Tag Archives: #MelbourneWater

Melbung smellee welly high

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It’s hard to imagine that almost 130 years ago, Melbourne in Australia was considered the smelliest city in the world when today, year after year, it’s voted the world’s most liveable city.

The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1891 to manage Melbourne’s sewage. Its crest bears the motto ‘salas mea publica merces’, meaning ‘public health is my reward’.

I think they call that transformation.

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How fine this grand Dame of cities is, my Melbourne town. Yet such a past has she, before the first sewage flows from the All England Eleven Hotel in Port Melbourne traversed pastures of graded green at the Metropolitan Farm in 1897.

Ten years earlier, mortality rates from diphtheria and typhoid in our fair Melbourne town numbered 86.3 for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 16 in London and 66 in Paris. The idea to establish a Royal Commission to inquire and report on Melbourne’s sanitary condition was indeed, a splendid one. It came at the eleventh-hour when our fair city was gripped by demonic disease.

Very soon after, in 1891, the authoritative and very official Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was formed. Their business was to provide water supply, sewerage and sewage treatment for our fair city.

Until that time, this admired Queen City of the South had a rather unsavoury means for disposing sewage.

All liquid waste, one day to become known as liquid gold, was thrown into the streets to mix as free as those on the recline of debauchery at Madame Brussels in Bourke Street. My Melbourne town had ‘borne testimony to her evil reputation among travellers as one of the unhealthiest cities in the world,’ according to a journalist of the time.

We all saw it, couldn’t hide from it. Slums in Melbourne town as far back as the 1850s spored faster than mushrooms in an asexual orgy steeped in high humidity and moist damp. People lived in squalor, with no bathrooms or sewerage and in homes held together on scant thread. Rooves leaked and drafts blew through holes in walls. People crammed in close and often shared beds. There was little room to hang laundered washing out to dry and keeping it clean was nigh impossible.

slumsStrolling through streets and children playing outdoors meant an Irish jig within a cesspool of urine, night soil, kitchen and bath water, soap suds from washing clothes, drainage from stables and cow sheds, liquids from trades and manufacturers, and water running off rooves and overland. All would meet in open street channels made from stone, often running into earthen ditches as sluggish glob or collecting in pools that would flood and overflow in rain, giving it free reign to meander into waterways.

‘Tis no wonder typhoid and diphtheria proliferated. No adult or child was safe, even when many claimed it was purely in the slums.

‘Twas an inclement falsity. From mine church cometh my dark demise.

 

Riverine Grazier, Friday 15 February 1889

MARVELLOUS SMELLBOURNE.

[by an original in the Adelaide Observer]

“Those who know say that Port Said is the champion filthy city of the universe. If we are to believe Mr Cosmo Newbury, Melbourne, which claims to be ‘the Queen City of the South,’ is in a fair way to thrust Port Said from that eminence” – Register.

“Bill,’ said I to my erratic Friend, who’s travelled just a bit,

“Name the strongest aromatic City you have ever hit.”

Then he bowed his head in silence, And a study that was brown,

And – when out of reach of violence – Said “I name your Melbourne town!”

“William,” said I, “thou art witty with the music of thy mouth!

Knowest thou that glorious city is the Queen of all the South?”

“Yes,” he answered; “well I know it! Heard it till mine ears do ache;

And, believe me, gentle poet Still in this she takes the cake!”

Then I asked a chewing Yankee, Lantern-jawed and most uncouth,

One of that cadaverous lanky Sort who always tells the truth.

Wal, Siree, he kinder reckoned Melbourne’s people like to blow,

So he’d mark her down as second, Just to give Port Said a show.

Then I asked a dark Egyptian, Who had sojourned in the East,

Answering the true description Swathed in linen like a priest;

Rarer far, he said, and rankers than others Melbourne’s ware

Ah, she had a lot to thank her stars for in the way of air!

Then a frugal child of China for an answer I cajole –

One of those who can combine a head and tail upon one poll;

One who’d found a way of making both ends meet.

To him I cry –

And he says, with laughter shaking –

“Melbung smellee welly high!”

Then said I, the fates are in it! When will Melbourne’s honours stop?

Others have no chance to win it, For she always comes out top!

Energy? She’d do without it! And ascribes it not to pluck!

This it is, and do not doubt it – Melbourne’s wonderful for luck!

