Museum of Contemporary Art

The Project

The Museum of Contemporary Art, the former Maritime Services Board building, was built on the site of the 1809-1812 Commissariat building and the 1818-1822 Macquarie-period dockyard.

The Dockyard was rebuilt from 1818 to 1822 as a part of Macquarie’s building program. From 1818 onwards it was ‘enlarged and greatly improved’. Macquarie reported in 1822 that the work consisted of: new building and repairing Docks, Wharfs, Quays, Sail Rooms and all the requisite Workshops including Boat Houses, and also offices for the Master Builder and Master Attendant of the Colonial Marine, the whole of the premises being enclosed with a Stone Wall, 12 feet high.

In his Report, Commissioner Bigge noted that: Considerable additions have lately been made in the dockyard, by the erection of two blacksmiths and nailers forges, a sail room and boathouse underneath, two saw pits and a high stone wall that now entirely separates the yard from the street and from the commissariat stores.

The dockyard was rebuilt during this period.

John William Lancashire's watercolour 'View of Sydney taken from The Rocks' dated 1803 looks down onto the dockyard. On the right is the early dockyard with the back of the Master Builder's house on the left. Dixson Galleries, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Historical Background

In 1797 Governor Hunter ordered a Naval Dockyard to be built in order to repair shipping. In December 1795 Hunter discussed the need to repair boats which had ‘fallen to ruin and decay’ and the Dockyard was established soon afterwards in 1796. Daniel Paine was the colony’s first official Boat Builder. His arrival saw the beginning of government boat building in New South Wales and of timber getting for naval purposes. Paine’s successor as Master Boat Builder was Thomas Moore, who was appointed in September 1796. Moore had first arrived in Sydney in 1792 as ship’s carpenter on the Britannia. After ten months with a party from the Britannia left at Dusky Bay, New Zealand, followed by voyages to the Cape of Good Hope and Calcutta, he returned to Sydney in 1796 and left his ship to become a free settler. In the thirteen years during which Moore held the position of Master Boat Builder, the dockyard was to become an established feature of Sydney Cove and its workers an important support for the maritime colony.


Casey & Lowe have undertaken a number of archaeological programs at this site as a result of a series of separate attempts to develop the carpark site as an addition to the MCA. All these archaeological programs were directed by Tony Lowe. We found considerable evidence for the surviving docks in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2008. Remains of three docks are known to survive within the area of the former MCA carpark and beneath the northern end of the MCA building, former Maritime Services Board building. The fourth and largest dock lies underneath Argyle Street.

View of West Circular Quay showing Commissariat Stores at left.
Site plan showing the 20th-century MCA building and four docks at Circular Quay.
Semi-Circular Quay completed in 1855.


Casey & Lowe undertook the archaeological work on this site over a number of years:
1997-98: Lend Lease Interiors
2000: City of Sydney
2008: Root Projects on behalf of the Museum of Contemporary Art


Dr Rosemary Annable wrote the history for this project in 2000.
City of Sydney Archives
State Records Office of NSW
Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW


Dockyard and Commissariat History (2000)
Chronology (2000)
Summary of Archaeological Testing (2008)
Archaeological Investigation (March 2012)

Links for the Macquarie Dockyard

Heritage Division – Historic dockyard unearthed next to the MCA in 1997
SMH – Sydney’s buried history you’ll never get to see.
State Heritage Register – Sydney Cove West Archaeological Precinct.

Mooring ring in northern wall of middle dock, 1997.

Archaeological Excavation Report – 2012


Macquarie Dockyard Reports


Museum of Contemporary Art


20 November 2006


Macquarie Dockyard

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