Swampcore: An environmental history of Marrickville’s boho warehouse district

Exploiting land in Marrickville for profit is a colonial tradition.

Saturday night. You turn off Sydenham Road in Marrickville, winding your way through eerily-deserted side streets. On Fitzroy Street, syncopated breakbeat rhythms rattle the windows of an innocuous warehouse. The lone woman out the front asks you to scarper, looking over your shoulder. 

According to the Marrickville Local Environmental Plan 2011, you are in the heart of what the council terms a light industrial zone.

Semi-trailers line Saywell Street, their cabs empty. Big hunkering skeletons. Come Monday morning, truckies will rock up, Dare iced coffee in hand, cigs behind ears, ready to fill trailers with boxes, pallets and kegs. Just around the corner on Sloane Street, M&J Chickens slaughters roughly 14,000 chickens per day and employs over 100 staff who run deliveries non-stop, Monday to Friday.

Electric guitar riffs and waves of distortion  buffet in the wind, competing with the bass vibrations of a free laneway rave. Somewhere nearby a punk band performs in a matchbox-sized room.

You cut through laneways where graff tags curl around brick walls like shark netting and rubbish spills onto tarmac. It’s a warning, warding off predators who misunderstand the creative micro-utopia hidden within this urban labyrinth. 

Hugging the south side of Sydney’s Inner West, Marrickville is well into the process of gentrification. Real-estate agents flog off mould-infested, three-bedroom terraces for $1000 a week to naive students, while spruiking the suburb as the “new Paddington” or “new Newtown” to yoga enthusiasts and marketing executives.

At the same time, a few struggling creatives still pay cheap rent in communal living spaces, making homes, sesh dens and studios in the urban ruins, laneways and warehouses near Sydenham Station.

Across the last thirty years, lease-holders and residents, alongside outside event organisers, have thrown raves, band nights and mid-week exhibitions regularly with little consideration for licensing laws, sound limits and OH&S.

Although COVID-19 has led many worn-out creatives to turn their backs on events, what artistic production still occurs often flies under the radar. There’s a reason for this. Without wishing to be specific (for obvious reasons), some events inhabit a legal grey space, and it’s no secret that open drug consumption – keys on the dancefloor, nang bars, that kind of thing – is socially accepted and normalised in these spaces.

The need for secrecy means that the stories and history of this area fall between the cracks, evading media scrutiny and state archives. It’s all very hush hush. It’s vital for the prosperity of DIY culture. But there’s an unfortunate disconnect from the past. Knowledge of the area’s history is hardly widespread among the goths, e-girls, eshays and dread-locked wooks who frequent Marrickville’s underground creative spaces.

Questions of whose land this is and what ecosystems we have altered in the pursuit of industry are important. As we numb ourselves into drug-fuelled stupor or rejoice that community persists in this culturally-vapid city, we also party on stolen land.

In Marrickville, these questions have a tendency of rearing their head at unexpected moments. But they should be predictable – the frustrating end result of settler colonialism and late stage capitalism. Marrickville’s boho warehouse district, built over a swamp, has witnessed 200 years of perpetual flooding, capitalist greed and class conflict, and we still haven’t learned our lessons.

It’s an ecological shitshow.

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Exploiting land in Marrickville for profit is a colonial tradition. It’s embedded in the very origins of the suburb.

For much of the nineteenth century, Marrickville was an impassable swamp, skirted by mudflats, mangroves, the creatively-named Swamp Road (now Sydenham Road) and, on its southern side, the Cooks River. The size of Gumbramorra Swamp fluctuated significantly, depending upon rainfall and weather patterns.

Of course, it was not a ‘swamp’ to everyone. Nature is socially constructed. It doesn’t exist out there as a purely physical environment. Nature is in here, in our minds and collective memory. The invaders labelled the expanse a swamp, not a wilderness, creek, or estuary. In their eyes, it was ugly and infertile, a barrier to farming and urban development. Aboriginal people, meanwhile, continued to live in the valley and read the landscape. The waterways provided important resources – black shelled mussels, shellfish and eels. In the early years of the Sydney settlement, Indigenous resistance fighters including Pemulwuy used the rushes and bogs around present-day Marrickville to evade capture.

The Cooks River region reinforces the recent turn in historiography which emphasises the prolonged presence of Aboriginal people in Sydney. In Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney, Paul Irish counters the myth that, between the 1820s and 1880s, Aboriginal people disappeared, died out, or lived only within fringe camps on Sydney’s outskirts. Rather, they used “mental maps” of familiar and dangerous zones to navigate colonial society, inhabited coastal areas that had not yet become white neighbourhoods, and established cross-cultural relationships with sympathetic locals. 