 

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Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp

Monika and Voldemar cottage 67 1962

Monika and Voldemar Steinbergs outside cottage 67 on the Farm, 1962

A writer nurtures stories, develops and grows them to be the best they can be. It’s a little like a parent nurturing a child or a gardener raising a plant from seed, laced in love and care. Each story is different just as each child or plant is different, unique with its own set of qualities and characteristics.

Writing an honest account of what life on the Farm might have been like requires immersion into that lifetime. Speaking to people within the Farm (the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Sewerage Farm at Werribee) community is one of the best ways of gaining that understanding of Farm life. Each person I speak with provides an account relevant and original to them and as a writer, each story provides the most fantastic insights. There are never any favourites.

But sometimes, there’s a click and you can see, smell, hear and taste a story to almost touch it. The connection might be to the story or with the person sharing their recollections. Either way or both together, every tiny fibre of their recall seeps into your bones, and it happens more times than not. Spending time with Gertrude recently, talking about the Migrant Camp on the Farm, was two hours of soothing seep.

Uncovering a story is like loosening the snib on the lid of a Pandora’s box swathed in layers of crumbling cobwebs and disintegrating dust. You never know what you’re going to hear when that lid pops open. It can as uplifting as it can be heartbreaking, and everything in between.

There are the charmers and the playful stories, the easy-going ones that smile regardless of what’s bubbling underneath and it’s not until chipping away at that sometimes gleam of gloss surface and pinching through the delicate fissures that you begin to understand the smile as hues of emotion.

The scallywags and jokers tell stories in streams of quips and weaving through the ‘you know, clocks fall into sheep dip to lose their ticks’ and ‘have you heard that sleeping bulls are bulldozers’ can sideline a deeper story. Centring and refocusing to decipher the banter and capture the snaking story can add insights to the fun and jovial.

Some only reveal what they’re comfortable to reveal, and that’s okay. Others tell the story as a stage manager directing a play or a tale that’s become a legend. Extracting its essence can be like trying to catch a Growling Grass Frog tadpole coated in thick slime and living amongst reeds swarmed in mosquitoes.

There are those with ideas and interpretations that sit outside of the box, sometimes the black sheep of the mob. Exploring those can be akin to mining for gold within an infertile reef, but oh the joy in striking that gold. And of course, there are the prickly, smothered in the finest of spines that have the ability to sprout as poisonous thorns if not handled carefully.

The honest that tell it how it is are the easiest to work with. No guess work required, only a thick hide. They’re in stark contrast to those wanting to cover up, where you can sense a teetering of not saying too much and watch eyes of distrust darting, lips quivering. Compassion and understanding for why that is, is be best here.

Ultimately, all are individual with their own self to contribute to a bigger story. There are never any favourites. However, speaking to Gertrude was without doubt, one of my favourites in a collection where there are no favourites. Gertrude Ropa. Even introducing her warms me.

Gertrude at 94, looks more than 15 years younger than her birth age. Whether it’s good genes or good living, I’m not sure. She has one of those permanent smiles, that gentle grandmotherly grin that’s seen a lot of life.

Gertrude motions me to sit beside her on the two-seater settee as soon as her son, Roland, finishes introducing me and leaves, before I could say anything or drop my leather bag loaded in notebooks and pens and a most kitsch bag adorned in European landmarks carrying my heavy-duty microphone and laptop, on the floor. Meeting with people and talking to them about the Farm takes me back to lugging baby things everywhere.

‘Gertrude, your accent, where are you from?’ I say as I ease beside her. Her soft words sing in that typical German way yet are fringed in a velvet lush, probably due to the combination of dialect and living in Australia for many years. It was more than familiar to me, charming me into a comfortability that over the next two hours, made me constantly look at my notes and questions to remember why I was there.

‘Bavaria, in Germany.’ Her eyebrows tilt up.

‘It’s like my father’s,’ I say. ‘And my family in Austria.’

Gertrude smiles more broadly; eyes of knowing lock in.

Gertrude is the wife of now deceased, Wally. Many linked to the Farm, whether as a resident, visitor, acquaintance or vagrant passing through looking for work would know the name Wally Ropa.

Wally, whose real name was Wladyslaw, was a teacher in Poland and an officer during World War II. He was captured by the German army early into the war in 1939 and remained a prisoner until 1945 in a camp near Gertrude’s village in Bavaria. It was in the camp that Wally learned how to speak English.

