Tucked away amongst trees and homes between Riverside Crescent and Ewart Street Marrickville is a body of water.
Home to bird and animal species as well as native flora it is called Dibble Avenue Waterhole. Its name derives from the avenue which is the only real access for the general public. This is probably just as well as the waterhole is actually a brick pit, the last open brick pit in Marrickville, and they have a terrible history of drownings in our area.
It has been a site of significance for hundreds if not thousands of years. But today it gets its name from a hole full of water on a street that was only laid out in the 1920s.
The site’s history before European settlers colonised the area is not well known. But Frances Bodkin, a D’harawal woman of the Bidigal clan, and renowned educator, botanist and author spoke about it at a 2005 Sorry Day gathering in Marrickville. She said that the waterhole was a special women’s place where the clay was used to treat morning sickness and other stomach complaints, as well as diarrhoea. Ms Bodkin said that “there was a little spring there and the clay used to bubble up with the water”. She also noted that “the little spring was still there – waiting…”
With all the excavating that has gone on since the 1880s there is no obvious evidence of this spring. In fact, it has been difficult to find any acknowledgment of it from colonial sources or by council and heritage reports in recent times.
However, a search will find it – waiting. The real estate map produced for the sale of Moffatt’s estate in 1884 (see above and below) shows a creek running down from James Berry’s market gardens across Terrace Road (now Ewart Street) and into allotments 9 and 10. This creek is shown coming from around where Wicks Street is today and is large enough to require a culvert on the road; once on to lot 10 it simply disappears. Lots 10, 11 and 19 on this map were purchased by the Toyers whose brick pit would become the waterhole. Could this creek have fed the spring and continue to feed into the waterhole today?
The waterhole has recently been repaired by the Inner West Council and workers have noticed that, when dug into, the walls on the northern side near Ewart Street are “wet” compared to the walls on the south side near Cook’s River which are “dry”. This implies that water is continuously seeping down into the waterhole from the north rather than from infrequent flooding from Cook’s River in the south, which has long been assumed.
The spring may have been obliterated by the diggings but a presence still remains.
The European occupation of this site follows the usual course for all the lands in our area. Claimed by the British Crown and then controlled by the Governor, it was given to Thomas Moore, colonial boat builder. Moore then sold it to Robert Wardell whose death in 1834 saw his estate divided amongst his three sisters. They then sold it off, and it was purchased by Thomas De Lacy Moffatt in 1855.
Moffatt never actually lived here. He arrived from Ireland in 1844 to learn how to make his way in the world with the help of his uncle, Captain Robert Moffatt, who was doing the same thing via military service. Thomas headed to Queensland shortly after arrival and became a squatter on lands there. With wealth he became a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly and colonial treasurer.
Why did he buy land in Marrickville? Speculation? Moffatt died suddenly and intestate in 1864. It took many years for administrators to sort out the estate and sell this land.
By the time they did, Marrickville was becoming more heavily populated and small businesses were springing up. The person who bought the area we are interested in was a brickmaker called John Blamire. The Blamires were a significant family amongst the small-scale brickmakers of Marrickville. (See Marrickville Unearthed website for their story). By 1880, when John bought this land, the Blamires were getting out of the brickmaking profession. Industrialisation had changed the business but perhaps John, with his practiced eye for clay deposits, saw a speculative opportunity here.
Toyer’s brick pit
John Blamire purchased several lots including 10, 11 and 19 in October 1880 for 79 pounds. Three months later he sold just the three lots for 250 pounds. When another brickmaking family, the Toyers, purchased the three lots in 1887 they paid 525 pounds. Marrickville’s boom times were well underway.
Patriarch, George Toyer came to NSW from Luton, south-east England in 1855. He came as an assisted immigrant on the ‘Blenheim’, listed as a mason’s labourer or an agricultural labourer. In fact, he was a brickmaker, who had worked for his father since childhood.
George arrived aged 21 with his wife Emma (26) and her two children, Elizabeth (7) and Fanny (1). At a time when childbirth was far more dangerous than today it was common for widowed men with children to remarry. George and Emma’s marriage was not so common.