This was a form of checkerboard segregation. In colonial diaries, pencil sketches and artworks, observers noticed Aboriginal people using the Cooks River waterways and valley until at least the late 1860s. In the 1830s, for example, the Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Walker recorded Aboriginal people in bark canoes spearing fish on the Cooks River near what is now Marrickville Golf Course. “We were swamp walkers”, Dharawal elder Aunty Fran Bodkin has told historian Sue Castrique. This area was a refuge for its original inhabitants.

But that refuge didn’t last. Gumbramorra Swamp and the Cooks River, which provides Marrickville’s southern border, were both quickly polluted.

By the late 1860s, one of the key resources for Aboriginal groups in the area had disappeared altogether. In a submission to the Royal Commission on Oyster Culture 1876-1877, WJ Langham, the Inspector of Oyster Beds in Sydney, revealed that the Cooks River was “totally devoid of oysters. The mollusc was once plentiful in it, but it has not been worked in nine or ten years”. Meanwhile, the commercial harvesting of oysters in the Georges River continued unabated, suggesting that the ecosystems of the Cooks River were disrupted especially early. Sydney’s burgeoning population feasted on oysters – a mouth-watering treat. In 1838, Albion’s Coffee House publicised “oysters (fresh from Cook’s River) stewed and cold” in local papers. But the depletion of oyster beds can be linked more directly to the local building industry, which used oysters to create lime, a predecessor to cement mortar.

Settler shell-hunters first concentrated on oyster shells from Aboriginal middens exposed along the banks of the Cook’s River, relying, like countless early explorers and pioneers, on the paths and landscape modifications of the country’s original inhabitants. They also scampered across rocks in pursuit of their own deposits in fits of thirst-crazed oyster-fever. Eventually, they dredged tidal flats for mud oysters.

In 1881, a tramway was constructed on the western edge of Gumbramorra Swamp – now Victoria Road in Marrickville. Even though it was common knowledge among locals that the area flooded, surveyors, sensing a feeding frenzy, moved in with circumferentors, pencils, maps, and fence palings, attempting to tame the swamp with straight lines and cadastral grids. In the 1880s and 1890s, Marrickville was transformed from a rural nirvana – a leisure retreat with grand estates, market gardens, dairy farms, and timber camps – to a densely-populated working class neighbourhood.

The stone cottage of the Meek family on Harriett Street in Marrickville, circa 1880s. The house was originally built in 1860. Marrickville and its surrounds including Wardell’s Bush (Dulwich Hill) Undercliffe and Forest Hill (Earlwood) remained largely wood-covered until the rapid urban development of the 1880s and 1890s. This photo reflects the verdant appearance of Marrickville at a transitionary point in time when the suburb was on the cusp of deforestation and urbanisation. Image courtesy: State Library of New South Wales.
The Tramvale subdivision. Image courtesy: State Library of New South Wales.

Thomas Saywell drew the first plan for the housing subdivision called Tramvale. He sold the estate to three Sydney businessmen: Mathias Bohrsmann, Henry French, and William Shirlow. The trio created further subdivisions, fashioning 160 allotments in total. One month later, these postage-stamp sized allotments went to market. The land was cheap. It was also at the heart of the swamp.

1881 was a drought year. 

Over subsequent years, the waterways continually revolted, taking prisoners. They seemed to burst like ruptured stitches, uncontainable.

Tramvale was notorious for its frequent flooding, stench, and polluted waters. When floodwaters receded, they left behind a reeking dark coat of waste from tanneries and boiling down works upstream. Sewerage flowed into the valley, unregulated. On 17 July 1888, the Sydney Morning Herald declared Marrickville the “home of typhoid” in Sydney. Writing in 1894 for the Evening News, one journalist detailed the customary method of alighting from the train at Illawarra Road to reach the Marrickville Council Chambers: “holding one’s nose” and “bolting” down the street “at a double”. According to the Daily Telegraph, Marrickville was a “marsh in winter, a place of puddles and fog and all manner of chest and lung infections, and in summer a spot where fever lurks and mosquitoes and winged vermin do congregate.”

According to the Evening News, the smell from one drain literally clung to those who passed it. “The concentrated essence of stench arising from this disgustingly filthy apology for a streamlet is not only vile in its repugnance to the nasal sense while in its vicinity”, the paper reported, it also tainted clothes “so that the effluvia is most forcibly brought to recollection long after the scene is distanced.” 

