How Melbourne solved its sewage problem. Mitchell Toy October 2, 2018 Herald Sun
MELBOURNE was booming 50 years after it was founded. Flush with money from the gold rush it was soon to become the biggest city in the British Empire outside of London. But there was one aspect of Melbourne that wasn’t so marvellous.
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FIFTY years after John Batman and the Port Phillip Association founded Melbourne the place was booming.
The population hit 280,000 by 1880 and was well on the way to 500,000 just a decade later.
For a while it was the largest city in the British Empire outside London.
After the gold rush had poured people and money into Victoria, ambitious public works were underway such as the Exhibition Building and the new Princes Bridge.
But there was one aspect of Melbourne that wasn’t so marvellous.
Melbourne in 1880, when the city still did not have a sewer system. Picture: State Library of Victoria
It was the reason our fair city, considered one of the finest in the world, still attracted the nickname “Smellbourne”.
In the fifty years since its inception, as its railway lines and suburbs spread south of Brighton and north of Preston, there still was no underground sewer system.
And if the smell wasn’t bad enough, the onset of typhoid in the late 1800s forced the hand of government to build the Werribee treatment plant.
Night soil, the euphemism for raw sewage, was a constant menace in Melbourne in the late 1800s.
It flowed through open drains, was dumped in streets or was transported away in large pots from cesspits or tanks.
Waste from kitchens, chamber pots and industrial buildings was poured out into rivers and streams, including the Yarra.
A drawing depicting a camp at the Alfred Hospital to treat sufferers of typhoid in the late 1800s. Picture: State Library of Victoria
A late Nineteenth Century illustration depicting one of the many fever outbreaks in Melbourne. Picture: State Library of Victoria.
Home toilets were not connected to pipes and often had little more than a bucket at their base.
The collection and disposal of the pots was something that continued in Melbourne outhouses well into the 20th Century.
In 1880 the night soil was often carried out to the fringes of the city and used as effective fertiliser.
But the streets of Melbourne were themselves open sewers and the health of waterways was deteriorating rapidly.
The whole business was not only smelly but lethal.
Despite the overpowering smell, theories about the spread of disease through germs and the stark danger of open sewers were not widely accepted and the shocking rate of typhoid death and infant mortality was not immediately linked to the squalid streets.
Ubiquitous Australian flies — unfamiliar to many Melbourne residents who were born overseas — helped the disease spread effortlessly among the city’s growing populace.
Disease was ever present. Between 1869 and 1878 typhoid alone had killed an estimated 1100 people climbing to more than 220 per year in the late 1870s.
More outbreaks in the 1880s clogged hospitals and killed hundreds.
Work on the main Melbourne drain in the 1880s. Picture: State Library of Victoria
By 1889 the drainage problem was recognised as a cause of typhoid with a government notice stating that, when a new case was identified, drains in and around the property had to be flushed by an appointed inspector at least once every 24 hours.
Inspectors were to use sulfate of iron or carbolic acid to cleanse the area, in public health instructions never before issued.
New regulations also called for private closets to be aired and disinfected, and the sweeping and cleaning of streets to be more vigorous.
But by now there was no getting around the fact that an underground sewer was well overdue.
An illustration of plans for a new sewer network reaching out to Werribee. Picture: State Library of Victoria
PLANS FOR THE WERRIBEE FARM
Despite the toll of bad hygiene on the public, work on a new sewer system didn’t get underway until the early 1890s.
The freshly founded Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works drew up a drainage system that gathered sewage underground at Spotswood.
From there a pumping station powered by steam would be built to push the waste out to a new sewage farm at Werribee.
An illustration of the new sewage farm at Werribee. Picture: State Library of Victoria
Mordialloc was briefly considered as an alternative site for the treatment plant before land at Werribee was deemed cheaper; the board bought more than 8800 acres from the Chirnside family at a price of 17 pounds per acre.
The project, one of the largest of its kind in colonial Australia, was completed in 1897.
Four years later Melbourne was the capital of a federated Australia and had shaken its reputation for smelly streets.
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* A lot of human waste still flows into the Yarra and is why swimming in it is a health risk. Its E. coli levels downstream are off the scale.
* classy bricklaying in the main sewer
* it is hoped that the viaducts will always have heritage protection
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