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Ebb and flow of the mighty Hawkesbury River

Autumn leaf floating on the surface of the Hawkesbury River at Hanna Park, North Richmond.

Autumn leaf floating on the surface of the Hawkesbury River at Hanna Park, North Richmond.


By Ellen Hill                     Photos: David Hill

(Continuing the story of the Hawkesbury River, we re-publish here an article that featured in the April-May 2009 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.)


THE last tendrils of fog swirl up to meet the golden rays of a weak winter sun, mirrored on the still surface of the water.

The occasional jumping fish makes a quiet “blip’’ noise. Birds twitter in the trees and skate across the gentle ripples before settling on the surface to float aimlessly with the tide.

The Hawkesbury River has always been part of Ted Books life.

The Hawkesbury River has always been part of Ted Books life.

This is Ted Books’ favourite time of day to cruise the Windsor section of the Hawkesbury River in his boat, the Montrose. He’s alone.

By mid-morning, the water twinkles in the glaring sun, the river a silver thread pulsing through colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s kingdom with the monotony of routine.

Given the majestic Hawkesbury River has supported his family for five generations, you understand Books’ attachment to it.

As the boat gently bobs along the water, Books’ shares his memories and tells the history of the stretch he knows best _ the strip of water his famous colonial ancestors eventually learned they could not tame.

Ted Books is known for expressing a strong opinion and enjoying a chat. But he’s not known for being an emotional man. A former wrestler and retired excavator, he tends to say his bit in his no-nonsense way and leave it at that.

River stones in the Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi near Navua Reserve.

River stones in the Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi near Navua Reserve.

But aboard the Montrose, I not only see a different side to Books, but the river I have known most of my life.

“Sydney’s salad bowl’’, “Sydney’s playground’’, the Hawkesbury River has supported Australia’s largest city since European settlement.

For the handful of free settlers desperately trying to survive with virtually nothing in a foreign environment, the river was their transport, it watered them, their crops and animals.

In colonial times while chain gangs of convicts were still cutting roads by hand, the Hawkesbury River was the natural highway to Sydney Cove.

In fact, ships including the 101 ton Governor Bligh were actually built on the river. Two of Books’ ancestors _ Captain John Grono and Alexander Books _ had a shipyard at Pitt Town on Canning Reach, the remains of which can still be seen at low tide.

Among the 200 cargo vessel movements on the river each year were tall ships which took three inward tides (about 20 hours) to travel from Brooklyn at the mouth of the river to Windsor.

The 100 ton SS Erringhi was the last of the big ships to trade on the Hawkebsury River between the 1920s and 1937.

“I used to dive off the Windsor bridge and there used to be 30ft of water there,’’ Books says. “We used to dive off the bridge and go with the tide to Pitt Town, about 4 miles by water.’’

Deerubbin Park at Windsor.

Deerubbin Park at Windsor.

The Hawkesbury Nepean River is part of the vast 22,000 sq km Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment, stretching from Goulburn to Lithgow, Moonee Moonee, Pittwater and Singleton.

Its tributaries and creeks begin in the higher land of the Great Dividing Range, others in the highlands to the west of Wollongong and south of Sydney.

The Nepean begins in the Camden Valley near Moss Vale and becomes the Hawkesbury at Yarramundi after being joined by the Wollondilly River, on which Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main drinking glass, was built in the 1950s.

From the 1870s, a series of dams was built on the Upper Nepean, south east of Camden and its tributaries the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers.

The mighty Hawkesbury Nepean River ends at Juno Point at Broken Bay.

“Sydney would never survive without this river,’’ Books says. “This river is the playground for the city.’’

The Hawkesbury River has been Sydney's playground for generations.

The Hawkesbury River has been Sydney’s playground for generations.

Every now and again Books stops the boat, points out a landmark, pulls out yet another packet of black and white photographs and tells the story of the place.

“See that place up there? That’s where Thomas Arndell (the first surgeon to the colony, he came out with the First Fleet) settled when he came to the Hawkesbury. His homestead’s still there.

“They built next to the river because it was clean water and there was fish.’’

The oldest church building in Australia is at Ebenezer, built from stone in 1803 by a small band of free settlers. The church used to run a punt across the river to transport people to church.

The water is deepest _ about 90ft _ nearby, opposite Tizzana Winery at Sackville Reach Wharf.

Glancing at the river banks from the boat, it seems not much has changed apart from technology. Irrigation pumps spew water across enormous paddocks of turf, veggies and flowers. The staccato bark of a dog sends drifting ducks into a flurry. The sun’s rays highlight the fur on a lowing cow staring with lazy interest at the boat. The ghostly figures of farm workers can be seen inside a row of greenhouses.

