If you visit the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, take a few minutes to look for a small bridge over a stream near the Wollemi Pine, ‘Australia’s homegrown Christmas tree’, close to the information booth.
This is Macquarie Culvert.
The two brick arches were built as part of the construction of Mrs Macquarie’s Road, which Nicholas Delaney and his gang finished on her birthday in June 1816. They had a double purpose: a drain for the creek’s water, and a bridge.
Built from sandstock brick, the culvert is both typical of early 19th-century drain construction and historically significant, the historian Anna Wong says. But at the end of the 20th century it was in a state of disrepair, with most of the mortar gone and a rare giant fern’s roots threatening to damage it further.
And the original road was covered with two centuries’ worth of sediment. “It is one of the oldest-known sections of road in Sydney, but its existence surprised archaeologists and heritage architects from the Department of Public Works and Services when they began to dig,” says the Sydney Morning Herald.
A joint team from the department and the RBG set out to conserve and restore Macquarie Culvert and the surface of the road Nicholas and his men laid nearly 200 years ago. Then the road was re-covered to preserve it for the future.
Of course, it’s exciting for me as a descendant of Nicholas Delaney to know that his brick bridge still exists and has been restored, but how important is it as part of Australian history?
As Anna Wong points out, “The age and material used within its historical context makes it a significant item. Other culverts and bridges were built during the early nineteenth century, but most have collapsed or were dismantled due to poor construction and inadequate knowledge.
“This brick culvert appears to be the only brick example from this period.”
So – did Nicholas build the oldest bridge in Australia?
But Macquarie Culvert beats them both. True, it’s not so big or so well-known, but at a date of 1816 at the very latest, it is certainly the oldest surviving bridge in Australia.
Not a bad achievement for an illiterate peasant and transported convict.
When we were writing our book, A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798, the reconstruction was still to take place and several of Nicholas’s descendants were lobbying for the preservation of the stretches of his original road that still existed. It exciting to think that this part is safe for at least the next 100 years, according to the Public Works and Services department.
“The best thing is that the culvert is not high and dry in a museum,” the Gardens’ acting curator, Ian Innes, said at the time. “This is still working as a culvert.”
I haven’t got a picture of Macquarie Culvert to show you, unfortunately. A few weeks ago I emailed the Royal Botanic Gardens to ask if they would let me use one of their photos but I haven’t heard back from them and I haven’t found one under Creative Commons on the net. (Update: Jeff Farrar’s photos now posted here)
I found useful information about early nineteenth-century drains in Anna Wong’s paper in Australasian Historical Archaeology, 17, 1999 and about the restoration of Macquarie Culvert in James Woodford’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald of June 24, 2002.
The AHA article also has an old photo of Macquarie Culvert before restoration.