Gertrude and Wally met and soon after the war ended, had Marianne and Roland. Gertrude and Wally fled Bavaria with their children to arrive in Melbourne on Christmas day in 1949.

‘We had to stay on the boat because no one was working to get us off. We had lunch on the boat and the children couldn’t eat it. It was a single lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a piece of meat.’ Her words are considered.

The next day, the family was ushered onto a train to the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, along the Victorian-New South Wales border.

‘It was such a long trip, like we were going to nowhere. Villages at home were only a few kilometres apart but travelling to Bonegilla, we saw much nothing. And I was so homesick for my family. I left them all behind.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘It was impossible to live in Germany or Poland after the war.’ Gertrude’s always-smile fades as though a cloud passes over. ‘We couldn’t live there because the two countries were enemies.’

From their first night in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, the family was separated: Gertrude and the children stayed in one part of the camp while Wally was allocated a bed in another section with the men. The camp began two years earlier when the first intake of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived, many fleeing their country and looking for a fresh start. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, migrants would work for the government for two years. They were processed and allocated jobs from the camp.

Employees of the government visited the Bonegilla Camp regularly and in January 1950, within weeks of Gertrude and Wally’s arrival, Wally accepted a labouring position the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works offered him to fix fences on the Farm. That meant Wally moved into the Migrant Camp on the Farm to live with other migrant men.

‘It was hard for my husband,’ says Gertrude. ‘Wally didn’t know how to use a hammer very well. He stayed on the Board of Works Farm while we stayed in Bonegilla, until we had a house in Werribee.’

The Migrant Camp on the Farm was set up in the old barracks used by the air force during World War II on the air field at the top of Farm Road. The barracks included a kitchen and dining room where meals were prepared and served to Farm workers. When Wally moved in, ‘Bill’ was managing the kitchen. It’s believed Wally Steinbergs helped Bill cook in the kitchen while Wally’s (Steinbergs) wife, Monika, and son, Ventis, remained in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla also. Wally and Monika went on to live in a few homes on the Farm with their four children and were one of the last families to leave the township by 1971.

Over the next few months in 1950, the number of men moving into the Migrant Camp on the Farm increased and Bill decided to retire.

‘They asked, who wants to help in the canteen,’ says Gertrude. ‘Of course, my husband straight away, put the finger up. And the boss, Mr Speckman, he likes Wally because he spoke English and most people couldn’t talk English.’ Gertrude’s love for Wally sings in the tone of her voice.

The Farm management however, changed the job somewhat and Mr Speckman asked Wally to manage every aspect of the kitchen as a business. That meant Wally had to resign from his labouring position on the Farm and Wally Steinbergs leaving his role as helper in the kitchen to return to other Farm work. By now, it was 1951.

‘Did Wally teach English to the other migrants too, if he spoke English so well?’ I ask.

‘No. A woman came from Werribee at night to teach the men English.’ Gertrude pauses. ‘I don’t remember her name, she came once a week. But Wally … he would help the men with their English. He would buy soaps and cigarettes, washing powder, some razors and special drinks like lemonade for the men, and they paid Wally for those things.’

For the next four years, Wally managed the kitchen with 3am starts. He’d ride his bicycle the almost two kilometres from his home the family had moved into in Werribee, to the Migrant Camp on the Farm each day. He’d make breakfast, lunch and dinner, for which the men living at the camp would pay for.

‘He would make the breakfast what old Bill made, I think bacon and eggs. And he had to make sandwiches on a big bench. Three sandwiches for each person, in the beginning for about 20 people. One sandwich with cheese and two with sausage. He had a little bag, he put one spoon of tea in that bag and a spoon of sugar. And that was wrapped and when the people came to get their breakfast, they take the lunch already made and the tea with them to work.’

The number of men living in the camp increased over time and Wally would feed around 80 men each day.

‘It was a lot of work, we didn’t have a helper, nothing. Only my husband did that.’

Wally would place food orders and clean the kitchen and dining room while the men worked, and once Marianna and Roland went to school, Gertrude would walk to the camp to help Wally in the kitchen and prepare dinner.

