Glebe Hill Reservoir

The University of Newcastle Cultural Collections site has a Ralph Snowball photo with the caption “Construction of the water reservoir, New Lambton, NSW 1917”. In tracking down the location of this photo, thanks to Robert Watson I somewhat surprisingly ended up in a different suburb and a different year.

Construction of Glebe Hill Reservoir, 1886. Located at 65 Macquarie St, Merewether. Photo by Ralph Snowball, University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Part 1: Ridgeway Road?

Given that the photo is taken from an elevated position overlooking a flat plain I had always assumed that the location was where the reservoir now is at the top of Ridgeway Road, New Lambton Heights.

Water Reservoir site, corner of Ridgeway Rd and Lookout Rd, New Lambton Heights.

A search of Trove appeared to confirm my assumption, with a 9th January 1917 newspaper article reporting that

“The construction of the New Lambton reservoir was completed on the 3rd instant, and after satisfactory tests were made the reservoir was brought into use.”
Further investigation however cast serious doubt on this being the site of the Snowball photo, for none of the other details matched up.
  • the topography of the land wasn’t right – there is a deep gully below Ridgeway Rd, but in the photo the land slopes down more gently.
  • the reservoir in the photo was of brick construction, but the New Lambton reservoir was of reinforced concrete.
  • the reservoir in the photo was large (from estimates of the dimensions in the photo I calculated the capacity to be 350,000 imperial gallons) whereas the New Lambton reservoir was only 50,000 gallons.

Visiting the site of the Ridgeway Rd reservoir revealed that the 50,000 gallon 1917 reservoir is still there, covered in ivy, beside the new 1954 steel reservoir. It is clearly not the reservoir in the Snowball photo.

The 1917 ivy covered concrete reservoir, Ridgeway Rd, New Lambton Heights.

On the horizon of the Snowball photo there is a very faint outline that appeared to me to be the outline of Shepherd’s Hill on the coast. What other reservoirs on the hills around the Newcastle would provide a view eastwards over the flatlands towards the coast?

A 1940 map of Newcastle shows reservoir locations as small blue circles. Having ruled out the Ridgeway Rd site [1], I then considered Lambton Reservoir [2], St James Rd Reservoir [3], and Lookout Reservoir [4].

1940 map of Newcastle, showing reservoir locations.

Part 2: Lambton?

Lambton Reservoir was built in 1885 and sits in the middle of Newcastle Road at the top of the hill.

Lambton Reservoir, Newcastle Road.

Interestingly, a drawing of the Lambton Reservoir shows that it is the same design as the reservoir in the Snowball photo, with a central dome and two concentric rings of arches to form the roof.

Design of Lambton Reservoir, 1885.

But despite the similarity of design, the topography of the land in the photo doesn’t match. If the photo was of Lambton Reservoir we would expect to see the township of Lambton (including the very prominent Post and Telegraph Office building) before us.

Part 3: St James Road?

The reservoir (marked 3 in the map above) in New Lambton, between St James Rd and Queens Rd was built soon after August 1926. It didn’t seem to match up too well with the shape of the land in the Snowball photo – the St James Rd reservoir appears to have a slight ridge to its right, which is absent in the old photo. Also in 1926 we would expect to see the growing suburb of New Lambton below the reservoir, instead of the large expanse of scrub land that we do see.

Reservoir, between St James Rd and Queens Rd, New Lambton.

Part 4: Lookout?

The reservoir marked 4 on the map above was known as the Lookout Reservoir. It also was constructed on 1926, and its location can still be seen in the empty circular space between the two newer above ground steel reservoirs.

Location of the “Lookout Reservoir”, corner of Grandview Rd and Lookout Rd, New Lambton Heights.

The “Lookout Reservoir” seemed to be a better candidate for the Snowball photo in terms of the shape of the land and size of the reservoir, but it led me to an impossible conclusion … the “Lookout Reservoir” was constructed in 1926, but Ralph Snowball had died in August 1925, before construction had begun!

Part 5: Merewether?

At this point, Robert Watson came to my aid, and with some inspired thinking rescued me from my impossible conclusion. He deduced that the reservoir in the Snowball photo is actually situated in Macquarie St, Merewether.

Location of Glebe Hill reservoir on the 1940 map.

I had led myself astray in too quickly assuming that the Snowball photo was looking east towards the coast. It is in fact looking north-west, across the Broadmeadow flatlands towards Waratah.

Glebe Hill Reservoir, Merewether.

Panorama from the site of the Glebe Hill reservoir.

Glebe Hill Reservoir in Macquarie St Merewether is now part of a private residence. Google Street View.

A newspaper article from May 1886 states that the construction of the reservoir began in November 1885, only three months after the Lambton reservoir was completed in August 1885. The article contains a detailed description of the design that matches the photo very closely.

