Circular Quay Tower

  • F. Garling, Circular Quay

  • Part of the 1855 Trigonometrical Survey of Sydney that provided the first relatively accurate plans for buildings in Sydney. By this date extensive building work had been undertaken across the site (outlined in red).

  • Stamped stoneware bottles recovered from Area B. The first three are ginger beer bottles, made in Sydney in the 1830s-1840s. The fourth bottle held blacking for polishing shoes and stoves, made in the UK from 1817-1834.

  • A British Willow Pattern transfer printed platter. Willow is an enduring and popular pattern for blue and white ceramics and is made throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.

  • Mocha or Factory Slipware chamber pot found in the later cesspit in Area B. Likely dates from c. 1830-1850.

  • Detail of a bust of Lord Nelson found on a fragment of a ceramic wine cooler made by the convict potter John Moreton, c.1830s. An intact version is this vessel is known from a significant collection.

The Project

Archaeological excavations were undertaken by Casey & Lowe on behalf of Lendlease from 2017 to 2019 at the 182 George & 33-35 Pitt Streets site, currently known as Circular Quay Tower. It is bounded by Underwood Street to the south, Pitt Street to the east and George Street to the west.

Historical Background

British occupation of New South Wales commenced at Sydney Cove in January 1788 in part due to the presence of a fresh water source, a small creek that would become known as the Tank Stream. The Tank Stream provided life to the early colony in addition to demarking space between the convicted and the free in the layout of early Sydney. Circular Quay Tower occupies land originally granted to James Underwood, an emancipated convict, and Major George Johnston, eventually Colonel of the New South Wales Corps.

Underwood used his land for shipbuilding. Despite having no prior experience in boatbuilding before he arrived in the colony, he successful laid the keel of the first private ship, the Contest in 1798. His boatyard grew in size and repute throughout the early decades of the 19th century with Underwood becoming involved in a multitude of business ventures including whaling, and rum distilling. He increased the size of his grant by 1807 by reclaiming into to the Tank Stream providing a better area for his ships to be launched.

George Johnston initially took little interest in his grant, to the north of Underwood’s.  In the 1810’s it was leased for a garden with areas on George St being developed in the and 1820s. By the 1840s, George Street was fronted by a selection of large brick and stone dwellings and businesses. On Johnston’s grant was a successful barrel-making factory (cooperage) was founded before 1845 and continued to flourish into the 1860’s. A series of tenement buildings to house the poor of Sydney were also built. The configuration of buildings within the property constantly evolved throughout the 19th century with structures of stone wood and brick barely surviving a decade before the remodelling of space occurred anew. A series of shops graced the more permanent structures along George Street with restaurants, tobacconists, butchers, confectioners and others all leasing the commercial premises at one time or another. One of the most enduring of which was the Blue Anchor Hotel, which remained in operation for close to 100 years and eventually gave its name to the lane that runs along Jackson’s on George.

View to the west of Area B during excavation demonstrating the survival of part of an early timber (c.1820s) structure within the footings of the 1920s carpark.


Area A

The site’s proximity to the Tank Stream required a special focus on the recovery of environmental information relating to the 1788 landscape.  This included detailed recording of silts and natural shell beds within the Tank Stream and how Underwood reclaimed his land and the sandstone outcrops leading up to to George Street recovered geochemical, archaeobotanical and palaeoenvironmental analysis.  Samples for a pioneering geoarchaeological coring program were also recovered.

Large volumes of imported fill material were found to cover Area A.  The use of fills imported to the site to raise and form a new ground level was common practice along the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, notably the banks of the Tanks Stream, Circular Quay and Darling Harbour.

Detail of natural shell beds sitting on the bedrock within the valley of the Tank Stream. View to north, scale 100mm increments

Area B

Area B is within the southeast corner of the land originally granted in 1796 to Major George Johnston.

Preliminary analysis of the deposits in this area indicated three chronologically distinct periods; 1788-1830, 1830-1855 and post 1855. Multiple parts of different buildings were found including:

  • 1788-1830
    • Wooden walls, floors, fencelines, and walkways
    • Sandstock brick cesspits
    • Areas of brick and sandstone paving
    • Numerous ditches, post holes and other features in the lower levels
  • 1830-1850
    • Multiple sandstone footings relating to structures on the 1855 Trigonometrical Plan of Sydney such as poorly constructed tenement buildings and cooperage workshops
    • Yard surfaces made up of industrial waste and partially buried barrel-lined pits
    • Sandstock brick cesspits
  • Post-1855 brick pavements along Crane Lane and modification to earlier structures
Detail of natural shell beds sitting on the bedrock within the valley of the Tank Stream. View to north, scale 100mm increments
Repurposed slate roof collapse found in the western room in the central structure in Area A (House 2 Room 2). Slate would have functioned as an effective damp proof course under floors. View to the north, scale 1m.




The photos used in this report are by the Casey & Lowe excavation team. The 1822 plan is from State Records. Other images in the preliminary report are from the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Circular Quay Tower – Preliminary Report


Circular Quay Tower