Cooks River at Water Street 2012. Photo Cathy Jones.

Death and Mosquitos on Cooks River Strathfield

Cooks River Strathfield South c.1947. Showing original river prior to canalling, brickpits, which are now Dunlop Street and Dean Reserve. The road markings are Madeline and Cleaveland Streets.
Cooks River Strathfield South c.1947. Showing original river prior to canalling, brickpits, which are now Dunlop Street and Dean Reserve. The road markings are Madeline and Cleveland Streets.

The Cooks River is a 23 km river that runs from Botany Bay to Yagoona, passing through the Strathfield Council area. From the junction of Coronation Parade and Punchbowl Road in Belfield to Water Street Strathfield South, the river is a concrete canal. The river separates at Water Street, with one section of the River diverted and finishing at Coxs Creek Greenacre with the main river continuing through Strathfield South and then to Freshwater Park. The Bay to Bay Walkway and Cycleway is built alongside the river.

‘Chain of Ponds’

The Cooks River at Strathfield is in the upper reaches of the catchment and where the open river finishes. The Cooks River in Strathfield was described by C A Henderson in his recollections of early Strathfield and Homebush as a ‘chain of ponds’ (Henderson, 1923) because the river was located on low lying land and appears as a series of small ponds and land depressions, rather than as an open river.


When it rained, the ponds would fill, but then become stagnant water.  With sun evaporation, they would empty until another rainfall.  The stagnant ponds were a breeding ground for mosquitos, causing frequent outbreaks.

Cooks River at Cosgrove Road. Photo Cathy Jones 2012
Cooks River at Cosgrove Road. Photo Cathy Jones 2012. This photo was taken during heavy rainfall.

There were many demands, particularly in the 1920s, to concrete the Strathfield section of the Cooks River, mainly to control flooding and mosquitos.

The concrete canalling of the River commenced as a Government Depression work scheme in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, the canal had been built from Coronation Parade to Water Street.

However, the extensions from Water Street to Freshwater Park were not built until the 1960s, after significant lobbying by Strathfield Council and the Cooks River Valley Association to the former Metropolitan Water & Sewerage Board (now Sydney Water).

The course of the natural river was changed and straightened when the river was canalled.

To many locals, the Cooks River appears to always be empty. However, during periods of heavy rainfall, water in the river from rainfall and stormwater runoff from catchment land causes water to rise quickly with move with rapid speed.


Prior to the concrete canalling of the river, flooding of land and deaths by drowning in the Cooks River in the Strathfield area was not uncommon. As a result of storms and heavy rain, water would rise quickly and anything (such as cars, bridges or animals etc) or any person caught in the path of fast moving water could be swept away. Two of the more tragic stories of death by drowning in the Cooks River, involve young children.

In February 1935, a fierce storm caused flooding and lightning damage across Sydney, resulting in the death of 12 year old Ronald Gardiner at Cooks River at Enfield. The boy attempting to collect driftwood from the water was swept away by the currents and drowned. It appears that the same storm swept away and destroyed the wooden bridge at Water Street Strathfield South, which crossed the river.

In November 1947, Sydney experienced a violent tropical storm with winds reported of 60 miles (96km) an hour. Two brothers, William (aged 11 years) and John (aged 6) were both drowned in the Cooks River at Enfield. John was swept into the river and his brother drowned trying to rescue his little brother.


Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Thursday 14 February 1935, page 3

Henderson C A, 1923, ‘Sydney to Homebush 1855’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and proceedings Vol. VIII, Supplement.

Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 – 1912), Saturday 23 January 1897, page 161


  1. Funny what you stumble across on the internet ,lucky there was no malaria happening, fond memories of Strathfield.


    1. I have found a number of newspaper articles from the 1910s and 1920s regarding Strathfield Council campaigns against flies and mosquitos. They adopted ordinances that authorised them to take prosecution action. I also found an article from 1917 which stated that Council also erected great iron replicas (4 feet x 3 feet) of the fly with the warning ‘Kill that Fly, or it will kill you!).


  2. You may be interested in an earlier drowning case of three brothers George, Phillip and Stephen Kerslake who drowned while going for a swim in one of these water holes of the Cooks River in 1897. They lived in Oxford st, just a short walk away. They were aged 13, 10 and 8 years respectively. The older brother jumped in to try and save the two younger ones.


    1. There are some heartbreaking stories of drowning in the river involving children from the same family. Oxford St is unlikely to be Oxford in Strathfield, do you know the suburb? Cathy


      1. There is an Oxford rd or street parallel to Albert Road. The father worked for the Von der Heyde’s whose mansion was on Albert rd, so I am assuming that that was the street where they lived. Some of the reports in the paper mention another boy with them who ran back to the father to raise the alarm about what had happened.


  3. I lived as a child at the old Royal hotel by the river, & as a teenager attended Strathfield Girl’s High School, across the other side. I remember one day, while trying to take a short cut across a pipeline (fitted with deterrent spikes) to walk to school with my girlfriend, I slipped & fell into the murky water at a point where there was a lot of smelly rubbish etc & was soaked….I went home, showered & took the day off!…….I guess I was one of the lucky ones, though as you can imagine by all the clutter in the river, it was neither deep nor running very fast on that day. It made for an interesting explanation to Mum.


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