27th October, 2022

Mysteries, Ghosts and Urban Legends on Sydney Harbour

When it comes to Sydney Harbour, its natural beauty runs deep in the calm waters and rises to great heights. Incredible headlands, natural escarpments and man-made attractions such as The Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge make Sydney Harbour a much-loved destination.

What lies beneath the water and the city’s colourful convict history? Step into the murky stories of times past and decide for yourself whether the ghosts of Sydney Harbour truly exist or are the stuff of urban legend …

Sydney Harbour Bridge - Credit Tourism Australia
Stories of the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylons

The Pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge

The construction of a bridge between Milsons Point and Dawes Point was first suggested by convict and architect Francis Greenway in 1815. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened 127 years later. (And not without controversy).

Back in the day before work, health and safety, the construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge was fraught with risk and danger. Records show 16 workers lost their lives over the nine years of construction since the first sod was dug at Dawes Point in 1923. Urban legend says three men fell into the pylons. Their bodies were never retrieved, nor their deaths recorded. Believe it? Or not.

Keen to see our Harbour's famous 'coathanger' from a new perspective? Cruise underneath onboard super-cruiser Sydney 2000!

On the bottom of the Harbour

Using hydrographic technology to regularly scan Sydney Harbour's seafloor to ensure the channels that ships use are safe, the Port Authority occasionally finds intrigue and mystery. One finding was revealed in a 3D image of Sydney’s largest shipwreck. The TSS Currajong sank in 1910 and rests about 30 metres (98 feet) below a busy shipping lane.

Where did we park the car?

It’s not unusual for the Port Authority scans to find cars under the water on the Sydney Harbour seafloor. These are usually discovered near the numerous wharves and jetties. All sorts of models, whose owners might just have forgotten to secure the handbrake - once they found a submerged luxe sports car. Ouch!

Two anchors in Middle Harbour

In 1834, the Edward Lombe, a three-masted barque and 12 of its passengers met their fate on the rocks at Middle Head. The disaster distressed the town and led to improved navigational aids. Under the surface, two anchors covered in soft corals and marine life rest on the seafloor, visited by divers.

Cocktatoo Island tunnel stock
Tunnel at Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

Secrets and Tunnels

You will have heard about the tunnel under Sydney Harbour for cars commuting to and from both sides of the Harbour. But a history of tunnels and a questionable subterranean world have been rumoured to exist beneath Sydney since early days of the colony.

One such legend involves the Hero of Waterloo hotel in Millers Point. Classified by the Heritage Council and The National Trust, the hotel cellar reveals signs of a questionable past with shackles on the walls and the evidence of a tunnel opening is visible. The story goes that a tunnel ran from the hotel to the Harbour, for the purposes of smuggling rum off boats. It is also rumoured the tunnel was connected to a trapdoor that served to kidnap young drunks who wake up on a sailboat. Murky underworld stories are made of these!

Cockatoo Island Sydney Harbour - stock
Cockatoo Island offers guided ghost tours to visitors

Cockatoo Island Tunnels

A dark history of penal settlements, hard labour, docked ships homing orphan boys and tunnelling through sandstone is a far cry from today’s UNESCO heritage-listed Cockatoo Island where people can camp for a weekend away from it all on Sydney Harbour.

The tunnels on Cockatoo Island create considerable intrigue. From 1839–40 convict labour was used to cut deep into the rock to construct underground silos for the colony’s grain supply.

An 180-metre-long (590 feet) dog-leg tunnel was built on the Sydney Harbour island in 1915. Winding through the belly of Cockatoo Island, the tunnel was used to move workers and materials from one side of the island to the other.

During World War II the island’s tunnels were transformed to air-raid shelters, including an infirmary located in an annex to the main tunnel.

Visitors can take a guided ghost tour at night, complete with the devices used for paranormal activity. Hear the grisly and macabre tales of the island’s history and decide for yourself what lurks in the dark behind the stories and old buildings.

Crime at Cadmans Cottage

This historic cottage with Harbour views is the site of a grisly crime in 1844. In its original place by the water, a man carrying a suitcase filled with the dismembered and burned body of his boss arrived at the jetty. Unsuccessful in convincing a boatman to take him onto the Harbour to dump the bag under false pretences Jean Videll was arrested and later hanged. Who was in the suitcase? His boss, Thomas Warne.

The Rocks Sydney stock
Ghosts of The Rocks, Sydney's oldest precinct

The Ghosts of The Rocks

Sydney’s oldest precinct is The Rocks, where the first British settlement was established. Much of the cobbled streets, narrow laneways, jaunty buildings and old pubs are preserved or tastefully modernised. Back in the day the precinct was divided by rocky escarpments, where housing was built for overcrowded families – an example of which can be found at Foundation Park.

Today, The Rocks is a vibrant tourist and local precinct with more than 50 cafes, restaurants and hotels. Original hotels such The Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest, still operate today. Originally built in 1828 by former convict Samuel Terry, the pub has been in continuous operation for more than 188 years.

Like other areas on Sydney Harbour, The Rocks has its fair share of ghost stories, murder, public execution, opium dens and mystery. All is revealed on a nightly ghost tour.

Landscape of Sydney 2000 boat cruising past Opera House and Harbour Bridge at sunset
Sydney Harbour sunset views

Shark attacks and archaeology

George Legg drowned while fishing on Sydney Harbour. His arm was found inside a captured shark. His wife then sent a search party to find the rest of his remains. The year was 1807.

In 1997, archaeologists uncovered their home to find the skeleton of a shark. Did they find Legg's body in this shark? And why did she keep the shark? Another unsolved mystery in The Rocks.

Being out on Sydney Harbour at Sunset is the best time to let the imagination run wild.

Experiences mentioned in this article

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