Twenty-thousand leagues under the Yarra
By Ashley Smith, researcher at Royal Historical Society of Victoria
On first glance, these fine, moustachioed gentlemen in their bowler hats look to be preparing for an underwater dive. Could they be looking for lost treasure? Pearlers getting ready for another hard day of fishing? Taking leisure time for a 19th century era business trip?
The answer is none of the above, especially considering that the body of water they were about to enter was likely polluted with the waste of hundreds of thousands of Melburnians.
But this was hardly the consequence of a drunken dare gone awry, for the men in the diving suits are thought to be members of the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW), formed in 1891.
It is believed that these divers and their co-workers are working in the Yarra River on the edge of Docklands, west of where the Spencer Street Bridge (later built in the 1920s) now stands.
The board’s formation was in response to the massive pollution of the Yarra and other water sources as the city expanded. The main cause was from industrial waste dumped by noxious industries such as abattoirs, tanning factories, and soap and candle manufacturers along the river. Other pollution was human waste thrown away in chamber pots or by careless night men who collected the “night soil” from water clos- ets on a weekly basis. It was such negligence that gave the city the unfortunate moniker “Marvellous Smellbourne”.
A report by the Harbour Trust in the Footscray Independent on February 15, 1890, complained about the mess, and was especially critical of the swinging basin near the West Melbourne gasworks where several crewmen on passing boats were hospitalised due to the fumes. Adding to the city’s woes was the increasing death toll from typhoid, mostly due to the population’s close proximity to human waste from infected patients contaminating the water supply.
After a Royal Commission looked into the city’s sanitary conditions in 1888, it was recom- mended that an overdue “complete system of underground drainage” should be implemented, and a Board of Works should be responsible for it. This led to the establishment of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, which had its first meeting at the Treasury Gardens on March 18, 1891. By 1892, under the leadership of chief engineer William Thwaites, work had begun on constructing the sewerage system, which would start operations in 1897. Under this system, waste would flow through installed pipes, all the way to the pumping station at Spotswood (now part of Scienceworks), before engaging in a long trip up the Main Outfall Sewer to the Werribee Sewage Farm. Such a system required an intricate web over 2400 miles (3840km) of sewer piping, and while the pumping station was deactivated in 1965, the main sewers are still in use today.
Before reaching Spotswood however, sewage that flowed from people’s homes had to travel through one of several mains, including the North Yarra at the north, and the South Yarra and Hobsons Bay mains at the south. One of them, the Melbourne main, started at the main CBD, and skirted the south-east region of Docklands, before crossing the Yarra to Port Melbourne where it met up with the Hobsons Bay main.
Divers were especially busy when construction crossed the Yarra. Most notably, a key section of the Melbourne main was inserted west of the Spencer Street Bridge in 1897. It involved lowering a large cast-iron tube into the river and sinking it into a prepared trench. The divers assisted in the trimming of banks of bluestone metal for the bed of the tube. When the tube broke during installation, the divers examined the tube, and assisted in bolting it together, all of which happened underwater.
Their jobs could also take a morbid turn. Sometimes, tunnelling under the Yarra would prove fatal. On April 12, 1895, while working on the Hobsons Bay main, the tunnel collapsed and six men drowned. In that incident, divers were used to examine the damaged tunnel and had to fill up the hole with bags of clay. Another accident at the South Yarra/Prahran main in December 1897, saw five men killed after breathing noxious gas. The retrieval of the bodies was up to the board’s chief diver, Mr Beckett, as reported by The Age. After the tunnel was purposefully flooded, he dived in to retrieve the lost bodies (initially unsuccessful due to air pressure). He used leaded weights to hold his equilibrium, could only breathe through tubing attached to an oxygen apparatus (controlled by two men) and with the hot conditions, was likely in great discomfort.
It is no doubt that such jobs were dangerous professions, especially as the only thing protecting the diver from a mouthful of toxic water would’ve been those bulky but, hopefully, watertight diving suits. A fault in the suit or a lack of oxygen made drowning a real risk. Accidents also happened and Beckett was not immune. An article in the Ballarat Star re- ported on October 18, 1897 that, while he was inspecting a sewer construction near Church Street Bridge, a box of concrete landed on his helmet! As he appeared to take only a small amount of the impact, he survived.
Little else is known about the circumstances of this photograph, but it does give a window into the early work of an organisation that was quickly becoming important to the liveability of Melbourne.