Remains of an old punt at Sackville.

Remains of an old punt at Sackville.

But then Books’ tale of how his dad and his mates used to catch more fish than they could eat up this stretch of the river is broken by the roar of a power boat towing a skier.

Books pauses and waits for silence to return before pointing out another historic property on the hill.

He revs up the engine and the Montrose slips on.

The river remains a great source of seafood: flathead, bream, mullet, hairtail, mullaway, whiting, flounder, tailor, snapper, trevally, blackfish, leatherjackets, kingfish, John Dory, shellfish and prawns.

It is also home to much bird life: shags, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, sea eagles, pelicans and terns.

And down in the salt water near the river mouth at Brooklyn there are sharks, sea snakes, jellyfish, stingrays and fortescues.

The Hawkesbury River has ebbed and flowed for millenia.

The Hawkesbury River has ebbed and flowed for millenia.

Today, the Hawkebsury, Penrith and Baulkham Hills region along the river generates a whopping $1.86 billion worth of produce (not including the equine industry). Sydney chows through 90 per cent of it.

The vast quantities of fruit, vegetables and turf grown in the Hawkesbury have fed the entire Sydney population and beyond for generations.

The river is also a major tourist attraction used extensively for recreation (the annual Bridge to Bridge boat race attracts thousands). Tourism and recreation reap $2 billion a year, thanks to the river.

Private moorings along the Hawkesbury.

Private moorings along the Hawkesbury.

Three car ferries and several bridges provide crossings over the waterway.

Crowds of day trippers are drawn to popular swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating spots each weekend.

A startling white glare suddenly burns the retinas of our eyes. Deck chairs blindingly white in the sun, emerald green manicured lawns and landscaped yards, expensive boat sheds. The property listings at the local real estate agents would reveal that river frontages are also becoming private paradises for the wealthy.

But later, in the golden after glow of sunset, the birds and fish replay their evening ritual as the mist settles like a gossamer blanket over the water surface, melding with the gloom of dusk. The river continues to beat its slow rhythm of life just as it always has.

Ducks in flight on the Hawkesbury River.

Ducks in flight on the Hawkesbury River.



Hawkesbury River, NSW: The Settler’s River

The Smith Park picnic area becomes part of Pugh's Lagoon on the Hawkesbury River floodplain during flood.

The Smith Park picnic area becomes part of Pugh’s Lagoon on the Hawkesbury River floodplain during flood.

By Ellen Hill                               Photos: David Hill

(As NSW experiences the worst floods in decades, it is worth remembering that flood waters have been a regular feature of the Hawkesbury River for centuries. This feature article by the Deep Hill Media team appeared in the October/November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine. It is republished here with fresh images showing the current flood.)


IN 1978, my family moved to Richmond. It was the hottest summer and coldest winter for decades. But it was the rain that sent doubts lapping around my parents’ minds about the wisdom of shifting their young children to what was considered a distant outpost.

That March, the Hawkesbury River rose to 14.31m above Windsor Bridge. Richmond became an island. Our world ended at Chapel St, Agnes Banks and the RAAF base. Cows and farm equipment were brought up to the high paddocks on the fringes of town.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Bust of Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

We didn’t know it then, but we and countless others previously and since had one man to thank for our safety – Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Local Councillor and Hawkesbury Flood Risk Management Committee Chairman Kevin Conolly believes the flame-haired leader would be happy with modern efforts to protect residents against flood – Macquarie’s colonial edicts concerning the floodplain continue to influence town planning in the Hawkesbury today.

But with many newcomers never having experienced a flood, modern authorities face similar challenges to their colonial peers.

Hawkesbury residents have been warned of flood dangers since Captain Arthur Philip saw weeds high in the trees at Agnes Banks. Governor King tried to convince settlers into regions other than the fertile but flood-prone Hawkesbury region.

But on his arrival in the fledgling colony in 1810, it was Governor Macquarie who took firm action and ordered the abandonment of floodplain dwellings.

A March, 30, 1806, report in the Sydney Gazette gives a descriptive account of what Macquarie did not want to see again – “…many individuals lost every thing they possessed, and that several have perished in the deluge, which was never before known to arrive to so great a height by from eight to ten feet. What rendered its progress still more destructive was the false notion of security which many had imbibed, from the supposed confidence that there never would be another heavy flood in the main river…”

Hundreds of terrified souls were plucked from rooftops and rafts of straw but five people died and much of the colony’s food supply was lost.

On December 6, 1810, Macquarie gave his famous after-dinner speech proclaiming the five towns of on high ground above the flood plain – Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town, Castlereagh and Wilberforce.

