 9m) above sea level, and so the natural drainage is poor. No doubt this contributed to our writer’s consideration of the area as being prone to a multitude of poisonous miasmas

But we’re not done yet – seemingly turning on their heels and returning to continue a tirade that perhaps was considered only half-finished from a first pass, Union Street receives the dubious honour of further inspection and commentary…

The streets, both as to narrowness, works of construction therein, and architecture, are such as should not be tolerated in a civilised community. Union-street, for instance, is about half a mile long, and only half a chain wide, with a mass of bricks thrown together on each side. To ventilate such absurdities is almost an impossibility. Little could have been done to remedy the defects of a quarter of a century or even a decade ago, but within the last three years land has been subdivided into infinitesimal portions in such a grasping manner as to leave but narrow lanes instead of chain-wide streets. The question of ventilating streets was discussed in England a short time ago in the reading of a paper by Mr. Alfred Haviland, F.R.C.S [The geographical distribution of heart disease and dropsy in England and Wales]. Although much of the contents of the paper was merely of local interest some of the facts stated have a general bearing; we therefore give them. Wherever, says Mr. Haviland, “the sea air has interrupted access, as over a flat country, up broad vales or valleys, and elevated country, we find a low mortality from heart disease and dropsy; on the contrary, in places where the tidal wave has no access, where the rivers run at right angles to its course, or to that of the prevailing winds, there we find the highest mortality from this cause of death.  .  .  . The principle applies to towns. Low mortality from heart disease is almost invariably coincident with free access of the prevailing sea winds. Streets, like rivers, should traverse a town so as to admit of the freest access to the prevailing sea winds; if they do not, there will ever be lurking about some air-sewage waiting to do mischief at a moment’s notice.” It is shown by death-rate figures of different portions of London that the mortality is greater where the main thoroughfares are at right angles to the winds which sweep up the Thames. “To the east of London Bridge there is no wide street at all, the districts being made up of an intricate interlacement of narrow streets, alleys and cul de sacs, out of which it is almost impossible to drive the air-sewage. The mortality from heart disease is the highest average in that part of England.” There is good reason to believe that the matter of air-sewage is not known to nine-tenths of civic authorities; and in fact sanitary matters, beyond their own door, and scarcely that, have not attracted attention as a reality to be contended with. If it had been otherwise land would not have been subdivided, and the buildings would not have been permitted—in streets (!) so as to interrupt the wind currents which ought to have free play. It is no uncommon thing to hear the wind (laden with impurity from the contagious filth) like a battering ram against terraces of a couple of score of dwellings without as much as one opening from end to end. Instead of getting away readily it finds its way into the dwellings, and combined with the air issuing from the inmates there is a gas approaching that of the choke-damp of the miner. The ventilation of the apartments of dwellings—like the streets and lanes—have scarcely had a scintilla of consideration. Pity it is that the would-be Pugins and Cubitts are not conversant with the fact that air issuing from the lungs of man at each expiration contains from three and a half to four volumes of carbonic acid in 100 volumes of air, and could not therefore be breathed again without danger. The total amount of carbonic acid evolved by the lungs and skin amounts to about 1200 cubic inches per hour. In order that it may be breathed again without inconvenience, this should be distributed though 140 cubic feet of fresh air, or a space measuring 5.2 feet each way. Hence the necessity for a constant supply of fresh air by ventilation, to dilute the carbonic acid to such an extent that it may cease to impede respiration. Bedrooms—neither few nor far between—exist without anything like an opening except a door and a window, the top of the latter being a considerable distance from the ceiling, and is kept wind and weather tight during the hours of repose, lest the old and young huddled therein should catch cold. Judging from personal observation, we should conclude that the question of the best part of a room to introduce fresh air, has not received much attention in the environs of Sydney. If called upon to advise, we should say:—

“Do not choose your residence in hollows, at low levels, near swamp or marshes, or open drains.
Allow no animal or vegetable refuse to lay about.
Let nothing stand in your drains.
Shun badly-ventilated dwellings, and avoid rotton foundations of wood, and stone or brick saturated with filth.”

It is but fair to state that, whatever charges of incompetence or neglect may be laid at the door of the Council of the Municipality of Macdonaldtown, it cannot be said they have been guilty of extravagance in the erection of an ornamental and almost useless Town Hall. And yet the humble looking place, where they do roost occasionally, seems to answer the purpose of more pretentious looking edifices. The first of all matters that requires attention is a thorough system of drainage.

And so here ends our walking tour of 1882 Macdonaldtown.

However, barely pausing for miasma-laden breath, our heroic writer continues on into Newtown, commencing from the vicinity of Harold Street, and endeavouring to “write strongly and positively:”

…bounded by Union-street, Angel-street, Harold-street, and Gowrie-street—where are evident signs of extinct brick works in the shape of a huge hole, from which the “old men” here and there warrants us in concluding many thousands of yards of clay has been removed, The hole

“A scene that mocks the poet’s darkest dreams,”

is now a receptacle for the most filthy of filthy sewage that finds its way through the railway culvert from the butcheries and many other establishments on the east side of King-street, as well as from the refuse deposited in the gully behind the public school…

Evening News (Sydney) Saturday, 26 August 1882

The description is of the locality upstream of the culverts and pooled sewage in the vicinity of Union and Munni Streets, an area documented some years later in 1889 in the following map:

1889 Map of Newtown and Macdonaldtown Showing approximately the position and size of old clay pits or waterholes

Map of part of Newtown and Macdonaldtown Showing approximately the position and size of old clay pits and waterholes which have been filled up with earth, garbage, & street sweepings & now for the most part carrying dwelling houses. Source: History of Medicine Library – Royal Australian College of Physicians

This entry was posted in 1880-1889, Erskineville Road, Macdonald Street, Munni Street, Railway Parade, Union Street and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Tour of Macdonaldtown (Erskineville) in 1882

  1. suecartledge says:

    Thank you for a delightful experience, and much laughter at the pomposity of the writer’s language. I lived for several years at the northern end of King St, and would walk down Fitzroy St, through Hollis Park & on to Macdonaldtown station to go to and from work. I used also to duck through Burren St to get to Erskineville to visit friends, & also, enjoying solitary walks, explored much of the low-lying Macdonaldtown/Erskineville area. I’m glad to say there were no lagoons providing rainbows!


  2. Thank you Sue! I am so glad you liked it! The writer certainly had a way with prose and poetry!


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