‘I didn’t do the cooking, Wally did that. He’d make soup for tea. He’d fry the meat and make a sauce with it, and sometimes spaghetti. He’d make pudding and on top of the pudding was fruit from the tin. I peeled lots of potatoes and pumpkin. We had to slice the bread and put it on the table with the butter. Sometimes, we had some bosses coming from Melbourne, they went visiting the Farm, like vets, and they would come and have lunch and I have to serve them.’

Three or four times a week, Marianne and Roland would ride their bikes to the kitchen after school.

‘They used to have milk churns and we’d have a cold glass of milk and milk arrowroot biscuits,’ Roland recalled when I’d met him, before introducing me to his mother. ‘It was a treat my sister and I enjoyed. We’d sit there while our parents were working. Sometimes we’d ride to the village to swim in the pool.’

Once Gertrude finished helping Wally prepare for dinner, she and the children went home.

‘The boss had a son who made university and he picked him up on the station. I would get a ride sometimes, he took me home.’

‘What time would Wally come home after he’d finish for the day?’

‘When he was in the camp, he done the kitchen, cleaned all the plates. He had a big trough and put all the plates and cleaned them and washed them all, filled up all the bottles for sauce, cleaned the table and the floors and he come back home at seven o’clock.’ The kitchen ran seven days a week.

‘When the people left slowly, there were less and less, and my husband said I can’t do it anymore, I must do the same work for a hundred people for what I do for 20 people and 10 people.’

Wally finished managing the kitchen when it became unviable as a business. He returned to the Farm as an employee, taking on the role of security. He worked in that capacity from the mid-1950s until he retired at 65 years of age in the early 1980s.

We finish talking about the Farm and I pack my books and equipment back into their bags. ‘Thanks very much for all your stories,’ I say to Gertrude. ‘I think we’re finished.’

‘Do you need to go back to work?’ she asks. ‘I have some photos, but they’re not from the Board of Works. They’re of Wally.’

‘Okay,’ I say, sensing Gertrude wasn’t ready for me to leave yet. Gertrude shuffles over to a cupboard and pulls out a photo album. She almost trips on the way back and I instinctively put my hands out to catch her.

‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘These slippers, they catch.’ She plonks back beside me and leans into me to show photos of Wally in the album: Wally running in athletics carnivals, skiing too, in the prison camp with thousands of men, looking fit and healthy to my surprise.

Gertrude’s stories about the kitchen in the Migrant Camp provide such insight into an area with so little information. Finding any photos or people to talk to about living in the Migrant Camp has proved difficult to date.

Certainly, spending time with Gertrude was a delight and is something I would repeat any day. It wasn’t a-twirl-around-the-kitchen one, two, three, four salsa, hip to a maraca type of chit-chat, or a choppy waters foaming at their tips in curls of white kind of ponder over the 1890s.

No, it was more a laze in silken grass under a grandmummy of a maple tree splaying an umbrella of lush green from a wise trunk in Stadtpark in Vienna, licking bitter chocolate and apricot gelato dripping down the side of a cone, with humidity kissing the nape of my neck type of natter.

No favourites though. Ever. Even a cactus thrives and allures in its succulence and flesh and magnificence of pinks, reds and blues flowers.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on the sewerage farm. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board of Works is another term used for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee.

 

Farm Reflections: A land faraway

Mavis & Keith Warfe with Shep the dog

One year and one day to the day, I began this PhD research of the community once living at the Metro Farm, also known as the MMBW Farm, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works at Werribee and fondly, as the Farm.

One year and one day to the day has seen many recollections shared and some intimate memories provoked to prompt nostalgia and expose emotion that has been locked away for many years. A few tears have been shed too. It’s been an honour to be privy to those.

I never expected to know what I know today about the Farm or have met the people I have met, encountered such warmth or be affected in the way that I have, both professionally and personally. But that’s the beauty of life – full of life-changing surprises. It’s to the credit to all that support this work that knowledge is emerging of what it was like to live on the Farm and that it is being recorded today.

