Brick Barrel Drains

Subterranean drains built by the British in NSW

The brick barrel drains discovered beneath Thompson Square are remarkable for being amongst the earliest known subterranean drains built by the British in NSW, with only some drains in Parramatta thought to have been built around the same time. Notably, unlike Parramatta, they were built before the township had developed beyond a rudimentary stage. This demonstrates Governor Macquarie’s vision for Windsor to develop as a major township and as a centre for agriculture and food supply for the settlement (this was prior to the crossing of the Blue Mountains).

Underground drains had been first built in England in the Tudor era but, with industrialisation and the growth of towns, it had become more important to ensure that not just rainwater but all of the filth of the streets was carried away safely to the nearest waterway. A sophisticated network of brick barrel drains dating from the 1750s was recently (2012) uncovered at 100 Minories in London. Most relevant were the tubular brick drains under the 18th century properties, each running towards a brick sewer under the street. Cesspits for individual houses were connected by overflow pipes to these drains, ensuring that wastewaters were contained and disposed of into sewer mains. At this time, this was an up-market housing estate; whilst not typical of London generally, these drains show that installing underground brick sewers was very much the progressive thing to do.

Having established the five ‘Hawkesbury’ towns in 1810, soon after his arrival, it was quickly apparent that Windsor had the greatest potential and Governor Macquarie, charged with the mission of turning the struggling convict settlement into an outpost of British ‘civilisation’, was clearly inclined to ensure that some infrastructure was in place before too much building occurred. Windsor in the early 1800s was still in the time of cesspits and privies, with little attempt at (or knowledge of) public sanitation. Establishing a ‘new’ town, however, presented the opportunity to get the drainage right (unlike so much of the situation back in England); Macquarie’s progressive town planning ideas were as practical as they were ambitious and he commissioned the sewers within two years after defining the site of the future town.

These street drains and sewers carried the overflow of cesspits and the daily disposal of the contents of chamber pots and commodes and were important for ensuring that, in rainy times, contaminated stormwater was carried away from the town and away from the wells and cisterns that supplied water to individual houses. Whether any private buildings or government establishments such as the Military Barracks had drains leading to the street sewers in Windsor in the early days is currently unknown; determining this would be one aim of future archaeology in the vicinity.

Later, particularly after the use of ‘water closets’ became common after the 1830s, houses and buildings were connected directly to the sewers, sending their waste away through the drains to the river. By the 1890s, there were ongoing complaints about the smell and nuisance of the outlet of the sewer near to the ‘punt-house’. Despite the here was little action and these drains served as the sewers for the central part of Windsor till 1939, when the Sewerage Treatment Plant was established at South Windsor and new drains and new sewers were built throughout the town.

Below are some images taken during the archaeological excavations.