Each settler was allotted a plot in the new towns large enough for a house, offices, garden, corn yard and stockyard relative to the size of their flood prone farm.

The swollen Hawkesbury River laps at the deck of Yarramundi Bridge as more heavy rain clouds gather.

The swollen Hawkesbury River laps at the deck of Yarramundi Bridge as more heavy rain clouds gather.

But settlers largely ignored him at/to their peril. In 1816 the river rose again to 13.88m at Windsor Bridge, then to 14.03m in February 1817.

Frustration is apparent in Macquarie’s March 5 1817 proclamation when he again ordered settlers to higher ground – “…many of the deplorable Losses which have been sustained within the last few Years, might have been in great Measure averted, had the Settlers paid due Consideration to their own Interests, and to the frequent Admonitions they had received by removing their Residences from within the Flood Marks to the TOWNSHIPS assigned for them on the HIGHLANDS, it must be confessed that the Compassion excited by their Misfortunes is mingled with Sentiments of Astonishment and Surprise that any People could be found so totally insensitive to their true interests, as the Settlers have in this Instance proved themselves.”

A new benchmark was set for town planners in June 1867 when the Hawkesbury River spilled 19.26m above Windsor Bridge.

Fifteen members of the Eather family were swept into the swirling torrent at Cornwallis on the night of June 21. Twelve drowned, including Catharine (just 36), Emma (38), and five children apiece. Ironically, Catharine is buried opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.

Modern scientific evidence suggests an even greater inundation is possible, one where all that can be done is evacuate as many people as early as possible. Referred to as the probable maximum flood (PMF), experts predict it could reach 26.4m above Windsor Bridge.

Hawkesbury Council has successfully lobbied governments for flood evacuation routes – Richmond and Londonderry roads have been raised, and a new bypass built between Windsor and McGraths Hill. A higher Windsor Bridge will be built soon, and council continues work with the State Emergency Service (SES) to fine tune evacuation plans and procedures.

Lobbyists like Clr Conolly and former farmer John Miller continue to demand that more be done, including raising the Warragamba Dam wall by 4m, which would lower floodwaters by the equivalent of two house storeys, they say.

The swollen Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi.

The swollen Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi.

John Miller, 81, knows firsthand about floods in the Hawkesbury. Heady with romantic ideals of farm life, he brought his pregnant wife and toddler to his new farm at Sackville in 1955. In 1956, seven floods wiped out every fruit and vegetable crop he planted.

“I knew nothing about the 1867 flood or any other flood. I’d never a seen a flood before … I got to the bottom of the farm and there’s water up to my packing sheds, and I was carrying bags of fertiliser on my back because it had been raining for weeks, and I kept sinking down in the mud. I didn’t know until I bought the place it was called Mud Island.”

After asking neighbours about his property, John relates “he said ‘Well, in 1867 there was a two storey house there and it was washed away, and a bloke found it at the bottom of the Ebenezer gorge’.

“I couldn’t make a go of it so I moved out of the area and grew mushrooms.”

The zone around John Miller’s former farm is where floodwaters are deepest and most furious. When the Hawkesbury Nepean River floods the water doesn’t just gradually rise – Mother Nature throws a tantrum.

It only takes a few days of very heavy constant rain to cause severe flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley because water surges into the valley at a much higher rate than it can flow out. When the water hits the narrow sandstone cliffs at Ebenezer/Sackville, a bottleneck causes the water to back up into the Richmond/Windsor floodplain before heading back down for another go at squeezing through the cliffs.

Meanwhile, anything in its path is ripped away and catapulted downstream at great speed. “You’ve got tree trunks” John Miller says. “You’d see them go under the bridge and then spear out of the water as they came out the other side. It was horrifying.

“Some people say to me ‘We’ll never get another flood again’ and I say ‘No, and we’ll never get another bushfire in the Blue Mountains either, will we?’ Some people have said I’m a scaremonger, but I’d hate to have to say: `I told you so’.”

Clr Conolly agrees – “The risk is certainly very real. There will be another flood, but there are a lot of people who are not familiar with the fact that it does flood, and the magnitude of floods in the Hawkesbury.

“Macquarie took a very sensible approach and saved many people’s lives. We’re trying to do the same.”

Living high and dry above the floodplain these days, I can only hope others will heed the warnings too. *

Waters of the Hawkesbury River cover some of the car park at Yarramundi Bridge.

Waters of the Hawkesbury River cover some of the car park at Yarramundi Bridge.

