Transitional Tale | News from the Docks
Make no mistake, the beautiful view you see over the waters of Victoria Harbor comes at a cost. By this, I am not referring to the cost of your apartment!
What we now see as Victoria Harbor’s wondrous aquatic amphitheater is described by some historians as a “victim of modern civilization without remorse”. This is perhaps too dark and catastrophic a lens through which to understand the forces that shaped the Docklands precinct – a story of transition.
Prior to European settlement in 1835, this area between the Yarra River and Moonee Ponds Creek was an abundant and beautiful wetland. The shallow, shimmering blue “lake” or “lagoon” teemed with animals, birds, and plants that served as rich food sources and supported the cultural traditions of the Kulin Nation people. This wetland was an important meeting place for traditional owners who gathered in large gatherings for trade, celebrations and other social activities.
Time passed, the colony grew, and Blue Lake became a mere swamp for European settlers – first “Batman’s Swamp” and later “West Melbourne Swamp”. With the increase in population and manufacturing it degenerated further – ugly, polluted, smelly of noxious trades, the area was considered unsanitary and was shunned by prosperous settlers as a refuge for the poor. In the middle of the 19th century, the marsh turned into a vast contaminated bog absorbing industrial effluents from a rapidly growing urban agglomeration.
A growing city needed adequate port facilities and with ambition, foresight and funds, later in the 19th century this wasteland was seen as a site of opportunity and the swamp grew into the vast excavated expanse of the Victoria Harbour. At the end of the 19th century, the powerful decision makers of the relatively wealthy colony embarked on ambitious civil engineering works and, with an abundance of cheap labor in the midst of a depression, altered the shape even not only from the swamp, but also from the surrounding land. .
Blue Lake Intermittent Lake/Swamp has been drained and excavated. Existing streams were rerouted, channeled into what is now known as the Dynon Road Tidal Canal, paralleling Dynon Rd. The once extensive marsh has been reduced to a small wetland. Spoil from the excavation was piled into new earthworks along the Yarra River and shaped into what became Collins Wharf, and Coode Island was created. Melbourne now had a world-famous harbour, known as a marvel of civil engineering, much of it excavated by hand. All of this added greatly to Melbourne’s available port space and supported a booming maritime trading economy.
The Blue Lake had successfully transitioned into the major and hugely important international port of Victoria. New shipping and rail infrastructure filled the port and this efficient, extensive and bustling port fueled the prosperity of Melbourne and Victoria.
Inexorably, the transition continues. Mid-20th century technological advances in refrigeration and containerization, together with the sheer volume of maritime trade, resulted in the relocation of port operations westward from Victoria Harbor to new docks at Swanston and Appleton.
There are clear parallels to be drawn between Blue Lake’s transition from an abundant and rich wetland to a large contaminated bog, and the success and redundancy of Port Victoria from a brownfield site to a renovation site. of swanky brownfields filled with properties. developments which is the Docklands area today.
History indicates that transitions are constant – recovery, reinvention, reorientation and revitalization will continue. What are we now faced with? More logistics capacity, more automation, a gigantic tonnage of ships. Just as Victoria Harbor has become too small, will Port Phillip Bay and The Heads be deemed too shallow for gigantic bulk carriers? We are already hearing speculation about next-phase cargo hubs away from the city center. Will the idyllic Blue Lake really return? Not as a food source perhaps, but as a wonderful aquatic recreational play space for Melburnians?
The Royal Historical Society of Victoria recently held an excellent exhibition called The Swamp Vanishes. View this exhibit online – the images are stunning. Visit historyvictoria.org.au for more information.
Public records are the ‘stuff of heritage’ and the importance of a new project from the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), Ports and harbours: an amazing story of document transfer, provides a treasure of the Docklands district. Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network encourages you to experience this wonderful PROV project capturing the historical public records of Ports Victoria and previous agencies including the Commissioners of the Melbourne Harbor Trust, the Ports and Harbors branch of the Department of Public Works, the Authority of the Port of Melbourne and Geelong. Port Trust. The entire collection is now available through Open Access and can be viewed and 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 Yarra River and Victoria Wharf, Queen’s Bridge to Coode Island PROV VPRS 18781 C1 474731A.