When we think of the major contributors to health in our area, the hospital precinct at the top of the hill comes easily to mind. But another important and overlooked contributor lies at the bottom of the hill, in the storm water channels that snake through Lambton and New Lambton. Before they existed the flat expanse of Broadmeadow was a major hindrance in draining rainfall to the sea. An inquiry in 1893 noted that …

“On account of the defective drainage the water lay on the ground for days and weeks and even months in wet weather. It lay about the houses and became a nuisance not only in the way of locomotion, but was also productive of bad health and disease.”

The ill effects of stagnant water included respiratory infections, fungal infections, fevers, and mosquito borne diseases.

Because the problem spanned the multiple small local councils of the time, the state government in 1894 surveyed a network of drains across the inner suburbs. With an estimated cost of £39,500 work began in May 1895 with the long straight channel through Broadmeadow, following the path of the defunct Australasia Coal Company railway. Construction of the drainage channel up to Lambton progressed steadily and was completed by 1899.

Work on the New Lambton branch was halted for several years however, because of a dispute with the Waratah Coal Company whose land the channel traversed. The work was resumed in 1901 and completed soon after. A few extensions in ensuing years resulted in the drainage system that has served us for over a hundred years.

Today, the storm water channel running across Broadmeadow carries away the rainfall from 1700 hectares across eleven suburbs. At full flow it can drain the equivalent of an Olympic swimming pool every 30 seconds. So the next time you think one of those ‘ugly’ open concrete drains, give a bit of respect, and a perhaps drink a toast to the health of the community.

Construction in 1901 of the storm water drain in New Lambton, near present day Mackie Ave. On the horizon, the rightmost hill is where the hospitals would one day be built. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
Construction of the John Hunter Hospital in New Lambton Heights begins in 1987. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

The aerial photograph above showing the early stages of construction of the John Hunter Hospital is from the University of Newcastle Cultural Collections. The photograph is undated, but is probably from 1987 as that is when construction by the McCloy Group began.

The article above was first published in the February 2017 edition of the Lambton & New Lambton Local.

Additional photos

The storm water drain near Mackie Ave, New Lambton, January 2017.

Construction in the hospital precinct, New Lambton Heights, January 2017.
The storm water channel at Broadmeadow in full flow as it passes under Griffiths Road, 5th January 2016.


Thanks to local G.P. Doctor Catherine Hollier for medical advice on this story.

Thanks also to Mark MacLean for providing lots of drain related material in his Hamilton North blog, although he now blogs from Lightning Ridge.

Catchment area

In the article I state that “the storm water channel running across Broadmeadow carries away the rainfall from 1700 hectares across eleven suburbs.” To calculate this I used Google Earth Pro and marked out in purple the area that drains into the storm water channel at Hamilton North where Griffiths Road passes over it. (KML download for Google Earth.)

This view from Google Earth shows how the surrounding hills form a half basin with Broadmeadow at the centre. Open storm water channels are marked in yellow, covered storm water channels are marked in red.

1700 hectare catchment area of the Broadmeadow storm water channel.

By using NSW Globe spatial data for Google Earth, I overlaid the suburb boundaries to see that rainfall from the following eleven suburbs drain through Broadmeadow:

  • North Lambton
  • Lambton
  • New Lambton
  • New Lambton Heights
  • Kotara
  • Kotara South
  • Charlestown
  • Adamstown Heights
  • Adamstown
  • Broadmeadow
  • Waratah
Rainfall from eleven suburbs drains into the Broadmeadow storm water channel.

The 1900 drain photo

The University of Newcastle Cultural Collections site has two very similar Ralph Snowball photographs captioned “Drain construction workers at Broadmeadow, NSW, 6 April 1900” (photo 1, photo 2). Given that the paper reported in February 1899  that “the last pick has been driven in the Pasturage Reserve drainage scheme” (apart from the New Lambton branch), it raises the question as to whether the location and date on these photos is correct.

Drain construction workers, 6 April 1900. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Regarding the location of the photo we can see that the water in the drain is flowing left to right, and with the hills in the background it is clear that the photograph is taken from the eastern side of the drain, looking towards the west. An important clue is the large smoke stack behind the pile of dirt – this is almost certainly the stack of the English and Australian Copper Smelting Company, located in Broadmeadow, where UGL Limited (formerly Goninans) is now located.

1910 Barrett map overlaid on Google Earth, showing the location of the copper smelter near Waratah.

Along the hill in the background we can see what I believe to be Russell Road, New Lambton.

Russell Rd, New Lambton.

Towards the top of Russell Road there is a house with a dark line in front of it.

I believe that this is Hunter P Brett’s residence with a dark fence in front of it, as shown below in a 1908 photograph. This house still exists today, at 168 Russell Road.

Hunter P Brett’s residence, Russell Road, New Lambton, NSW 1908. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

With two points in the background of the 1900 drain photo established, the range of possible locations for the photo are narrowed down to the yellow shaded area below, that is between Broadmeadow Rd and where the drain passes under the railway at Islington.