They would have ten children together, finally settling in Tempe, where George established his own brickworks. Helping him in the business from an early age were his seven sons. George was to have trouble over his use of child labour and went before a Royal Commission in 1876 to defend the practice (see Employment of Children on the St Peters Cook’s River History Group site).
Two sons didn’t want to be brickmakers. Son number 3, Arthur, trained as an engineer and worked at the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Son number 4, James, began a nursery at his father’s Tempe house (demolished) before moving to San Souci and developing a very large business, becoming a prominent member of the community including mayor.
It was brothers George junior and John Robert, along with their wives Sarah and Mary Caroline (the Evans sisters), who purchased the land at Marrickville.
By 1887 the boom meant a lot of Marrickville estates had been subdivided and sold as lots. Houses, mostly of brick, had sprung up very quickly.
While most bricks were still made by hand (called sandstock bricks), mechanisation had rapidly expanded. The Toyers made sandstocks but they also did use some mechanisation on a small scale (see Building Blocks of Empire).
The small scale of their operation was a problem for the Toyers but, a bigger one was that they arrived at the end of the property boom. It was actually a property market collapse that led to the worst depression in Australian history. The depression peaked in 1893 and John Robert, being responsible for the company, was declared bankrupt in 1894. He would not clear his bankruptcy until 1907.
The collapse of the company brought an end to the Toyer’s involvement in brickmaking in Marrickville. It also was the end of the brick pit which was now abandoned.
George junior and Sarah moved to Portland where George tried his hand at a number of jobs, including gold mining and lime quarrying. He eventually ended up back in the brickmaking business managing the brickworks for the Commonwealth Cement Company. As pioneers in the town, George and Sarah were heavily involved in community organisations and when George died the Portland primary school flew their flag at half-mast. Eleven Toyer children had passed through the school and George had been on the P&C for 30 years.
In the meantime, John had begun to clear his debts and entered the dairy industry. However, it seems he too could not get away from brickworks with his first dairy being in May Street, St Peters, the site of Goodsell’s and later Speare’s brickworks (now Camdenville Park). Then in 1906 the family moved to a house (demolished) in Beauchamp Street on land around today’s Pigott Lane and Henson Street, and less than a kilometre from his old brick pit. John Robert established the Royal Dairy and set about making a name for himself in the production of high quality milk with varying success. He died in 1949.
The next major name in our story is George Ernest Dibble. Son of George, father of George William, George was a local lad who married Emmellie (Ellie) Craig at St Stephen’s in Newtown in 1903. He was a builder who would go on to be president of the Canterbury Bankstown Master Builders Association and later the Vice President of the NSW Master Builders Association. Emmellie and George eventually settled into a house he had built in Warren Road (they called it ‘Ellieville’) and George got on with developing Marrickville. Unlike the Toyer brothers his timing was good. Marrickville was going through another building boom after WW1 and he was very busy in our area as well as further east (Randwick) and south (Coogee).
In 1922 George purchased Lots 7 and 8 of the Moffatt Estate (see map above) from the Pilgrim family. Robert Pilgrim was another pioneering patriarch and the family a significant one in the early days of Marrickville. Robert had died in 1915 and left it to his sons to deal with his estate which included a number of lots on the Moffatt Estate. We shall learn more of the Pilgrims later.
Meanwhile, George was a man in a hurry; he was tendering for road makers just one day after the Moffatt Estate purchase in March and had sold his first property by June. In all, he built 12 houses on the land with a road (Dibble Avenue) down the middle. He managed to sell six of the properties by the end of 1922 and all of them within 14 months.
The houses were advertised by George as examples of “fine modern bungalows”. They had four rooms (three bedrooms), a “right up to date” kitchen, and “sat in a good position close to trains, trams and buses”. And significantly, they had a “car entrance”. These were modern homes for relatively prosperous people. At a time when the average wage was between 200 and 300 pounds a year George was selling these houses “from 1075 pounds”.
Of the 12 houses he built, two of the four that faced Ewart Street still exist; numbers 52 and number 58. Six of the Dibble Avenue houses remain intact or with slight changes. One has been significantly altered and one demolished. George’s fingerprints are still all over this street.
While he had done well out of the building boom, the good times were not to last. The 1930s were hard times for builders and George survived by renting houses he could not sell. Emmellie had died in 1928 and George remarried in 1931 to Clara Welshman. Like many successful Marrickvillians at the time, they moved to Earlwood and George died there in 1955.