• Captain Arthur Philip sees weeds in the trees when he camped on Richmond Hill at Agnes Banks while touring the Hawkesbury Nepean River in 1789
• Governor Philip Gidley King tries to persuade settlers to “set a greater value on the forrest lands’’ of Toongabbie, Parramatta, Prospect Hill, Castle Hill, Seven Hills and Port Jackson after the devastating October 1806 flood when the river rose 14.64m above Windsor Bridge
• May and August 1809: floodwaters rise 14.64m and 14.49m above the bridge respectively, devastating the colony’s food supply
• December 6, 1810: Governor Lachlan Macquarie names his five towns and orders settlers to abandon their riverbank homes
• March 1817: Macquarie strengthens his order to abandon the floodplain
• June 1867: 12 members of the Eather family drown when floodwaters rise 19.26m
• 1960 Warragamba Dam completed
• November 1961: the river rises 15.1m
• March and June 1978: floodwaters rise 14.31m and 9.55m respectively
• February 1992: the last Hawkesbury River flood when water rises 11m above the bridge
• June 2002: $150 million Warragamba Dam auxiliary spillway completed

The swollen Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi.

The swollen Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi.

• On the right hand side of Cornwallis Rd about 1km from the Greenway Cres and Moses St, Cornwallis, intersection is a simple sign commemorating the tragic demise of 12 members of the Eather family swept into the torrent on the night of June 21.
• One of the 12, Catharine, is buried in Windsor Catholic Cemetery, Hawkesbury Valley Way and George St, ironically opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.
• The height of the 1867 flood is marked on the side wall of the Macquarie Arms Hotel at Thompson’s Square, Windsor
• Away from Windsor, markers can be seen throughout the Hawkesbury to commemorate floodwater height and the location of significant sites including behind St James’ Anglican Church, Pitt Town; and the location of the original church at Sackville Reach near the cemetery on Tizzana Rd.

The swollen Pugh's Lagoon on the Hawkesbury River floodplain at Richmond.

The swollen Pugh’s Lagoon on the Hawkesbury River floodplain at Richmond.


Blasting History: Lithgow Blast Furnace

By Ellen Hill      Photos: David Hill

THE faint sound of metal tapping rhythmically against metal and the distant shrill ring of a telephone is a fitting background theme song for the towering ramparts of the Lithgow Blast Furnace ruins.

Rising from the hill overlooking the town, the carcass of what was Australia’s first and only inland heavy industrial centre displays an almost superior air despite its decay.

Shrugging off the reason for their abandonment nearly 70 years ago, the ruins stand as a demonstration against progress and time with an insolent attitude of what they represent, not what they have become.

It was here that the first iron and steel in Australia were cast.


William Sandford, 1907

The Lithgow Blast Furnace was built by William Sandford in 1906-1907.

However, iron smelting in Lithgow began more than 20 years previously in October 1875 under the direction of Enoch Hughes at a foundry built on Thomas Brown’s Esk Bank property where ore was found just beneath the surface. Hughes also encouraged Cobb and Co principal shareholder and manager James Rutherford of Bathurst, Canadian railway engineer Dan Williams and Public Works Minister John Sutherland to join him in this steel making venture. By the end of 1876 the blast furnace was producing more than 100 tons of pig-iron a week.

However, it soon became clear that the operation would be limited by cheap imports transported to the colony as ship’s ballast. The mill carried on for a while under a co-operative system but eventually failed.

Frustrated at the lack of government support of local industries, Rutherford blew up the blast furnace with two dray loads of blasting powder.

William Sandford, who was associated with the early steel making operations in Mittagong, took over the lease from Rutherford in 1886 (he bought the works in 1892). He revived the business initially by puddling Australia’s first steel in 1900.

A strong lobbyist for Lithgow industry, Sandford urged the State Government to use only locally produced iron and steel. The government complied, and in 1904 sought tenders from America, Europe and Australia to supply it with iron and steel – on the condition that all operations used local ores and all works were located within NSW.

Sandford was awarded the contract in 1907 but then found he could not fulfil it.

(l-r) Tom Thornley and father William Thornley, early 1900's.

In a letter to his son Tom dated June 24, 1907, blast furnace manager William Thornley wrote: “…we have had very great trouble in keeping up with our contract, as a matter of fact our plant is not nearly large enough to carry out the contract satisfactorily’’.

The size of the operation wasn’t Thornley’s only gripe. He was scathing in his opinion of the workforce at the iron works and directed Tom to scour factories for more labourers during his travels throughout England. Thornley even gave Tom the names of men to approach and wrote that if the government did not cover the cost of their fares the company would.

“The men we have, have, no experience, and do not seem willing to be shown, they are more interested in trying to draw money from the firm without giving equivalent value…

“If you come across any men during your travels who would like to come to Australia, and who have had experience on the basic open hearth furnaces, second hands, or even third would do, if the men are intelligent and likely workmen.’’

