The West Melbourne Swamp and other reflections on local history

At the risk of sounding paternalistic, and possibly imperialistic, where I live in Avondale Heights was, for a brief moment in time, the very edge of the known world.

In early February 1803, the naval officer James Fleming and the surveyor Charlies Grimes left their ship in the bay, and rowed up the Yarra mouth. They mistook the left hand fork for the main river and led their small party up the Maribyrnong until what is now known as Solomon’s Ford, where they were unable to get their boat over. They explored on foot for a few miles, and then when a storm came camped for the night.

Solomon’s Ford is at the west end of Canning Street, little more than five minutes walk around the corner from where I sit right now, typing these words. As Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘the darkness was here yesterday’.

I have always had an interest in local history, and can tell you who many of the main roads in the Maribyrnong area were named after (mostly early pastoralists who bought the land, either in the 1840s or sometime not too long after, or after suburban subdivision, later local community figures). From an early age, it intrigued me greatly that an imposing bluestone structure with tower, known locally as Raleigh’s Castle, stood on top of the main low hill in Maribyrnong, somewhere close to where Highpoint Shopping Centre is now located. (Sadly it has been gone a long time, and the only traces of Joseph Raleigh now are the main road in Maribyrnong, the oldest of the bluestone factory buildings in Pipemakers Park, and the fact that the suburb of Maribyrnong is still visibly divided between the urbanised eastern half he once owned, and the western half which still partly is owned by the Defence Department.)

Just like Conrad’s character Marlow, I have always been intrigued by maps – in my case older maps of Melbourne. In the 1970s, some maps still recorded the original course of the Yarra River, before Coode Canal was dug in the 1880s, even though it had been filled in during the 1930s. The 1956 canvas map of Melbourne which hangs on my wall still features the West Melbourne Swamp, sandwiched between Dynon Road (formerly known as Swamp Road) to the north, and Footscray Road (then recently rebuilt to run through the swamp rather than to the south of it) to the south.

The existence of that swamp and the now long gone northern bend of the Yarra, to the west of the marshland around Moonee Ponds Creek, created a one mile thick barrier between Melbourne and the village of Footscray, which was starting up in the 1850s on the west bank of the Maribyrnong, just north of the original fork of the two rivers.

On Friday night, I finished reading David Sornig’s book, Blue Lake, which is about this long forgotten swamp, and the itinerant community of Dudley Flat, a humpy town which sprouted up in the Great Depression near the junction of the Yarra with Moonee Ponds Creek.

David Sornig is originally from Sunshine, and much of an age with me (probably a little bit older). He writes of those of us who can remember milk deliveries by horse cart in the early 70s (I never saw it, I only ever heard it, and my mother recently found a horse shoe in her street, just opposite where the diary used to be), and horses kept on outer suburb blocks.

He also through a great deal of meticulous research and humanity brings to life three of the denizens of Dudley Flats from the 1930s, and the misadventures and occasional tragedies which brought them to live in that humpy town on the edge of a city tip.

No book, when you buy it and choose to read it, is ever quite what you expected it to be, and that is probably what makes reading so fun. I was expecting an account of how the swamp vanished and Coode Island first came into being and then ceased to be (as a literal island). Instead, this is just the frame inside which Dudley Flats and its inhabitants are portrayed for us.

Of course, I was intrigued by his attempt, with two friends, to retrace the original course of the Yarra and the outline of the West Melbourne Swamp late in the book. It is very much the kind of thing that I once would have wanted to do, except that aside from the drainage canal parallel to Dynon Road, there is little greenery to see, and much industrial wasteland to discourage one.

Oh, and as a personal footnote. When I look west along Canning Street these days, there is a housing development going up on the valley wall on the other side of the river, just across from Solomon’s Ford. So much for preservation of some semblance of wilderness at what once was the very edge of the known world.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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1 Comment

  1. Even when you write about arguments which are of little interest to the reader, you are are a pleasure to read.


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