Marrickville Council had approved the construction of this 2 mile long channel only several months prior – in 1887 – to reroute waste from the Marrickville Tannery and Boot Manufactory to the Cook’s River, but “coarse rushes” in the drain trapped chemical run-off, hide scraps and excess fats from the leather factory. Since the drain ended upstream of the Tempe dam, waste could make its way back up the river to the Gumbramorra Swamp and beyond during floods. 

A 286-strong petition, condemning the drain as an inadequate solution, fell on deaf ears. 

The worst flooding occurred in late May 1889 when 432 millimetres of rain hit Marrickville in a single weekend. By way of comparison, rainfall at Observatory Hill in Sydney for the entire year in 2021 was 1290.2 millimetres.

“Tramvale was turned into a huge lake”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. “Nothing but the tops of fences, the tufts of trees and the roofs of huts and houses was visible.” In some parts, the waters were 9 to 10 feet deep.

While the sight and smell of a flooded Tramvale was horrific, for some the sound of repairs became a source of comfort. After the 1889 flood, The Daily Telegraph reported that “the recent phenomenal rainfall has, no doubt, brought gladness to the heart of many a labourer to whom ordinary avenues of employment were closed… The sound of the saw and chisel and the pick and shovel will be heard in the land for months to come, and the song of workmen at their toil will mingle with a deep diapason of malediction from roofless and involuntary employers.”

Some historians like Michael Cathcart, Diane Collins, and Peter Denney assert that colonial-era writers were obsessed with the notion of “bringing civilised sound and redeeming song to a timeless, silent land”. One haunting sound came to define Australian wilderness in the national imagination: a sound of emptiness, stasis and death. It was silence. It was terra nullius.

The invaders filled the pages of their diaries and newspapers with descriptions of eerily quiet forests and silent deserts. Sometimes disconcerting native animal cries shattered the serenity, but generally there was only muted background noise on the frontier. Of course, the land was never really silent. That’s just how the invaders chose to describe it. They sensorially disciplined the land with selective memory. Looking to the future, they hoped to transform Australia’s alien soundscapes into something more familiar. They yearned for the thud of axes on wood, the jangle of horse bridles, the lowing of cattle and the crack of stock whips. They coveted any auditory confirmation of progress.

That some people were even able to find a silver lining in Tramvale’s constant flooding tells us a lot. Unable to gloss over the impoverished scene before them, chroniclers shifted their gaze and found a new focus point. They sold themselves a new story. Tramvale was not a failure but a victory – for modernism, working class resilience, and human ingenuity. Behind all these actions lurked a sound – or more precisely a lack of sound – so intimidating that it overpowered everything: the bellow of silence.

Letting Mother Nature claim Tramvale was simply not an option. For some, though they probably did not want to admit it, the distress of Tramvale’s residents over the loss of material possessions and housing was second to the distress and deep-buried guilt of occupying stolen land. Civilised sound, then, was an attractive prospect.

*  *  *

From the late 1890s, authorities began to oversee the construction of the stormwater drains, aqueducts and drainage pits we recognise today. The swamp was drained. Much of Tramvale was designated for industry and manufacturing, although many residents chose to stay in houses that flooded every few years. 

Marrickville and neighbouring Sydenham became part of an industrial belt stretching from Alexandria to Botany. Wool mills, pottery workshops, brick pits and automotive factories dominated the Marrickville skyline. Marrickville became Sydney’s premiere brickmaking site. In 1888, Johnston Brothers was producing up to 300,000 bricks per week. Today, Inner West libraries hold locally-produced bricks – crude, heavy souvenirs (trophies?) of dispossession and environmental degradation – in their archives as realia.

As the brickmaking industry waned, locals let the brick pits, usually located beside or atop natural waterholes, fill with water. They also used these barren moonscapes as garbage dumps. In 1897, the Daily Telegraph reported:

Garbage was being deposited on a piece of vacant land, with the object of filling up a number of clay pits. No attempt appeared to have been made to cover the refuse, and a very offensive smell arose from the tip…. Water, polluted by its passage through the garbage flowed into an open drain, which in its turn, passed through the most thickly populated parts of the borough.