Thornley was also disappointed in the quality of work produced at the steel works.

“The results from the Steel Furnaces are not anything like we could reasonably expect,’’ he wrote. “Unfortunately our men are not accustomed to Basic working and we have been much hampered through not  having sufficient Dolomite. We have been using the local stuff, but, it does not equal the important in some respects.’’

Thornley recommended an expansion of the Lithgow works.

“If we had the furnaces and one or two spare producers we could keep the work constantly going’’ and turn out an average of 400-500 tons of steel a week, he estimated.

Sandford took Thornley’s advice and built a new blast furnace, paid for with a hefty bank overdraft. Officially opened on May 13, 1907, the new 1000 tons/week capacity furnace was built specifically to smelt iron from ore near the railway about 1km away from the Eskbank Colliery.

However, William Sandford Ltd soon ran into financial strife and, under the threat of bank foreclosure, handed the reigns over to George and Cecile Hoskins at the end of 1907.

There were also clashes within management, with Thornley complaining to his son Tom about the amount of limestone another manager had been adding to the finished iron.

“When you were here, the blame for everything that Mr [blast furnace manager] could find it possible to blame anyone for, fell on you, since you have left he has been trying to fix blame on me, which, of course I quite expected.’’

(Mr Thornley left the blast furnace in 1908 and established his own successful engineering, iron founders, blacksmith and machine tool manufacturing company at Sydenham, W. Thornley & Sons Pty Ltd, which operated until 1990.)

Under the new owners G&C Hoskins Ltd, the ironworks eventually underwent substantial changes. The Hoskins persuaded the government to pay a bounty for Australian-produced steel. They then moved their operations from Rhodes in Sydney to Lithgow.

The brothers also had Sandford’s struggling government contract transferred to them and extended until the end of 1916. They then built 80 coke ovens and a second blast furnace at the eastern end of the site in 1913, followed by 15 more coke ovens.

Lithgow’s monopoly on iron smelting was seriously dented by BHP, which opened its Newcastle plant in 1915.

However, the outbreak of WWI, specifically the opening of a small arms factory in Lithgow, was a boon for the company which continued to expand. A fifth blowing engine was added to the original furnace in 1923. At 400 tons, it was the largest in Australia.

By that stage, Lithgow had long been renowned for its steel production, with thousands of tons of steel produced for the Trans-Australia Railway. In the first year of production, the steel works treated 51,000 tons of ore and employed 632 people. By 1926 the steel furnaces had turned out 178,000 tons of ore, resulting in 105,000 tons of pig iron.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1920s, it was decided to move operations to Port Kembla where the natural resource and transport network were more attractive.

Coke, limestone and iron ore needed for the operation was originally sourced from Lithgow and surrounds but it was not an endless supply. Extra metallurgical coke had to be brought in from the south coast at great cost, exacerbated by the 10 per cent State Government railway freight charge hike in 1919. Together with the western district’s inability to supply enough quality ore resulted in the demise of the Lithgow iron and steel industry.

The Hoskins abandoned the blast furnace in 1928, joined the Australian Iron and Steel Company and set up works at Port Kembla. In 1932 the blast furnaces were removed from the Lithgow site and the last employees dismissed.

With the closure of the Lithgow smelters also came the cessation of a nearby iron ore mine taken over by the Hoskins in 1907 and used for the smelter.


Lithgow Council bought the wedge-shaped Inch St site in 1988 and opened it to the public as The Lithgow Blast Furnace Park.

Today, visitors can picnic among the remains of the pump house and the furnace foundations.

They can wander freely around the base of the brick chimney stack and walk over great iron bottom plates and the pig bins and even crawl inside the brick material bunker tunnels.

The foundations of No.2 furnace and its four stoves remain, along with the brick base for the chimney stack; the footings for the second Parsons turbo-blower, the rail embankment in the south-west corner, the rail bridge over Inch St and the bolts for the boiler stacks.

Remnants of the third Parsons turbo-blower are still there with the footings for the Thompson engine, other extensions to the engine house, footings of the pig-breaking machinery and footings for its gantries.

And for those who are interested, the faces of Sandford, Thornley and others gaze back at them from the information boards dotted around the site, reminders of Lithgow’s golden age at the forefront of Australia’s industrial revolution.

Sources: Lithgow Public School 1947; Heritage Council of NSW; Draft Economic Development Strategy for Lithgow by Economic and Community Development Class, University of Sydney October 1996; Furnace, Fire & Forge (Light Railway Research Society of Australia Inc); Thornley family archives.