Possible location of 1900 drain photo marked with yellow shading.

Its difficult to be certain, but the angles in the photo suggest that it was probably taken from Hamilton North, somewhere near the old gasworks site.

Corroborating this location is a newspaper report on 30 April 1900 “concerning the death of a middle-aged man named Michael Powell, who, in the forenoon was accidentally killed by a fall of earth at the storm-water drain at Newtown, near Hamilton.” Newtown was the original name of Hamilton North.

It is somewhat sobering to realise that it is quite possible that Michael Powell is one of the men in the 6th April 1900 photograph, just weeks before he was killed in a workplace accident at that site.

Having established with reasonable certainty that the photo location is Hamilton North, the question remains as to what work was being done on the storm water drain there, as work was supposedly finished a year earlier.  Possibly the drain at that point needed to be widened, deepened, or strengthened to handle the increased flows resulting from the addition of the New Lambton, Adamstown and Hamilton branches of the drainage system.

Tony Steinbeck helpfully pointed out to me that the tall structure on the far bank appears to be a pile driving tower, used to drive foundations into the ground.

Pile driving tower

The obvious candidate in the Hamilton North area that would require foundations alongside the drain is the Chatham Road bridge. So the photo from 1900 is possibly showing construction of an earlier bridge across the drain. The current bridge has no plaque indicating a date of construction, just an an empty spot with sawn off bolts where the plaque would have been placed. However the Chatham Rd bridge is of similar construction to the Broadmeadow Rd bridge which was opened in 1957.

Chatham Rd bridge over the storm water drain in Hamilton North. July 2018.

Creatures in the drain

The storm-water channel is not only good for humans – all sorts of creatures can be found there.

Egret in the drain at Hamilton North.
Egrets in the drain at Hamilton North on a misty winter’s morning.
Bird in the drain

Tortoise found near storm water drain in Hamilton North.
A mechanical creature of the drain.


Other drain things

Probably the strangest thing I’ve spotted in the drain is my own letterbox. In October 2019 our letterbox mysteriously disappeared one night. The next day, cycling home from work through New Lambton Park, near Ford Oval I glanced down and spotted my letterbox – dumped in the drain over one kilometre from my home. It was broken into multiple pieces, but I managed to retrieve, repair, and reinstall it.


Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
19 Feb 1878"The recent rains have proved the drainage of Lambton to be very defective … there is nothing so injurious to the public health as bad drainage, to say nothing of the damage done to property by flood water."
5 Feb 1890Mr Griffiths, in nominating for New Lambton council promises that he would work to "prevent fevers and the like by strict attention to the drainage, and he would advocate co-operation with other Councils for a general system of drainage."
19 Mar 1892"A thorough system of drainage at the lower end of the district from New Lambton downwards, through Hamilton, is necessary to prevent these periodical floods, as the water then would have an opportunity of free access to the main channels to the sea."
24 Mar 1893New Lambton Council - A decision about making another watercourse through the New Lambton railway embankment, is held over pending the result of the deliberations on the proposed combined councils' drainage scheme along the Australasian railway.
23 Jun 1893A deputation from Hamilton, Adamstown, New Lambton councils, to the Minister of Lands to urge the governement to construct a drain on the Commonage.
24 Aug 1893Public meeting complaining about the government in Sydney not spending the money required to fix the drainage on the Commonage in Newcastle.
28 Aug 1893Call for the government to keep its promise to drain the Commonage. The lack of drainage meant that "in very wet weather the low-lying portions present the appearance of miniature lakes, in which the small houses of the residents appear like islands."
7 Feb 1894A survey of the drainage scheme is underway.
27 Apr 1894Hamilton council receive a letter from the Public Works Department regarding "the drainage scheme on the Commonage, stating that the survey had been completed, but that fully three months must elapse before the plans and estimate could be prepared."
30 Jun 1894The survey of the drainage scheme has been completed. "It is proposed to make the main trunk 50ft wide and 8ft deep, and to extend it from the Great Northern railway line past the Raspberry Gully line, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile."
15 Dec 1894£12,000 set aside in estimates for commonage drainage.
"The work will prevent much misery, discomfort, and ill-health."
21 Dec 1894Allocation of £12,000 for drainage works passed in the State assembly.
20 May 1895Call for workers on the drainage scheme.
"GANGERS are requested to meet the undersigned at intersection of Broadmeadow and old Australasia line at 3 o'clock THIS (Monday) AFTERNOON,for the purpose of cavilling for sections of work to be done. H. D. WALSH, District Engineer."
24 May 1895
23 May 1895
Work commences on the drainage scheme. "The drainage works at Broadmeadow presented an animated appearance yesterday, upwards of 100 men being at work and quite double that number looking on."
28 May 1895Drainage works progressing.
"The section now open extends from behind Kidd's boot factory, at Islington, or to be more explicit, from Styx Creek, six chains below the Newtown Bridge, along the old Australasian Company's railway to the Broadmeadow Lambton road, at the New Lambton railway. The distance is just on two miles, and when completed the drain will be as straight as a gun barrel over its first section."
5 Dec 1895"The work of completing the lining of the drain on the Lambton Park does not form part of the Pasturage Reserve drainage scheme, and that no funds were available for that purpose."
16 Dec 1895"By the aid of two powerful steam pumps running day and night, the drainage from Lambton, Adamstown, Mayfield, Waratah, and the surrounding suburbs, has been pumped out of the channel. This allows a larger number of men to be employed than formerly, and at present about 200 men, with horses and drays, are working perfectly dry at a level of 7ft below high water mark at Nobbys."
29 Dec 1896"The work was initiated by a beneficent Government, more for the purpose of relieving distress [of unemployment]"
18 Jan 1897Drain is being extended up to Lambton Park. A tributary channel from Gregson Park Hamilton will soon be commenced. Tighes Hill footbridge nearly completed.
23 Jan 1897"At the beginning of the week 120 men were put on at the Lambton extension, which is to cover a distance of a quarter of a mile."
Estimated Expenditure on the drainage scheme is £39,500.
23 Jan 1897"The Pasturage Reserve drainage scheme is now affording employment to about 200 men."
10 Jul 1897Work on the New Lambton section of the drainage channel has been suspended and 230 men thrown out of work.
"The Government failed to resume the land before cutting the drain, believing that property-owners would only be too glad to have their land improved in value by means of the drainage. The Waratah Company, however, take the view that the soil excavated in their estate should not be scattered over the grass, but should be taken away. The Government at present refuse to do this."

