Sinkhole uncovers ‘Jack and Jill’ past

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A suspected sinkhole near the Supreme Court has uncovered an historic well.

A suspected sinkhole a stone’s throw from the Northern Territory’s Supreme Court has uncovered a historic well from the days when Territorians had to ‘Jack and Jill’ their water supply during the dry.

The roughly two by one metre concrete well is believed to be about 20 metres deep, and would have been a vital source of water prior to Manton Dam being built in 1942.

Director of our Heritage Branch, Michael Wells, said hundreds of similar wells that once existed across the Darwin CBD would have become redundant after the Second World War, and would have been filled in due to safety concerns.

“These wells were a crucial part of Darwin’s water supply right up to the Second World War and it is fantastic to find one in good condition in the heart of Darwin,” he said.

“The town hall well was one of a handful of important public wells in the town, and also one of its oldest. We also know of wells in ‘Cavenagh Square’ - now the site of the new university development - and the old football oval along the Esplanade.

“Darwin was heavily dependent on these wells for water security right into the 1940s.”

Archaeologist Silvano Jung from Ellengowan Enterprises said the ‘Jack and Jill’ image of the well is fairly representative of what they looked like.

“These wells would have had a roof built over the top of them, and there would have been a pulley system for people to manually haul up buckets of water,” he said.

“In order to get through the dry season many of our early Darwin residents had no choice but to use the well for their water supply.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the reliance on these wells for Darwin’s water continued to be called out as a risk to the town’s growth and health.

In 1928 a report on the Darwin Water Supply from the chief civil engineer said relying on wells was unsustainable with the wells needing to service more than 2000 residents, while also being required for shipping and building a proposed railway.

The report forecast a minimum supply of 250,000 gallons per day.

The Chief Medical Officer, in a 1935 report, also raised concerns about the health implications of widespread use of well water particularly diseases of the intestinal tract like typhoid, dysentery and cholera.

“There is no system of town reticulation, each dwelling for the most part being served by its own system of conservation which may or may not be supplemented by a shallow well,” the report said. “Darwin is probably unique amongst Australian towns of its size and strategic importance in deriving its water supply from shallow wells.

“There can be little doubt that these (diseases) are associated with the domestic use of water drawn from heavily drained wells…”

Michael Wells said after receiving the archaeologist’s report at the end of the month, consideration will be given to making the well safe and installing an information sign.

Archaeologist Silvano Jung inspecting the site.
Archaeologist Silvano Jung inspecting the site.

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