In her essay ‘On the margins of the good swamp’, Sue Castrique reflects on settler amnesia. Prompted by her own shock discovery of a creek below the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, she investigates the concrete stormwater catacombs below Marrickville. “Just as the creeks became known as drains, so the waterholes were stripped of any understanding that they were part of a wetland”, she writes. “Names were erased, and soon the ‘old swamplands’ were no longer even known as Gumbramorra”. Today, contemporary flood maps of Marrickville mirror the locations of historical creeks. It’s a question of language once again. “Have we been inundated by a flash flood?” Castrique asks, “Or are we fording an ancient creek that has risen again?”

The Standsure Brickworks in Marrickville, 1922. Image courtesy: Marrickville Council Library and History Services.
Speare’s Brickworks in St Peters, circa 1891, an eco-apocalyptic landscape. Image courtesy: Marrickville Council Library and History Services.

Tramvale, and the subsequent industrial area it became, sit smack bang in the middle of what is now Marrickville’s boho warehouse district. This region also used to be the heart of Gumbramorra Swamp. Probably. The precise locations of the swamp’s boundaries are still debated. Those benign founding fathers Thomas Saywell and William Shirlow gifted their names to the very streets – Saywell Street and Shirlow Street – where iconic warehouses and BYO venues have appeared. Two Flies, Dirty Shirlows. As much as we want to, we can’t seem to shake off the past.

In early February 2020, water overran the Marrickville warehouse district particularly badly. Water infiltrated bedrooms on the second level at the Sashimi warehouse on Fitzroy Street as a result of a “dodgy roof”, leaving behind sodden, mould-caked surfaces, according to Lachlan Waterhouse, a resident and musician there at the time. At ground level, the building flooded. Mothership Studios, meanwhile, lost audio gear to the water. Lachlan recollects looking out the window from a friend’s room at Mothership: “It looked like Venice. Skip bins were floating down the road and cars were getting flooded. You could have ridden a gondola down the streets”. That torrent of sticky resistance was surely a reminder: this is Gumbramorra Swamp territory. This is marginal land.

This is not your land.

At the end of its life, just before COVID hit and the building was sold, Two Flies flooded. There was a foot of water where the dance floor used to be. It must have been as if the ground itself was moving, fighting back. As the sloppy mess pooled, Two Flies keeled precariously like a ship in stormy seas. Weighed down by the load of over a century of colonial greed and a global pandemic, the vessel that had transported thousands of party people to another dimension eventually capsized. There wasn’t even time to launch the lifeboats.

*  *  *

It’s easy to corral our ancestors into a corner using our contemporary standards as cow prodders. But the farmer and environmental historian Eric Rolls has fought back against perceptions that the colonisers were simply “greedy or ignorant” when it came to environmental care. In his eyes, it was “beyond human achievement to assess this land correctly” because Australia was for them “more a new planet than a new continent”.

Undoubtedly profit maximisation drove the sale of land in Tramvale, which should never have become a residential area in the first place. Capitalist greed was a formidable power. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, locals also wrote to Marrickville Council, attended town hall meetings and created petitions in which they lamented the sight of maggots, dead fish, and grease on the weed-filled banks of the Cooks River, as well as the stench of the streams and creeks which branched off from it. It seems unlikely that individual health concerns and financial anxiety alone stimulated community unease.

While Gumbramorra Swamp was only ever an obstacle and an inconvenience, is it possible that the invaders developed an emotional connection with the Cooks River? Is it possible that the pitiful state of Marrickville’s waterways engendered in some locals a deeper spiritual sadness? Is it possible, perhaps, that some grew to appreciate the river on Marrickville’s doorstep? 

If so, they were too few in number and too trapped within the cogs of the capitalist machine to turn things around for the polluted river.

Eric Rolls wanted Australians to appreciate the agency and dynamism of our natural environments. In his ground-breaking writing, Rolls demonstrated that settlers were both capable of immense environmental desecration and subject to the whims of Australia’s alien lands and creatures. Following this thread of thought, we begin to see trees and rivers as agents of historical change. Rolls’ wilderness is not pristine and untouched, but “feral, mongrel and hybrid”, as Tom Griffiths writes in The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft. It’s also enchanting. Alive even. 

Rolls mostly wrote about Australia’s forests and grasslands, but this vision of nature “feral, mongrel and hybrid” can be equally applied to the swamps, mudflats, and waterways now buried beneath Marrickville. Those murky depths swirl underfoot, defying linearity. They’re an indeterminate zone – not quite land and not quite water – hidden away but never contained. Ready to retaliate.

It’s not the tide of progress that defines Marrickville but the swamp of history. The past expands and contracts, circulating sometimes as a dribble and at other times a torrent. Oftentimes, it feels like the suburb is trapped within a time loop of perpetual flooding and class conflict.