The roof is formed of two concentric arched rings and a dome carried by cast-iron girders, supported by iron columns resting on stone foundations some two feet square.
A March 1887 article describing the Hunter River District Water Supply shows that the Glebe Hill reservoir was almost identical to the size to the Lambton reservoir.
The reservoir at Lambton is built on the hill above the Public school, a distance of twelve and a half miles from. Buttai. It will hold 402,600 gallons. At fifteen and a third miles from Buttai a 15-inch branch pipe, a mile and a quarter in length, is connected with a reservoir having a capacity of 403,000 gallons, to supply Hamilton, Adamstown, the Glebe, and other towns along the line.
Note that although the reservoir is located within the modern day suburb boundaries of Merewether, it is sometimes called the “Hamilton Reservoir”, as that was the principal township it served.
Some other hints that confirm that the Snowball photo is of the Glebe Hill reservoir are the faint outline of smoke stacks in the distance. At the right are two stacks of different size, close together.

Broadmeadow copper smelter stacks.

These are the stacks of the English and Australia Copper Company smelter at Broadmeadow.

To the right is a single stack of one of the A.A. Company pits in Hamilton, and the very faint outline of the roof of St Peters Church in Denison St, Hamilton.

The Glebe Hill reservoir photo is taken from a spot only about 400 metres away from another Ralph Snowball photo taken in 1897, which shows the same landmarks in the distance.

The Newcastle lowlands. 1897. Photo taken from intersection of Beaumont St and Glebe Rd looking north towards Hamilton. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

1886 Glebe Hill Reservoir photo (top) and 1897 Glebe Rd photo (bottom)

The Glebe Hill reservoir is marked on Corporal Barrett’s 1910 map of Newcastle, situated on Lake Macquarie Rd. Quite possibly the two buildings marked at the end of Henry St are the two buildings we see in the Snowball photograph.

Glebe Hill reservoir, on 1910 map. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.


Acknowledgements

My thanks to Robert Watson who had a substantial input into the content of this article. Thanks also to Brendan Berghout of Hunter Water, who pointed me towards some useful information on early water supply infrastructure, and who helpfully reminded me that imperial gallons (220 gallons/m3) are not the same as U.S. gallons (264 gallons/m3). It was a casual conversation with Brendan on a bicycle commute to work one morning that was the genesis of this journey of discovery.

Merewether Council

Merewether Council was incorporated on 20th August 1885. The first meeting of the council was held in the Merewether School of Arts building on November 3, 1885.

In 1885, the council began meeting in the Mechanics Institute.

In 1888, the council chambers was located in Railway St.

A weatherboard building was constructed in 1894 in Llewellyn St and officially opened on Friday 7th September 1894.

Merewether Council Chambers. Erected 1894. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Merewether Council Chambers. Erected 1894. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

A real estate map shows that in 1918 the council chambers were located at 41 Llewellyn Rd, between St Augustine’s church and the fire station. I’m guessing that in the photo above, the ladder structure in the background was associated with a fire station next door.

MerewetherCouncil1918In September 1922 a tender was advertised for the erection of new council chambers. The chambers were built by the end of that year and were officially opened on 20th January 1923. The old wooden council chambers building was then dismantled, and re-erected on Merewether Beach for the use of the Merewether Surf and Life Saving Club.

Merewether Council Chambers. Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 May 1938.

In 1950 the the former council chambers brick building in Llewellyn St was sold to the Merewether R.S.L. sub-branch for £1200.
The site of the former council chambers, April 2016. The fire station is still next door.

The site of the former council chambers, April 2016. The fire station is still next door.

New council chambers were opened in 1923.

Questions yet to be answered

  • Where was the 1888 Merewether council chambers in Railway St located?
  • When was the 1922 brick council chambers demolished?

Differences of grandeur

My latest article for the Lambton Local is out, this month on Council mergers, and in particular how 11 city and suburban councils merged together in 1938 to form the City of Greater Newcastle Council.

Researching the article got me thinking about the various town halls and council chambers left behind after the 1938 merger, where were they, what happened to them, are they still around today? I’m currently putting together some web pages to document the various municipal council buildings in the Newcastle area.

One thing that has struck me is the stark differences in style and expense in the buildings erected by the various councils. The extremes are best exemplified by the castellated fortress erected by Stockton Council in 1891 , and the simple weatherboard box that Merewether Council erected just three years later in 1894. What were the differences in budgetary restrictions and/or delusional aspirations of grandeur that led to such disparate buildings?  I don’t know the answer yet, but it will be interesting to find out.

Stockton Council Chambers. Newcastle City Council, Hunter Photobank.

Stockton Council Chambers. Erected 1891. Newcastle City Council, Hunter Photobank.

Merewether Council Chambers. Erected 1894. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Merewether Council Chambers. Erected 1894. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

 

The drain explain

DryBack in 2014 a change of residence meant that my bicycle commute to work changed to a route that took me alongside long stretches of the concrete drains that spider across the low lying Newcastle suburbs. For 85% of my commute to work I am within 200 metres of one of the concrete drains, or Throsby Creek.

