Digging up Blackfriars’ industrial heritage
With its old stone ‘schoolhouse’ and research buildings juxtaposed with a state-of-the-art childcare centre, the UTS Blackfriars precinct just off Broadway is renowned for an education legacy that has played out over more than a century. Dig a little further back, though, and a very different story emerges – one that illuminates the early industrial history of the NSW colony.
During March 2019, an archaeologist, environmental scientist and excavator will arrive on site; their mission is to uncover any architectural remnants of that industrial past, when the site housed not Australia’s number one young university but NSW’s second oldest (legal) distillery.
History in the making
Built by former convict Robert Cooper in the 1820s, the Brisbane Distillery consisted of at least three major structures. Despite access to fresh water from the Blackwattle Creek, gin from the distillery was apparently of questionable quality, but given the dozens of pubs springing up in surrounding streets, it may not have mattered too much.
The distillery also produced cordials, rum and whiskey. By the 1850s, rum production had reached a capacity of 3000 gallons per week but financial woes forced the sale of the Blackfriars site to the Colonial Sugar Refining (CSR) Company. CSR remained at Blackfriars until the 1870s, when the industrial buildings were demolished, the site levelled and the state acquired land on the site for the Blackfriars Public School to be built in 1883.
Remains to be seen
But what, if anything, remains of the old distillery?
With the relocation of the Blackfriars Children’s Centre to the other side of the precinct in 2017, the northern end is ripe for redevelopment as a UTS research hub. This means the window of opportunity for archaeological exploration on site is now, before a new structure is built on the site.
The week-long dig will consist of three trenches – the largest measuring around 6 x 3 metres – dug behind the old childcare centre on Buckland St.
“The team will be looking for structural remains – walls, footings, foundations – and evidence of activities carried out there,” says UTS Senior Project Manager Angie Clements. “In days past, they didn’t always excavate; they may have just levelled the land and built on top, so it will be interesting to see what turns up.
“Our consultant team, led by architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer and the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, will guide us on anything that the archaeological explorations find – whether we need to preserve the finds or to interpret them in some way in the design of the new research hub.”
The dig may uncover some surprises. However, AMAC Group archaeologist Jaki Baloh, who will be working on the site, is confident that the potential remains will be relatively intact and able to be readily interpreted.
“While 19th-century Chippendale has a rich industrial history thanks to operations such as the Kent Brewery and Pemell’s Mills, as well as the distillery, this kind of archaeological site is relatively rare in NSW,” Jaki explains.
“The potential archaeological remains have the ability to enhance our understanding of industrial building and steam technology, as well as industrial practices and how these changed over time. They may also expand our knowledge of water resource management, work practices on an early industrial site, and the nature of the original landscape and its modification between 1788 and 1883.
“The potential archaeological remains are of state heritage significance so it’s pretty exciting.”