One of Sydney’s oldest secret tunnels made the news recently when it halted work on a new boutique hotel.
Potts Point, Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, and Woolloomooloo are home to several well-known tunnels, like the Eastern Suburbs rail line tunnel, the Kings Cross road tunnel, the Cross City tunnel, and even the Domain moving walkway tunnel (the longest travelator in the southern hemisphere). But there are also a handful of secret tunnels running underneath our neighbourhoods about which little is known. We uncover the hidden tunnels of Potts Point and its surrounds – and discover whispers of even more underground mysteries.
The Garden Island tunnels
Underneath the Royal Australian Navy’s Garden Island base lies an underground tunnel network that runs all the way to Potts Point and Kings Cross and maybe even further.
Blasted out of the sandstone in the days following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, the early Garden Island tunnels were designed as air raid shelters for the men working at the naval base. They initially accommodated 1,400 men standing up before being expanded to fit 2,500 men. After Sydney was shelled in 1942, five interconnected tunnels and several chambers were tunnelled underneath the base’s northern end. Named after London landmarks like Petticoat Lane and Saunders Corner, the tunnels contained backup generators, a casualty clearing station, and a telephone exchange. Some of the tunnels were built to transport guns and ammunition from one side of the island to the other. Others were built around the Captain Cook Graving Dock (also constructed during the war) to house pumping valves and other functions associated with the dock. Originally supported with timber struts, a bit like a wild west mine, most of the tunnels were reinforced in 1978 with concrete and steel. Today they are used to run fuel and communication lines across the naval base.
A second tunnel system is dug into the slope running down to Garden Island from Potts Point. Little is known about this secret passage, but it’s believed to run all the way to Kings Cross. There are also rumours about another tunnel running from the naval base into the heart of the city.
The Darlinghurst Gaol tunnels
There are several secret tunnels beneath the old Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National School of Art) and rumours of several more.
Darlinghurst Gaol was in operation from 1841 until 1914. When prisoners arrived at the gaol, they were taken to the Governor’s Residence, an imposing three-storey sandstone edifice. Guards marched them downstairs and into a tunnel under the residence, symbolically reinforcing the notion of the Governor’s power and the prisoner’s own lowly status. Poet Henry Lawson, who was detained at the gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of alimony, described the pitch-black tunnel as a sandstone tomb. The tunnel led the prisoners to the bathhouse, where they were stripped naked before being bathed and deloused. They were then escorted to their cells.
The gaol’s other underground tunnel leads to the Darlinghurst Courthouse next door and was used to transport prisoners from their cells to court. Mother-of-ten Louisa Collins walked to and from the courthouse from her gaol cell through this tunnel every day during her four murder trials in the 1880s. She was found guilty of murdering her first and second husbands and was hanged in 1889. She was the first woman executed at Darlinghurst Gaol and the last woman ever hanged in New South Wales. Today, the tunnel from the gaol to the courthouse remains locked at both ends.
These are the two tunnels at the gaol that we know about, but there are rumours of others. Locals talk of a tunnel extending from the gaol to Claremore (or Claremont) Lodge (or House) at 248 Liverpool Street, a Georgian villa built in the 1840s or 1850s.
The Busby’s Bore connection
Busby’s Bore, Sydney’s first-ever major infrastructure tunnel, was built by convicts between 1827 and 1837. It transported water from Lachlan Swamps (now Centennial Park) under Moore Park, the Victoria Barracks and Oxford Street to Hyde Park. The construction of the tunnel was a (pardon the pun) watershed moment for fledgling Sydney Town. Before it was built, the township’s only water supply was the heavily polluted Tank Stream, but the new bore could supply Sydney’s 20,000 residents with 1.5 million litres of water a day. Busby’s Bore hit the headlines recently when it was revealed that builders working on a new boutique hotel in Paddington had damaged the heritage-listed tunnel.
Intriguingly, there’s a connection between Busby’s Bore and another rumoured secret tunnel in Potts Point. The heritage-listed villa Rockwall, after which Rockwall Crescent is named, was originally conceived for John Busby, the mineral surveyor and civil engineer who designed his eponymous bore. But when Busby ran into financial trouble in the early 1830s, he sold the land upon which Rockwall was to be built to grazier and merchant Hamilton Collins Sempill. Rockwall’s architect, John Verge, altered the plans he had come up with for Busby to suit Hempill’s needs, and the villa was completed in 1837. There are long-standing rumours of an underground passage or escape tunnel beneath Rockwall. There is even talk of the presence of a dungeon.
More rumours of secret tunnels
Rockwall is not the only early Potts Point villa rumoured to harbour a secret tunnel. A trawl through the archives turned up an article written about Elizabeth Bay House 88 years ago that mentions the possible presence of catacombs, tunnels, and a dungeon. The article from the 1 November 1935 issue of Decoration and Glass magazine, when Elizabeth Bay House would have been 100 years old, says, “for many years [Elizabeth Bay House] has remained idle except for the presence of an extraordinary old gentleman who officiated as caretaker and often conducted visitors by candlelight down into the catacombs below where he could recall how the convicts were brought via an underground tunnel from the wharf. He would also show you where the carpenters made coffins for the dead, and the chute down which they fell to the dungeons below. It was always a place of interest, if only for the thousands of names which were scrawled on its walls inside.”
There are also whispers about more secret tunnels in Darlinghurst. Before it was an apartment building, 299 Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, was a psychiatric facility called Caritas Centre, and between 1868 and 1961, it was the Lunatic Reception House. Locals say that doctors and nurses who worked at the Caritas Centre used to talk of the underground tunnels linking the building with others in the area, including the police station, the courthouse, and the gaol. And when a terrace at 260 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst (complete with former stables), was sold in 2021, it came with the rumour of a tunnel linking it to the Darlinghurst Courthouse. A small blocked-off doorway in the corner of the cellar may have been the entrance to the supposed secret passage.
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Photo credits: Wikipedia