The Pilgrim’s father, Robert, had emigrated to Australia in the same year (1855) and at the same age (21) as George Toyer. Robert was also an assisted immigrant listed as an agricultural worker and this time it was true.
Robert’s future wife, Lucy May Bush, also arrived in 1855 at the age of 21 with the Cole family, listed as a housemaid. The Coles were to move to Marrickville where it may be assumed Lucy met Robert.
Whatever work Robert secured on his arrival in NSW it was profitable because within eight years he had purchased a large block of land in Marrickville and established a market garden. He built a house (demolished) on present day Calvert Street and maintained a garden there for nearly 40 years. (See: A doctor in the house).
He also bought several lots of Moffatt’s Estate but doesn’t appear to have gardened it himself. After his death, Lucy remained in Calvert Street and his sons began selling off his lands.
After leasing out 4 acres (1.6 hectares) to major fruit and vegetable merchants, Mow Sang & Co., the remaining Pilgrim land on the Moffatt’s Estate was given to youngest son, Arthur. Arthur Pilgrim had been living in Dulwich Hill until this time and was employed as a carter or carrier.
The land was obviously good for market gardening, but it seems Arthur did not have his father’s gardening interest. Rather, he turned to a new and very popular activity – tennis court management.
Tennis gained massive popularity throughout the world in the 1920s. Marrickvillians took to it as well and it has been estimated that there were over 200 tennis hardcourts in Marrickville at this time. Nearly all of these were in private hands, created as an income source by property owners with extra land, like Arthur. The 1943 aerial photo below shows three other courts besides Arthur’s; one off Murray Lane, one in Osgood Street and another very large business on the other side of the waterhole.
Arthur and his wife, Minnie, built a house at the end of George Dibble’s avenue, number 9 (demolished) and raised 10 children.
Another reason for Arthur’s change of profession may have been flooding. As present-day residents know, Cook’s River floods. It was worse at this time as actions to help alleviate flooding had not yet begun. Water from the river and in the waterhole was to lead to legislation that changed the area completely.
The first to be enacted (1921) was the Public Health Act of 1902. Under this Act large parts of Riverside Crescent, Wharf Street, Beauchamp Street, Livingstone Road and even Hill Street and Illawarra Road were deemed unhealthy building lands. Prohibitive measures were put in place to ensure that any new houses were built to deal with flooding. The measures may well have made the sites less attractive to developers and more expensive for prospective buyers.
Gazetted only days before George Dibble bought his land, this no doubt affected his decision and helps explain why his street only ran half way down to Riverside Crescent at that time.
The other piece of legislation was a 1927 amendment to the Local Government Bill dealing with quarries, clay pits, disused mines and waterholes which were likely to be a danger to the public. The Bill gave councils the power to require these sites to be fenced off and if that wasn’t thought enough, they could direct owners to fill them in or cover them within a certain time period.
Anyone who wishes to look through newspapers of the time will find dozens of stories of drownings in brick and clay pits in our area. Marrickville Council was very concerned. At a meeting in July 1927 Alderman Buckley noted that 15 children had drowned in disused brick pits in 1925 and six others in 1926. The council ordered an inspection of unprotected waterholes in Marrickville and that owners be compelled to “erect corrugated iron fences eight feet high, surmounted with barbed wire, around each waterhole”.
This meeting was held shortly after three boys had drowned in Newtown and a boy had been rescued from Toyer’s brick pit.
John Adams, aged 7, who lived at 35 Riverside Crescent had fallen into the pit and, but for the quick actions of William Carr, aged 14, would have drowned. In a blaze of publicity, William, a Dulwich Hill boy scout, was presented with a framed letter of appreciation from Marrickville Council and a gold medal and lifetime pass to the Hurlstone Park Theatre from the theatre directors. The theatre had only opened in May, so no doubt this was good publicity for them. Unfortunately, it closed in 1960, so William did not get his lifetime of movies.
