The Things we Take for Granted: Stormwater and Roads
Russell Degnan

In January 1992, along with thousands of other boys, I went to the scout jamboree in Ballarat. Naturally, because it is Ballarat, it rained the whole time we were there. Rain and thousands of people in a large park creates a remarkable amount of mud. Mud stinks. We traipsed around the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo wallowing in filth, hand-washing our clothes in cold water, and eating nothing but sausages and potatoes. It was as close to the 19th century as I ever plan to get.

In January 1852 all of Melbourne's streets were mud. Or, if it was dry: dirt. They were unsurfaced and dusty, horses were the principal means of transport, and they left their leavings everywhere. A few poorly paid scavengers were supposed to keep them clean, but they would never be in sufficient numbers to make a difference. Melbourne was a filthy colonial outpost, with bad drainage, and a horrific smell.

But it was also rich.

In her novel set in the goldrush period, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson (a pen-name, hence the 'her') describes the changing face of Melbourne's streets.

In the heart of the city men were everywhere at work, laying gas and drain-pipes, macadamising, paving, kerbing: no longer would the old wives; tale be credited of the infant drowned in the deeps of Swanston Street, or of the bullock which sank, inch by inch, before its owner's eyes in the Elizabeth Street bog.

Writing in the years prior to the Great Depression, the author was far too generous with both the roads of 1854 and those of her childhood in the 1870s. Macadamised roads - constructed with successive layers of compacted broken stone - needed constant upkeep. Council neglect meant that muddy streets were common until the 20th century when modern asphalt became the norm.

The drainage system was the biggest problem for the roads - and Elizabeth St. in particular. The impermeable surfaces of the city created a large outflow of water when it rained. Until the large underground drain was built Elizabeth St. was regularly a quagmire or worse; in 1840 it "was seriously proposed to put on a punt or two for the transit of goods and passengers". Deep open gutters were built along the streets to improve drainage, but low-lying areas were still often under-water: Flinders St., Swanston St. and Elizabeth St. being the worst affected, and residents took to referring to the streets as "creeks".

Such flooding also extended to the river, which flooded every few years. The plaque on an 1890 painting by Aby Alston in the National Gallery of Victoria refers to the flooding as "tragic, if it were not so common". By then they had made substantial improvements to the river and more followed, particularly after the MMBW was given control over drainage in 1924; but floods in South Melbourne and Richmond still occured until after the Second World War.

Other techniques were tried on the roads themselves. Large stones - still commonly found in laneways and the gutters of the inner suburbs proved to wear too quickly, leaving a rough, slippery and dangerous surface. Wood blocks - made with Australian hardwoods and lain in concrete were used after 1880; starting with just the new tram-tracks, these were found to be quite suitable, and by 1897 roughly 18km of Melbourne's roads were wooden.

The streets of Melbourne in the late 19th century were often an encumbrance to its citizens: wretched in smell, often flooded, and if not that, dusty, with large potholes and poorly lit. A visitor from those days could only be struck by our streets cleanliness and drainage, by the low level of pollution in the air, on the ground, and in the rivers. That they could be improved further is no doubt true, but, its a start.

Melbourne Town 8th September, 2004 13:04:06   [#]