Tale of transition

Tale of transition
Jackie Watts

Make no make mistake – the lovely vista you see across the waters of Victoria Harbour came at a cost. By that I am not referring to the cost of your apartment!

What we now see as the wonderful aquatic amphitheatre of Victoria Harbour is described by some historians as a “casualty of remorseless modern civilization”. Perhaps this is an overly dark and catastrophic lens through which to understand the forces that shaped the Docklands Precinct – a tale of transition.

Prior to European settlement in 1835, this area between the Yarra River and the Moonee Ponds Creek was a bountiful and beautiful wetland. The blue shimmering shallow “lake”, or “lagoon”, teemed with animals, birds and plants which served as rich food sources and sustained the cultural traditions of the people of the Kulin Nation. This wetland was an important meeting place for the traditional owners who would come together in large gatherings for trade, celebrations and other social activities.

Time passed, the colony grew, and the Blue Lake came to be known by European settlers as merely a swamp – first “Batman’s Swamp” and later “West Melbourne Swamp”. With increasing population and manufacturing it degenerated further ‒ ugly, polluted, odorous from noxious trades, the area was considered to be unhealthy and was avoided by the prosperous settlers as a refuge for the poor. In the mid-19th century the swamp transitioned into a vast contaminated bog absorbing the industrial effluent of a fast-growing urban settlement.

A growing city needed adequate port facilities and with ambition, foresight and funds, later in the 19th century this wasteland came to be perceived as a site of opportunity and the swamp transitioned into the vast excavated expanse of Victoria Harbour. At the end of the 19th century the powerful decision-makers in the relatively rich colony embarked on ambitious civil engineering works and with an abundance of cheap labour amid a depression, changed the very shape of, not only the swamp, but also the surrounding lands.

The intermittent Blue Lake/swamp was drained and excavated. Existing water courses were re-routed, channelled into what is now known as the Dynon Road Tidal Canal, parallel to Dynon Rd. The once extensive swamp was reduced to a small wetland area. Spoil from the excavation was heaped into new earthworks along the Yarra River and shaped into what became Collins Wharf, and Coode Island was created. Melbourne now had a world-renowned port, known as a civil engineering marvel, largely hand excavated. All of this greatly added to Melbourne’s available port space and supported a burgeoning maritime trade economy.

The Blue Lake had successfully transitioned into the major, and tremendously important, international Victoria Port. New maritime and rail infrastructure filled the harbour and this efficient, extensive and bustling port powered Melbourne’s and Victoria’s prosperity.

Inexorably, transition continued. Mid-20th century technological advances in refrigeration and containerisation, together with the sheer volume of maritime trade, resulted in port operations shifting away to the west of Victoria Harbour, to the newly created Swanston and Appleton Docks.

There are clear parallels to be drawn between the transition of the Blue Lake from a bountiful and rich wetland to a large, contaminated bog, and the success and redundancy of Port Victoria, of an industrial wasteland transitioning into a swank brownfield renewal site replete with property developments which is the Docklands precinct today.

History indicates that transitions are constant – reclamation, reimagining, repurposing and revitalisation will continue. What are we now facing? More logistical capacity, more automation, gigantic vessel tonnage. Just as the Victoria Port became too small, will Port Phillip Bay and The Heads be judged too prohibitively shallow for mammoth bulk vessels? Already we hear speculation about the next-phase Freight Hubs away from the central city. Will the idyllic Blue Lake actually return? Not as a food source perhaps – but as a marvellous aquatic recreational play space for Melburnians?

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria recently held an excellent exhibition called The Swamp Vanishes. Catch this exhibition online – the images are wonderful. Visit historyvictoria.org.au for more information.

Public records are the “stuff of heritage” and the importance of a new Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) project, Ports and Harbours: An Astounding Records Transfer Story, provides a Docklands precinct treasure trove. Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network encourages you to check out this wonderful PROV project capturing the historic public records of Ports Victoria and predecessor agencies including the Melbourne Harbour Trust Commissioners, the Ports and Harbours Branch of the Public Works Department, the Port of Melbourne Authority and the Geelong Harbour Trust. The entire collection is now available via Open Access and can viewed and copies ordered from the PROV North Melbourne Reading Room. See:  prov.vic.gov.au/about-us/our-blog/ports-and-harbours-record-transfer-story


Caption: Hydrographic Survey Plan of River Yarra and Victoria Dock from Queen’s Bridge to Coode Island PROV VPRS 18781 C1 474731A.

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