A Deep Dive Into the Cooks River

Through the process of creating my historical project on the Cooks River, the thing that struck me the most was how much I personally learnt about the place that I grew up next to. Obviously I had a basic understanding on some of the history that is centred upon the Cooks River. I knew that it had an important Indigenous history from doing a walking tour when I was younger. The tour guide explained all the Aboriginal uses for the flora and fauna around the river, for medicine and food as well as for building huts – and this knowledge was something that informed my project. With that obviously comes European invasion, so I felt that I had to highlight the events that happened with colonial development around the Cooks River. However, it was the little historical stories that I read that left me spellbound – from the fact that limestone was not available for building houses in the early 1800s and how oyster middens provided lime and mortar instead, to learning about how the river was once so clean that visitors used its water to make tea!

Source: A group of young people picnic on the banks of the Cooks River. Courtesy of Patricia Cook and City of Canterbury Local History Photograph Collection. Canterbury Council, 1920s circa.

The form I chose for presenting my research was to create a webpage on the Cooks River Alliance’s website, under their ‘learn more’ tab. I still have more work to do, such as commissioning the artwork and working further with my organisation to ensure the webpage is what they want. So, the form my project ended up taking for the course was a mock-up of what the website will hopefully look like. The webpage will consist of a timeline from around the mid-1700s up until current times and is an informational and educational source for the greater public to learn more about what the Cooks River has provided in terms of its historical impact on the city of Sydney and the communities who are part of the geographical locale.

What I feel is unique about my project is that there has not yet been a thorough and conclusive timeline on the Cooks River. Online, the Dictionary of Sydney which has multiple webpages on the Cooks River but it is not centred in the one place. As well, the addition of my father’s watercolours for the webpage, as symbolic guidance to each historical event that includes the river, will differentiate it from other historical projects – making it a piece of visual history.

The argument I am attempting to present with my project is that the Cooks River, a river that has often been called a variety of not so flattering names, and as a public space, has only just recently returned to being a spot for recreation, deserves its stories to be told and to be heralded as an important place within the history of Sydney. This includes looking at how it shaped the development and progress of suburbanisation, industrialisation and leisure.

The river also reveals a lot about the people who lived around it, what their interests were; for example, the illegal boxing matches in the early 1800s, and what they metaphorically fought for, such as the outbreak of typhoid in 1894 that led to an outcry from the public regarding pollution in the river. These mementos of history shine a light on the historical depth of Sydney itself and provide a stronger connection to place and belonging, something I feel is needed as a resident of the Cooks River community.

Source: ‘Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer’. Courtesy of T Clayton and State Library of New South Wales, 1848.

The significance of my project is that it captures not only the previous history of the river but will serve as a watermark for the river’s progression into the future, environmentally and societally. Many changes are occurring with the river currently and it will be interesting to see in ten years or more how else it has evolved. I think it is important for the Cooks River Alliance, which is a council-run organisation, to acknowledge the river’s history on their website, including both the negative and positive aspects. They must be aware of what has come before and disclose all facets of the river’s past to be able to move forward and aptly shape the river’s current role in the history of Sydney.

Source: ‘Cook’s River Dam’. Courtesy of the American & Australasian Photographic Company and the State Library of New South Wales, 1871.

Upstream: The Cooks River Alliance

The Cooks River holds a special place in my heart. I strongly feel that I grew up alongside its cluttered depths; elusively beautiful, in that sometimes it glittered blue and other times smelt like rubbish, I made some of my first ever friends at the Ewen Park playground which sits next to the river. My first birthday parties were had at the BBQ areas and picnic tables that were anchored alongside the river, and even my father, an artist, has painted extensively about exploring the Cooks River area as an immigrant.

Source: ‘Take Me To The River’ Oil on Canvas by Dmitry Kuznichenko, accessed: https://dmitrykuznichenko.com/cooks-river-theme/#bwg2/37

That’s why I chose to reach out to the Cooks River Alliance. The Cooks River Alliance is run by all the councils who share the land with the Cooks River. They are an informational and educational resource for the community to become aware and up to date on the environmental issues the Cooks River has. They also run events and talks with notable community figures such as Ian Tyrell and Jennifer Newman, an Indigenous educator. The website also features extensive Indigenous oral histories and published research papers on the Cooks River Catchment’s Aboriginal History. I believe these resources will be a great starting point for me in capturing the legacy of the Cadigal and Wangal peoples who were the first inhabitants of the Cooks River.

Cooks River Alliance’s website also features a call to action to help the river with ‘ten ways you can lower the environmental degradation of the Cooks River’, as well as multiple community groups you can join including the ‘Mudcrabs’ who do rubbish pick-ups along the river. Much to my dismay when I was growing, up my mother used to drag me to ‘Mudcrabs’ meetings. As I grew older though, I became to appreciate the community spirit and the practice of acting locally for the sake of global environmental change.

When I went onto the Cooks River Alliance’s website, however, I could feel a distinct lack of a page that details its historical roots. That’s why I felt that I could help them assemble a section of their website dedicated to the uses and community perception of the river over time.

I felt so blessed when Catarina Fraga Matos, the Cooks River Alliance’s Communications Project Officer, mirrored my enthusiasm and could see a need for displaying snapshots of the river’s history. We agreed on a live webpage that succinctly captures the history of the river, detailing how the community used and responded to the river over time.

It’s difficult in that there are already a few timelines of the river available online. I want to make mine unique in that it has multiple purposes: to educate, to inspire and to capture the attention of the viewer. Aesthetic awareness is important to me – so I hope to include an artistic element to the webpage. I would love to have a watercolour drawing of the river running down the page as you scroll, changing shape as you move over time and having new symbolic elements pop up as you continue, leading to more information.

It will be interesting to see how the project takes shape and whether I will be able to actualise what I envisage. I will end with Anna Clark’s sentiment which inspires what I want to capture in my project: “Place literally locates our individual and collective historical consciousness in the world around us. Family, community and national narratives are bound by the places in which they play out.”[1]

Source: City of Canterbury Library, Earlwood’s Past 2014 accessed:

[1] Anna Clark, Private Lives, Public History (MUP, 2016), p. 117.