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Water supply and sewerage in Beecroft and Cheltenham

The growth of a community like Beecroft/Cheltenham can be charted in many ways; through the lives of the settlers and other early residents, through the building of its homes, shops and public spaces, through the many collective activities of its citizens and, not least, through the development of its infrastructure, the mesh of facilities and services that distinguish a community from a number of isolated buildings.

Communication networks for the telegraph and telephone, (and now for cable) transportation via roads, railway lines and public footpaths, and the provision of water and sewerage, gas and electricity add immensely to quality of life, and make each dwelling a node in an intricate grid of paths and pipes and wires.

For early residents of the area, water for drinking, cooking and washing (and sometimes for firefighting) was free but took some effort to collect, Rainwater tanks hung from most buildings and many householders drove wells into the porous sandstone beneath their feet, lining the pits with ricks. Elsewhere in Sydney, many citizens were beginning to enjoy the benefit of reticulated water, brought by pipes and not dependent on unreliable rainfall, Prospect Reservoir was completed in 1888, drawing water from newly-built dams on the Upper Nepean, but its outflow took a decade to reach Beecroft/Cheltenham.

A pumping station was operational at West Ryde (driven initially by steam engines) from 1892.

Three years later water was passing through mains from Ryde to Chatswood and thence to Wahroonga, supplying the North Shore communities. Progress associations began to make a fuss, demanding that the growing settlements along the railway line from Ryde to Hornsby have the same privilege. The push gained momentum from the support of prominent local citizens, such as Melbourne Green, the accountant to the Water Board, responsible for the supply.

By November 1896, work was underway on pipes to bring water from Wahroonga to Thornleigh, Pennant Hills and beyond. During late 1897, residents in Beecroft were engaging plumbers to connect them to the new amenity, beginning in Hannah Street and Copeland Road. Not everyone could afford to link up (and so had to continue to cart water in times of low rainfall), so the Progress Association arranged for a public “standpipe” to be built in the backyard of Thomas Stobo’s general store in Hannah Street. From May 1898, water could be bought there for a shilling for a thousand gallons, though the system reputedly leaked a lot and people got less water than they paid for.

Gradually the network of mains spread, reaching the Public School in 1898, penetrating into Cheltenham from 1899, servicing the railway station by 1900 and extending into Welham Street by 1903. By 1907, the community had its own reservoir, with water pumped directly from Ryde rather than the long way round via Chatswood and Wahroonga. Visits to the newly-completed 30 metre high reservoir (with its 18,000 rivets) were a popular school outing. Nowadays of course, every house can have a connection and ample fresh clean water is seen as an inevitable component of civilization.

It took much longer for access to a sewer to gain the same status. Densely populated areas nearer to the CBD had been progressively “put on the sewer” since the 1860s, but the program did not run to outlying suburbs like ours. To deal with human waste, our pioneers relied on cesspits, simply deep holes like a long-drop dunny, with an outhouse built on top. All-but-raw effluent could drain from them into nearby creeks or neighbouring properties, where it could foul the water in wells. By this time, we knew the link between contaminated drinking water and diseases like typhoid, and a better solution was needed, especially as the local population grew. Householders could chose between the newly invented ‘septic tank’, in which the wastes were substantially degraded by bacteria before seeping away, and the ultimately iconic ‘pan system’ , with the ‘night-soil man’ collecting a drum of waste from the convenience near each back fence and carrying it by horse and cart to a depot at Thornleigh. The former was too modern and expensive for all but the wealthiest residents; in consequence, the pan system remained a familiar feature of life for decades.

Beecroft and Cheltenham joined the modern world of sewerage only in the 1960s. The rocky and uneven terrain was a major challenge, met by laying the sewer mains on flat low-lying ground such as the banks of Devlins Creek so the wastes would drain mostly by gravity from sewer lines buried under streets and backyards. By the 1970s, the pan man was out of business, and the wastes of Beecroft and Cheltenham were joining the flood of effluent from all over Sydney pouring into the sea at Botany, Bondi and North Head. The 20th Century had arrived.