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Water Police Court 1886, Sydney

Water Police Court 1886, Sydney

The Water Police Court is located in Phillip Street Sydney, see location map below.   It ceased operating as a court in 1979.  The historic Courthouse is now used as a Justice and Police Museum.  The sandstone building was designed by Edmund Blacket, and subsequently Alexander Dawson and James Barnett.  It was completed in 1855. 


Water Police Court, old Australian courthouses, early Australian courthouses

The former Water Police Court building sits on the traditional land of the Gadigal peoples or the Eora Nation.


The  Water Police Court was a Court of summary jurisdiction constituted by a stipendary magistrate under sec. 44 (1) of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, as described by the High Court.1 


Water Police Court 1885, Sydney

Water Police Court and Police Station – patrolling streets and water

Matters before the Court were as much arising from events in the surrounding streets as with policing the surrounding waters in Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour as we know it today.  In one instance a stonemason was summoned to the Court in relation to blasting certain rock in Gipps Street, without having a written license from the City Surveyor.2   The case was adjourned pending a site visit.


Water Police Sydney


In 1864 someone was fined for housing a seaman in Sussex Street without a license as required under the Water Police Regulations Act.

Overcrowded vessels

In the summer of 1880 the master of the steamer Waratah was brought before the Court for allowing his vessel to be overcrowded on an excursion to Chowder Bay (Mosman) on Boxing Day.  As the evidence was found to be conflicting, the Bench were divided in their opinion and unable to arrive at a decision.4


Court  Museum

1881 – water shortages in Sydney and water inspectors

An instance of prosecution for wasting water occurred in the summer of 1881.  At Court the water inspector proceeded against 15 persons for wasting water.  One publican was fined £5 and costs, the others costs were much less. 

The magistrate decided that “in view of the magnitude of this kind of offence” all cases …would inflict the highest penalties the law would allow.5

It will be well for the citizens to understand that the penalties for wasting water are very severe, and are being rigorously exacted.  Turncocks are engaged night and day to discover instances of water being wasted, and when they are successful they at once take steps to prosecute the offending parties.6


Water Police Court


Water Police Court early cases

A snapshot of cases dealt with by the Magistrates of the Court in one day in 1880 included:8

  • A woman throwing a stone to the danger of persons passing in Charlotte Place, fined 20 shillings or in default one week’s imprisonment.
  • A man fined for drunkenness and indecent language – 10s and 60s or four days or six weeks’ imprisonment.
  • Two men on board a ship were accused of desertion.  For admitting it they were remanded in custody for one week.
  • Two young women, 21 and 22, were found guilty of being without visible lawful means of support, and sentenced to two months in gaol with hard labour.
  • A woman was fined the maximum penalty of £5 or two months’ imprisonment for an obscenity in Woolloomooloo Street.
  • For a similar offence in Bourke Street, an aged man was fined 40s or one months’ gaol.
  • A woman 53 described as a common vagrant was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.




More on the Water Police Court can be read on the Heritage Council of New South Wales here and on State Records of NSW and at the Justice and Police Museum.


The Water Police Court and Justice Museum is located in Phillip Street, Sydney.>


1.  Peck v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd [1914] HCA 31.
2.  ‘Water Police Court’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1881, p. 7.;
3.  Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Feb 1864, p. 5.
4.  Sydney Morning Herald, January 1880.
5.  ‘News of the Day’, Sydney Morning Herald 1881, p 5.
6.  Sydney Morning Herald 1881, p 5.
7.  ‘Water Police Court’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1881, p. 7.
8.  ‘Water Police Court’, Evening News, 2 Feb 1880, p 2.

31 January 2015, updated 13 May 2021.
B Stead
© BHS Legal

See more historic Australian courthouses here and short articles on selected Colonial Courthouses here.

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