The Obelisk in Hyde Park at the intersection of Elizabeth and Bathurst Streets is celebrating its 150th anniversary making it the oldest structure in the park and perhaps Sydney’s oldest working piece of public infrastructure.
The Obelisk, opened in December 1857, was the first and only major sewer vent on Sydney’s first planned sewerage system. It was built to eliminate noxious gases from the sewer by bringing the foul gases out above street level.
Councilor Phillip Black, Deputy Chair of the City’s Environment and Heritage Committee, said today that the obelisk, modeled on Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames in London, made a valuable contribution to the streetscape and to Hyde Park itself.
“Hyde Park is Australia’s oldest park and the beautiful Egyptian-style obelisk adds to its charm. The City of Sydney’s $37 million master plan for Hyde Park will ensure that both the park and the obelisk are preserved for generations to come.”
The City’s plans for Hyde Park detail a ten-year program of works, including replacing seriously diseased trees, remediation of contaminated soil, potentially building the originally planned cascade at the back of the ANZAC Memorial and improving park monuments. Works also include upgrading park entrances, paths, lawns, seats and bins.
“The Obelisk was unveiled in December 1857 by the then Lord Mayor, George Thornton. It gives me great pleasure, 150 years later, to celebrate his great achievement. We are merely passing through history. The Obelisk is history.” Clr Black said.
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History of the Hyde Park Obelisk
Ventilation of Sydney’s sewers began in the 1850s, and was considered a major innovation at the time. It was originally introduced to protect sewage workers from the accumulation of poisonous gases
The first planned sewerage system in the City of Sydney was completed in 1857. The City Engineer’s Annual Report on the sewerage system works noted that the ventilation shaft and sewer were “Satisfactorily completed on the 11th December 1857. The Obelisk was unveiled by then Lord Mayor, George Thornton, later that month and dedicated by him.”
The Obelisk was the first major sewer vent constructed in Sydney and NSW, and is the only vent shaft partly built of sandstone
The Obelisk was the only means of ventilating what was then called the Bennelong Sewerage System, construction of which commenced in 1850 and was completed in 1892
Initially the whole Bennelong System was a combined wastewater/stormwater system, which all drained to an outlet on the northern point of Bennelong Point (under where the Opera House now stands).
After the Bondi Ocean Outfall Sewer System was built in the late 1880s all the dry weather flows were diverted to Bondi Sewage Treatment Plant. Wet weather flows still flowed to the harbour via the outlet at Bennelong Point
The Obelisk’s overall structure is 22 metres high, comprised of a square sandstone base 6.5 metres high with a tapered rendered upper section cupped by a filigreed bronze pyramid shaped vent.
One account from 1894 noted: “The Obelisk causes a splendid draft in Pitt-street sewer – the foreman reports it is difficult to keep a candle alight when working in same. The work done by the small staff is considerable (the staff consisting of a plumber and a youth.”
Work began in 1965 to separate the wastewater from the stormwater. New wastewater pipes were constructed and the original Bennelong System became a stormwater system, draining all the area north of Bathurst Street, east of George Street, west of Macquarie Street and north of Alfred Street.
Thornton’s Scent Bottle
The obelisk on Elizabeth Street is one of the earliest monuments recording the beneficence of a Sydney mayor.
The City Council approved its construction in June 1857.
The Obelisk was unveiled in December 1857 by the then Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, George Thornton (the exact date of the official opening has been lost in the mists of time.)
A newspaper report said: “George Thornton, Mayor, was the lion of that day. After the speeches he was carried on the shoulders of stalwart men to Simpson’s Hotel which stood about midway between Bathurst and Liverpool Streets.”
However, soon the joke around town was to call it ‘Thornton’s Scent Bottle’.
Modelled on Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames in London, the Obelisk is today better known as the oldest monument within Hyde Park than as part of the sewerage system.
It is notable also for its contribution to the streetscape of Sydney providing a focal point at the intersection of Bathurst and Elizabeth Streets.
In recognition of the importance of this early vent shaft to the people of Sydney and New South Wales, the Obelisk was entered on the NSW State Heritage Register on 15 November 2002.
Today it celebrates its sesqui-centenary.