The waterhole remained fenced and unremarked upon until 1938 when a second review of brick sites was carried out by the council. At this time the council established a golf course on some of the land listed as unhealthy back in 1921. They also began to look at the waterhole and decided that it would be useful as a water supply for the course. (See Marrickville Golf, Sporting & Community Club). Council entered into talks to purchase the waterhole with the land owners whose properties backed on to it. These included Arthur Pilgrim and William Littlewood, who ran an industrial leather belt factory (see 1943 aerial photo above) and wanted to be able to take 5000 gallons of water from the hole each week for use in his manufacturing. The negotiations finally concluded in 1943.
After WW2 Arthur Pilgrim subdivided some of his land creating Pilgrim Avenue and selling almost all the plots to the NSW Co-operative Community Advancement Society. This was a co-operative society created to provide affordable housing for its members in the very expensive housing market of 1948. Walking around the avenue today you will see houses of a similar style, just as George Dibble’s are on his avenue.
Lot 5 in the sale was bought by Marrickville Council. It gave access to the waterhole and later it would become a playground named for Alfred Crofts, who was councillor for the Riverside Ward and Deputy Mayor in 1951. Alfred lived for many years in one of George Dibble’s houses at 56 Ewart Street (demolished).
Now that the council officially owned the waterhole they needed to maintain it. In December 1953 a group of six council workmen were repairing a water pipeline. Two of the men, Jack Taylor (45) and Laurie Woods (23) were working from a pontoon in the middle of the waterhole when Jack fell in. It was recorded that the water was about 15-20ft (4.5-6 metres) deep and being unable to swim Jack struggled. Although Laurie dived in, he was unable to help and Jack disappeared. The other workers ran to Cook’s River and carried a rowing boat back to the pit. It was too late and Jack’s body was finally recovered an hour later. There is no acknowledgement of the death of Jack Taylor at the site, perhaps the council would consider doing so.
Subsidence, which placed people in peril and made headlines in 2017, has always been an issue. During the 1950s prolonged dry spells and then heavy rains made the banks particularly unstable. In 1954 the banks collapsed behind Arthur and Minnie Pilgrim’s house at 9 Dibble Avenue. Six feet of land on the property of Mrs Smith at 37 Riverside Crescent (house now demolished) was lost. Over time other Riverside Crescent houses also lost land to the hole. A look at maps today shows the various slip areas.
In 1963 the council canvassed residents to see what they thought of the council draining and filling in the waterhole. Of the 12 owners affected, 10 responded. Seven were in favour of filling it in, seeing it as a danger to people and property, three were against.
But it was not to be so simple; the council had a problem. They had made a commitment to the Golf Club to supply water for the greens, but just as significant was the spring or the water that ran down through the area.
The council’s chief engineer reported that the waterhole served as a sink or holding basin and helped to reduce flooding of the area in times of heavy rain and river flooding.
So, other than the construction of an overflow pipe connected to a drain discharging into Cook’s River the situation remained the same.
The next three decades were not happy ones for the waterhole. The site was more often viewed as a rubbish dump than a unique heritage area. Like many other brick pits in Marrickville it was seen as a hole to be filled.The dumping led to degradation of the land and the water.
Despite this, and the fencing, children still visited the waterhole. A poignant reminder of this is the sandstone block shown below. In 1969 young Peter Van Tol of Osgood Street, was killed in an accident on a train. His friends carved a memorial into the block and placed it at the site. It has remained there ever since and the council has ensured that it will stay there.
Things began looking up for the waterhole in the 1990s. Residents and volunteers brought attention to the degradation of the area and called for it to be addressed. The council began to develop management plans to bring it back to life.
In 1993 a concerted rehabilitation began with a partnership of Marrickville Council, the Environmental Protection Agency of NSW and the Australian Trust of Conservation Volunteers. A viewing platform was installed but this has since been removed.
These efforts and several subsequent ones have meant that the site is now home to many species of waterbirds (including the Eastern Curlew, Chestnut Teals and Dusky Moorhens) and three species of frog.
The latest efforts of the council have seen the banks stabilised and ringed with sandstone blocks previously used for curbing on Livingstone Road. New fencing has been erected around the water. A B Crofts Playground has also been refreshed.
The Dibble Avenue Waterhole (Toyer’s brick pit) is now a multi-purpose community asset. It connects us with the past, and provides an environmental haven for birds and other creatures, including us.