The Aboriginal History of Yarra

Yarra Falls Building Site, 1918

Yarra Falls Building Site, 1918, Collingwood History Collection, courtesy Yarra Falls Limited, ID: CL PIC 93

11. Pollution

One of the more pervasive aspects of European settlement was the pollution of the air and water. While the semi-nomadic Wurundjeri lifestyle had a low impact on the environment, the European lifestyle took a heavy toll on the environment, with permanent settlement producing concentrated bi-products. A particular problem for the Wurundjeri was pollution around the confluence of the Merri Creek and the Yarra River – an important meeting place. Fellmongers, woolwashers and tanneries fouled the waterways, and soap and candle makers boiled down animal fat that could be smelt for miles around. Early settlers in the Fitzroy and Collingwood areas had no rubbish or sewerage disposal – and run-off frequently drained down to the Collingwood flats, eventually entering the waterways. Even in the late 1850s, when nightmen were employed to collect sewerage, many simply dumped it in or near the Yarra.

One of the more pervasive aspects of European settlement was the pollution of the air and water. While the Wurundjeri lifestyle had a low impact on the environment, the European lifestyle took a heavy toll. A particular problem for the Wurundjeri was pollution around the confluence of the Merri Creek and the Yarra River – an important meeting place for the Wurundjeri and visiting Aboriginal people, and also the base for the Merri Creek School, Native Police and Protectorate Station. Noxious trades established along the river, particularly in Collingwood, Abbotsford and Richmond, were some of the worst offenders. Historian Bernard Barrett states that settlers were attracted to these areas ‘because of the free water supply for washing skins and wool and as a sewer and garbage dump.’[i] This dumping ground was the drinking water supply for both Europeans and Aboriginal people.

The process for fellmongery and woolwashing involved soaking animal hides in the river for days, then in hot water, soap and soda that was later dumped back into the river (along with pelts, heads and legs of the animals). Tanneries also soaked the animal hides in the river, then in lime water, then river water again. Sometimes they also soaked the hides in a mix of water and fowl or pigeon dung, which, along with the hair that was scraped off, was later dumped into the river. Soap and candle-making from boiled down animal fat also contributed to the air pollution which could be smelt for miles around.[ii] The result of an 1851 enquiry by the Melbourne City Council was to prohibit any new fellmongers or tanners. However a second enquiry in 1854 showed that the number had increased, and that combined they were handling 5000 sheepskins and 200 cattle hides per week.[iii]

The everyday lifestyle of settlers living in suburbs such as Fitzroy and Collingwood also had impacts on the landscape. There was no general garbage collection service, so household waste was simply thrown into yards and trampled underfoot. Anything not eaten by household animals such as dogs, chickens, goats, cows and pigs, was then dumped in the laneways, streets, swamps or drains. Rubbish dumped in drains would flow downhill to the flat, and eventually to the Yarra. The other issue associated with drains was sewerage. Most households used a cesspit, frequently not water tight, so waste would filter through the ground, and overflow would go out in the gutter. Waste from those living on the Fitzroy hill would travel down to the Collingwood flat, meaning the cesspits there also gathered this waste. Barrett notes that ‘Often the contents, augmented by rainwater, overflowed around, and even under, buildings.’[iv] By the late 1850s, nightmen were employed to collect sewerage, but many simply dumped it, with most ending in the Yarra.

The Wurundjeri’s experience of this pollution has not been recorded, but it cannot be doubted that this would have had an extremely negative impact. Their drinking water was fouled, noxious smells polluted the air and the land was littered with the bi-products of life in the settlement.

 


[i] Barrett, The Inner Suburbs, 88

[ii] Ibid, 89-90

[iii] Ibid, 88

[iv] Ibid, 76

One of the more pervasive aspects of European settlement was the pollution of the air and water. While the Wurundjeri lifestyle had a low impact on the environment, the European lifestyle took a heavy toll. A particular problem for the Wurundjeri was pollution around the confluence of the Merri Creek and the Yarra River – an important meeting place for the Wurundjeri and visiting Aboriginal people, and also the base for the Merri Creek School, Native Police and Protectorate Station. Noxious trades established along the river, particularly in Collingwood, Abbotsford and Richmond, were some of the worst offenders. Historian Bernard Barrett states that settlers were attracted to these areas ‘because of the free water supply for washing skins and wool and as a sewer and garbage dump.’[i] This dumping ground was the drinking water supply for both Europeans and Aboriginal people.

The process for fellmongery and woolwashing involved soaking animal hides in the river for days, then in hot water, soap and soda that was later dumped back into the river (along with pelts, heads and legs of the animals). Tanneries also soaked the animal hides in the river, then in lime water, then river water again. Sometimes they also soaked the hides in a mix of water and fowl or pigeon dung, which, along with the hair that was scraped off, was later dumped into the river. Soap and candle-making from boiled down animal fat also contributed to the air pollution which could be smelt for miles around.[ii] The result of an 1851 enquiry by the Melbourne City Council was to prohibit any new fellmongers or tanners. However a second enquiry in 1854 showed that the number had increased, and that combined they were handling 5000 sheepskins and 200 cattle hides per week.[iii]

The everyday lifestyle of settlers living in suburbs such as Fitzroy and Collingwood also had impacts on the landscape. There was no general garbage collection service, so household waste was simply thrown into yards and trampled underfoot. Anything not eaten by household animals such as dogs, chickens, goats, cows and pigs, was then dumped in the laneways, streets, swamps or drains. Rubbish dumped in drains would flow downhill to the flat, and eventually to the Yarra. The other issue associated with drains was sewerage. Most households used a cesspit, frequently not water tight, so waste would filter through the ground, and overflow would go out in the gutter. Waste from those living on the Fitzroy hill would travel down to the Collingwood flat, meaning the cesspits there also gathered this waste. Barrett notes that ‘Often the contents, augmented by rainwater, overflowed around, and even under, buildings.’[iv] By the late 1850s, nightmen were employed to collect sewerage, but many simply dumped it, with most ending in the Yarra.

The Wurundjeri’s experience of this pollution has not been recorded, but it cannot be doubted that this would have had an extremely negative impact. Their drinking water was fouled, noxious smells polluted the air and the land was littered with the bi-products of life in the settlement.

 


[i] Barrett, The Inner Suburbs, 88

[ii] Ibid, 89-90

[iii] Ibid, 88

[iv] Ibid, 76

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Yarra Falls Building Site, 1918

Yarra Falls Building Site, 1918

Yarra Falls Building Site, 1918, Collingwood History Collection, courtesy Yarra Falls Limited, ID: CL PIC 93

Yarra Yarra from Below Princes Bridge

Yarra Yarra from Below Princes Bridge

Yarra Yarra from Below Princes Bridge, 1853, lithograph by Edmund Thomas, State Library of Victoria, Accession Number H90.91/602