The Things we Take for Granted: Sewerage
Russell Degnan

If clean and reliable water was an area that the Victorian government has assiduously pursued, then sewerage was an area where the had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.

The Department of Sewerage and Water Supply was formed in 1860 after an (oft-quoted) government committee reported (in 1852) that:

"In the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke- streets, Elizabeth-street and Swanston-street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies; and in the blocks north and south of this one, the very passages and rights-of-way are similarly saturated."

But, in the transition to 'responsible government' in 1855 funding was cut. And, in the years following, sewerage was symbolically dropped from the title.


Health conditions in late Victorian Melbourne were horrendous. Melbourne had consistently higher deathrates from typhoid, diptheria and tuberculosis than not only the other Australian cities, but London and parts of Europe. Worse, while in most cities improved sanitary conditions and knowledge were contributing to decreasing death-rates, Melbourne's were increasing! Dumping, or letting the run-off of noxious waste into rivers had the Merri Creek in dry weather "a series of gigantic open stagnant cesspools". The Yarra, into which all these would flow was an open sewer. The Scottish traveller James Goudie described it as "the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on".

The increase in water supply without adequate drainage contributed to the problem. Low-lying suburbs such as Collingwood or South Melbourne were inundated with the liquid waste of surrounding suburbs. They were still tainted with their image as disease-ridden slums a hundred years hence.


The cleaning of the 'night-soil' was - in theory - the responsibility of local government. Councils employed night-men to collect the waste from pans, though this service was often voluntary and required payment of a fee. This was then carted to the edge of the city where it was sold to market-gardeners. By 1890 this system was breaking down. The distance to travel to the edge of town had increased as Melbourne expanded; Boroondara, ever mindful of its image banned the night-carts from travelling through. Nightmen regularly dumped the waste where convenient: in vacant lots, or in one enterprising case, off the Johnston St. bridge which lay in a no-mans land between council boundaries. Councils were also plagued by gross incompetence, building extravagant city halls and protecting their councillors business interests first.

Despite repeated calls for an underground sewerage system, politics played a big part in the inaction. A crisis in London in the 1850s had allowed the creation of a metropolitan-wide Board of Works. Melbourne's Town Clerk from 1856-1891, Edmund Fitzgibbon was behind a similar scheme, but several factors delayed a like implementation. Local councils had varying levels of problems with sewerage. Outer metropolitan areas had little, were concerned at the expense of a sewerage system, and probably percieved - rightly - that they would be last to recieve the benefits. Inner councils distrusted the Melbourne City Council for its money and the influence it would have. State government meanwhile, tried to curb - and continues to curb - the power of Melbourne City Council, while at the same time shrinking from paying for a public works scheme for the capital city that the over-represented country members would resent.

The crisis of the late 1880s finally provoked a response. Under Fitzgibbon's influence, city councils came together to propose a joint board of works. The State Government delayed further, appointing a Royal Commission to study the problem. The commission argued for the appointment of a civil engineer to devise a plan for Melbourne - James Mansergh was payed 4000 pounds (a substantial sum) to come from England to do so. Meanwhile, arguments over the form of the new board dragged on. The commission favoured an expert committee to oversea the works, the councils, a representative body. Fitzgibbon's influence told, he convinced the government to have a smaller representive body. In one final compromise though - for outer suburban councils - the board was given control of not just the main sewers, but for the connections to individual houses. With the state government - strangely - wanting no part in the operation, the MMBW bureaucracy that would later run roughshod over councils was born.
The statue of Edmund Fitzgibbon on St. Kilda Rd.

In the early years though, the MMBW had its own problems. The boom of the 1880s busted shortly after its creation, locking up much needed funds in collapsed banks. As a self-funding operation, the new chairman - Fitzgibbon - had to raise loans at a time when businesses were closing and unemployment was skyricketing. Works proceeded slower than expected, and outer suburban councils tried to reduce the size of the project.

Nevertheless, by the combined wills of Fitzgibbon and the chief engineer William Thwaites it went ahead. The sewerage farm was built at Werribee, and a pumping station at Spotswood - now the Scienceworks Museum. In 1897, Melbourne finally had its first house connected to sewerage: a hotel on the corner of Rouse and Princes Streets, Port Melbourne. The central city was connected the next year, and by 1905 over 100,000 properties had been connected. The rapid growth of Melbourne meant the connections would always lag behind the building of new houses, but the general effect was noticeable. Even The Age - long a stern critic of Fitzgibbon and the board for his authoritarian style, and the percieved waste and mismanagement of the project - was forced to concede that:

"The sewering of the city, in carrying off the scourings from the streets and factories, instead of having that refuse shot into the Yarra, had done a great deal towards purifying the river with the result that the atmosphere of the whole city is much purer, and the death rate smaller than it was. This decreased mortality bill means much more than the mere saving of so many lives every year, though that in itself is a great item, especially in a country which is calling for more popoulation. But the saving of life through the sweetening of life's sanitary conditions means an incalculable lifting up of the average health standard of those who live. It means an immeasurable prevention of bodily suffering. This is worth to any city more than the money it costs, however extravagant may have been the methods of bringing it about."

Melbourne Town 24th May, 2004 19:49:07   [#] 

Comments