Docklands’ lake and shanty town
By Meg Hill
David Sornig, author of “Blue Lake”, said it was growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne that led to an obsession with a corner of Docklands, right on the western edge of the city centre.
Everything in the area around what is now a section of the Moonee Ponds Creek, and the CityLink above it, is designed to get you out as fast as possible. It’s all highways and train lines.
“You can’t really walk through there, you can drive on the highway or go on high speed on the train. There’s no real stopping place,” David said.
“I was wanting to know why it had that type of feeling. I’d always had a sense that it was somehow outside.”
For David, the origin of that continuing feeling of “outside” is the instrumental changes European settlement made to this little corner of Melbourne.
And it’s the same reason that it was home to a shanty town during, and after, the Great Depression.
Before European settlement, the whole area of Docklands was part of a river delta. A large part of it was a big salt water lagoon, famous for its blue colour.
The area was extremely difficult for the settlers to traverse, and the lake was filled in in the 1880s. But even in earliest stages of Melbourne, it was changing.
Because it was low, “everything” drained into it from early Melbourne. Everything means mainly sewerage. It had become fettered after only a decade.
“It also became a site for boiling down works, all the kinds of noxious trades that were associated with slaughter yards,” David said.
“It became a place people avoided, and because of that it also became a place for dumping rubbish and rubbish tips.”
That, in turn, led to a shanty down being built there when the Great Depression hit. It became a home to people who were turfed out of their jobs and homes.
They built shelters from materials from the tips.
On the southern side of Moonee Creek was the Bachelors Flats, for single men, and on the other was Dudley Flats, for couples and families.
David’s book focuses on three characters he encountered in research: Elsie Williams, Jack Peacock and Lauder Rogge.
Elsie, a singer, was born in Bendigo. Her family were some of the Afro-Caribbeans who came to Australia before the White Australia policy abolished such immigration at the start of the 20th century.
She suffered from structural racism, spending half her adult life in prison – mostly on vagrancy charges. She died while living at Dudley Flats, apparently pushed into a fire by her partner.
Jack Peacock was a teetotaller who became known as the King of Dudley Flats, the master of selling scavenged goods. He apparently made more money than needed to move away, but preferred the life there.
The lake wasn’t the only element of ecological altering of the area. The entire course of that section of the Yarra was changed.
David’s third character, a German named Lauder Rogger, had his life changed along with the change to the river.
He’d bought an almost derelict ship – a black birding schooner that had been used in the 1880s slave trade.
He salvaged it and worked the waterways carrying material when dredging allowed.
“Not long after he bought the ship he was interned during the first World War because he was German. He was locked up and sent to New South Wales,” David said.
“He was told to tie the ship up on the original part of the Yarra. It became a disused part, it was silted up and filled in.”
When he arrived back after the war, his ship was no longer on a river, and no longer seaworthy.
“He stayed there on his boat on dry land until the ’30s and made a living selling dogs at the Eastern market.”
The spot where his ship was stranded is now Appleton Dock, just a stone’s throw from The District Docklands and Docklands Studios.
The spot where the shanty town was located is still deserted, and feels “creepy” in David’s words.
But right next to it is The District, The Melbourne Star, even Costco. Walking from one to the other takes about two minutes and, knowing the history, is a surreal transition.
David Sornig will be speaking at this event at the Wheeler Centre on May 22: http://www.wheelercentre.com/events/melbourne-was-underwater