Richard Race Lewis’ "Sydney Expansion Scheme"

Richard Race Lewis' Sydney Expansion Scheme, 1921
View collection item detail

With the ongoing construction of the WestConnex and the Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail, it can seem, sometimes, that much of Sydney is a busy open scar of raw, concrete, traffic corridors, tunnels and construction sites. Although, upon completion, both projects promise to future-proof the infrastructure of the city, some Sydney-siders may have found themselves wondering if there was ever an alternative. While more public transport, buses and railways have been put forward as alternatives, few, if any, will have thought of canals as a solution to Sydney’s infrastructure problems. 

The Sydney Expansion Scheme was a radical 1920s public works proposal that involved carving out canals throughout greater Sydney, put forward as a solution to, what was then considered, Sydney’s ‘dreadful congestion’.[1]  Key to the scheme was the plan to join the Parramatta and Georges Rivers by way of a canal, between Clyde and Lansdowne, and another joining the Cooks and Parramatta Rivers. [2]

The Scheme was the brainchild of Richard Race Lewis, an enigmatic preacher and self-declared ‘conundrum’. In 1991, the State Library of New South Wales was presented with the Lewis Family papers, and within the collection are many papers, maps and numerous lecture notes that detail Lewis’ Scheme. In reviewing the Lewis Family papers, the extent to which the Scheme overtook the last decades of Lewis’ life becomes apparent;[3]  although support for Lewis’ canals appears to have never been substantial, an obsessed Lewis was driven by raw self-belief, and a conviction that his scheme was ‘the salvation of New South Wales’.[4]

However, for those hoping that Lewis’ scheme may have led to a charming Sydney with beautiful canals resembling those of Venice or Amsterdam, think again; Lewis’ vision was of an industrial city. Far from Amsterdam, Lewis’ instead saw Sydney as the ‘Birmingham of Australia’, where his canals could open up the vacant land of Sydney for industrial purposes. Lewis even put forward that his canal system was imperative if the Navy was to adequately defend Australia ‘in the event of invasion by any foreign power’. Lewis estimated that the works would cost £10,000,000; a steal at roughly $700,000,000 today.[5]  Interestingly, Lewis’s scheme also incorporated proposals for land reclamation at Botany and water irrigation at Warragamba, both of which eventuated to a degree. 

The State Library of New South Wales holds many collections that suggest a Sydney, and a New South Wales, that could have been. In addition to the Lewis Family papers, the Library holds rejected designs for the Sydney Harbour bridge, and maps showing proposed rail routes to the eastern suburbs that were never built.[6] The maps and plans within the Lewis Family papers can be viewed found within the ‘Collection of maps taken from the collection Lewis Family - papers, 1838-1991, being mainly papers of Richard Race Lewis relating to the Sydney Expansion Scheme, 1897-1931.’


Glenn Wells, Librarian, Collection Access & Description


[1] Lewis, Richard Race, ‘Lecture’ Architecture, Aug. 15 1922 p. 115
[2] Lewis, Richard Race, ‘Lecture’ Architecture, Aug. 15 1922, p. 116
[3] Lewis, Richard Race, ‘Lecture’ Architecture, Aug. 15 1922, p. 115
[4]  Lewis, Richard Race, ‘The Opening up of the Upper Waters of Port Jackson’, in Lewis Family - papers, 1838-1991, being mainly papers of Richard Race Lewis relating to the Sydney Expansion Scheme, 1897-1931 MLMSS 7295
[5] Reserve Bank of Australia, 'Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator', [Total change in cost is 3332.5 per cent, over 97 years, at an average annual inflation rate of 3.7 per cent.] viewed 9 Oct 2018, 
[6]  Map of Sydney showing proposed expressways, ringroads and metropolitan railway extension, M2 811.17/1952/2; 
[Proposed Sydney Harbour Bridge, ca. 1903] / Norman Selfe Design, R. M. Robinson Mech. Del., Herbert Beecroft Pinxt ML 1401.