"The Lambton branch, costing £3600, is now nearing completion, less than 20 men being now employed upon it."
24 Jul 1897A dispute between the Government and the Waratah Coal Company "has resulted in the suspension of operations on the New Lambton branch of the main channel of the Pasturage Reserve drainage scheme."
3 Dec 1897Regarding the five month suspension of work on the New Lambton Channel, the Waratah Coal Company is not being co-operative, and the Government is forced to compulsorily resume the land.
18 Feb 1899"The last pick has been driven in the Pasturage Reserve drainage scheme, which was commenced some three years ago. There remains the New Lambton branch of the main channel to be completed, but, in view of the opposition of the Waratah Coal Company, this extension seems to have been abandoned."
30 Apr 1900
28 Apr 1900
Michael Powell accidentally killed by a fall of earth at the storm-water drain workings at Newtown (Hamilton North).
9 Jun 1900Prospects that work on the New Lambton branch of the storm water channel might recommence soon. A new survey for the branch channel has been made, so that instead of "the channel being constructed in a direct line it will take a sweep and miss the private property."

The importance of the drainage works is again emphasised for "on it depends to a great extent the health of the people of that locality. Typhoid fever made its appearance in that neighbourhood recently, and the cause could only be attributed to the want of drainage, for the majority of dwellings are damp."
23 Mar 1901After nearly three years' stoppage, the work on the New Lambton section of the storm-water channel has re-commenced.
31 Aug 1910The government is trying to pass off control (and the mainentance cost) of the stormwater channel to either the Hunter District Water and Sewerage Board, and/or the local councils. Neither are very happy with being saddled with the cost.

4 thoughts on “Drains

  1. Do you know why there is a concrete wall across the drain next to the trotting track, Broadmeadow side? There looks like there may be a sewerage pump or similar next to it.

    • Bearing in mind that I’m not an authority on the drains, just someone who cycles alongside them every week and observes things…
      My understanding is that the concrete wall is there to trap large items of debris before they get washed into the main channel. After heavy rains there are often workers there, fishing out the rubbish and tree branches that have accumulated behind the wall.

  2. I would pretty much put money on the location of the 1900 photographs being on the Newtown/Hamilton side of the drain looking across the location of the present day Chatham Road bridge.

    The tower appears to be a pile driving structure and beneath this is a platform with an excavation below it.

    Behind the pile driver is a house with an alignment that mirrors the present day Chatham Road.

    To place yourself in the photographers shoes would you not simply gain access to the works via the easiest means, (from the Newcastle/Hamilton side) such as a street or road.

    The existence of an excavation in the side of the drain works and a pile driver would indicate the construction of a bridge across the drain to create or restore Chatham road between Clyde and Donald streets. Clearly a bridge exists today.

    I have found no reference to a bridge being constructed at the time but it would stand to reason that if a bridge existed prior to the drain construction it would have been removed due to the drain works and required replacement.

    Your guess is, as to the location 1900 photos, close Lachlan but you may have missed the actual location in your present day photos.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the location being at the Chatham Road bridge. In particular your observation that the tower on the platform is a pile driving structure, is very illuminating.

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