In a recent conversation with a friend when I mentioned this, they responded with some expression of sympathy and sadness that I had to endure such an ugly travelling companion. As I reflected on this Dsc04477areaction I realised that although the drains are not exactly the most aesthetic feature of our city, there are a number of positives.Firstly, cycling alongside the drains offers relative serenity, in comparison to busy roads. Secondly, the drains often attract a variety of bird life – ducks, ibises, some other kinds of birds, the black and white ones, the fast darting ones, as well as those little fluttery ones. (As much as I like birds, you might correctly guess I’m no ornithologist!)

In thinking about the concrete drains I’ve also been pondering their principal purpose – to drain away water. In the downpours of January 2016 I saw this fully in action, and recorded this video of the drain in Broadmeadow near the rescue helicopter base.

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It got me thinking. How much water was being carried away each second? Stepping through the frames on the video I was able to see that it took 2.94 seconds for the flow to pass from one concrete seam in the drain to the next. A visit to the drain a few weeks later (when it was dry) to take some measurements revealed the following.

Distance between cracks: 9.1m
Average width of drain: 13.4m
Average depth of drain: 1.6m
Cross sectional area: 21.44m2
Water velocity: 3.1 m/s
Flow volume (cubic metres per sec): 66.4 m3/s

That’s 66 thousand litres per second. Impressive. Or to put it another way, since a standard size Olympic swimming pool contains 2.5 million litres, the waterway at this point is capable of draining an Olympic sized swimming pool every 38 seconds.

Drain dimensions

Broadmeadow drain measurements.

[ Note that all these measurements and calculations are ‘back of the envelope’, ‘ballpark figures’ for the purpose of gaining a broad sense of the capabilities of the drain, and not a precise hydrological survey. ]

I’ve also been pondering the economic benefit of these drains. Prior to their construction from 1895 onwards, the lowlands of Newcastle were regularly turned into a useless boggy swampland. A 1892 description of Broadmeadow states that:

“When there are heavy rains the water comes down in such a way as to flood the streets and property, the water being sometimes 12 and 18 inches deep on the streets.”

Premier Hotel, Broadmeadow, 1892. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

Premier Hotel in Broadmeadow surrounded by flood waters in 1892. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

The 1897 Ralph Snowball photograph below looking from Glebe Rd Merewether across to Hamilton graphically illustrates the large plain of unused and unusable land, and with the roads suffering significant water erosion.

The Newcastle lowlands. 1897. Photo taken from intersection of Beaumont St and Glebe Rd looking north towards Hamilton. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

The Newcastle lowlands, 1897. Photo taken from intersection of Beaumont St and Glebe Rd looking north towards Hamilton. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

Even as construction was progressing the economic benefit of drainage was clear to see, with an 1897 newspaper report on the extension of the system into Adamstown noting that:

“Its construction will prove a great boon to those residing on the lowlands, and should increase the value of property materially.”

Drain construction workers at Broadmeadow, NSW, 6 April 1900

Drain construction workers at Broadmeadow, NSW, 6 April 1900. University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.

The question then is what is the area of the “lowlands” that are emptied by the drainage system? Browsing the altitude data in Google Earth, and observing the landscape around town, 15 metres above sea level seems to be the inflection point where a gradual rise in elevation across the plains changes to a steeper inclinaton of the surrounding hills and ridges. Using Google Earth I marked with yellow lines the concrete drains, and mapped out in blue the area of the drainage basin that is 15m or less above sea level. This area totalled approximately 1850 hectares. [ KML file viewable in Google Earth ]

[ Note, as before, this mapping is a rough approximation for the purpose of gaining a broad sense of the capabilities of the drainage system, and not a precise hydrological survey. ]

Newcastle concrete drain system. Area shaded blue is 15m or less above sea level.

Newcastle concrete drain system. Area shaded blue is 15m or less above sea level.

As an aside, when I first viewed the map of the drains against the shaded lowlands, it immediately struck me that there is a large area centred on Hamilton that has no open concrete drains, and my recollection is that in the June 2007 Pasha Bulker storm, Hamilton was one of the main areas of flooding. Coincidence or not? I don’t know, as I keep reminding you, I’m not a hydrologist.

Nor am I an economist. With that final disclaimer out of the way I can now ask, how much is all that land worth? What is the monetary value of the land made productive by the open concrete drain system? As an example of land values, the NSW Valuer General shows that in 2015 a 424 m2 area of land in Hamilton North had a value of $327,000. This equates to $771 per square meter, or $7.7 million per hectare.  If we assume that only 75% of the 1850 hectares is usable (allowing for roads, creeks, etc) then the total land value of the lowlands shaded in the map above is … 10.7 billion dollars!

So the next time you pass one of those ‘ugly’ concrete drains … give a bit of respect.


For more drain related musings, check out Mark Maclean’s Hamilton North blog.