One year and one day to the day and I never expected to encounter a very living Farm community.

~~~~~~~~~~

A land faraway

A living town in a life at honey speed, a calm and peace unwavering in the howl of withering leaves. Crested cockatoos cascade between trees of bare, shrilling whistles of a time unmoved, of a life once was in a land faraway.

Cannon balls in the swimming pool and escaping a wrath after hiding knickers … playing cards into the morning and women scuffling for the football on the MCG …

Ghosts of yesterday dance to a squeeze box on the thread of glistening webs. They guard over full-as-bulls battles that spike in the dark near homes trimmed in baubles of roses and hydrangea, and stems of gladioli rivalling to be the best.

Families play and explore in a back yard of a vast faraway.

Today is little of the physical, of faded plum trees and pumpkins entwining along drains, of cream lilies and milk coffee and the horse and jinker tearing its sleeping traveller home as the epitome of the driverless car.

No. It’s not gone, not this life in a land bewitched on an elixir of memories, not within the dusty veil of isolation and cone of connection, where children mushroom and play hyekio and stockman call to their dogs.

Ghosts rejoice from sleeping ruins at the telling of their tales, from the tops of date palms and cypress trees and while watching football and sipping beer behind the goals, from under the water tank in a bass of riff, within a place oozing smiles more spirited and permanent than the Mona Lisa.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed, wistful of lands faraway.

To some, it’s an honouring that’s grounding in subliminal bliss and stark in harsh reality, of little boys and girls scattering and fleeing, some in the clan ducking and weaving … a devastation that can coil as molten lead in sludge fused in hues of rotting seaweed.

All box tight in an infinity of recollections more fertile than the most precious, a box that holds the pause to remember a life that pulses through the veins of the salt bush, in the cooling dip in the bay under a biting sun where friendly flies line tent walls as a film of black or in the darkness of a waning moon with only a fire on the sand. Sea birds call on bellies plump and ripe … pretty and pristine in smashings of greens and tints of blue.

Through the feathery tufts of yellow as a roadside guard of honour is a house and two cows …

A life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed in a land faraway.

Hinged in a haunting of melancholy is a place that once thrived. Listen carefully and you’ll hear it, the deep gloating of lifelong love, of wood being chopped for the stove and to heat the copper, feeding the pigs and milking the cows, churning the cream and butter to a one, two waltz in the Farm hall, a chasse to the Pride of Erin.

Amid this place of serenity are the giggles of mirth from boys peering behind bushes at men searching for their bottled stash, and scallywags scramming after pulling handbags tied to strings from the grasp of the inquisitive unsuspecting … the freedom to be without fear.

Bachelors living together, women and their cottage industries, ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps and picking peas … the rose-gold worn as a cherished adornment of never-ending love that connects souls over lifetimes.

The sun prods for its always opening above foaming curls of white, rhythmic in their crashing and laced in the emotion of Antarctica. This space of breath, expanse of clarity of sight reveals the full beauty of perfect imperfection.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, in a life at honey speed, of a house and two cows in a land faraway.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Farm Reflections: The Hickeys

20170609_103625 (2)

Choppy waters foam at their tips in curls of white, churning waves into shore as a milkshake blending in the darkest, richest chocolate. They break against small, jagged rocks strewn over a bed of shell grit, rhythmic in their crashing, rousing a deep pondering. In skies of heavy murk and gloom tinged in highlights of mauve as the sun prods for an opening, I gaze out to Portarlington in the distance to the west. What a day to be out here. I scan over the bay through sheets of fine mist, to the east at Werribee South and further around to Melbourne.

Ice cold flinches off the water, spearing breezes that swirl in Antarctica emotion and blend with shades of rotting seaweed. It’s the kind of chill that gets in, biting at my jaw and bare neck, sneaking in under my thick beanie knitted for Alpine conditions. Thankfully, the thermal socks I’m wearing are keeping my feet warm, although I don’t know for how long after wading through ankle deep water that flooded the road and trekking through sodden salt marsh after heavy overnight rain.

Anyone that knows Melbourne would say it’s a typical winter’s day.

Finding the flattest rock to sit on is almost impossible. They’re all pitted after having been spat out as molten lava millions of years ago and cooled to popped pockets of air bubbles.

I wonder how the Hickey family coped, living here along the foreshore of the Farm.

Annie and Michael Hickey arrived at the Farm in 1898 looking for work. They lived here on the foreshore in tents with their children: 10 under the age of 15, including a set of twins, within a year of their arrival. They were offered a house and two cows for milking in 1911. It’s unclear yet whether they remained in tents until that point or when Michael was offered employment.

Back then, the sewerage farm was a prime place for work. It was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century and provided job security for many farmers during the 1890’s economic crash and 1930’s depression.

Up until this point, Melbourne’s only system for disposing sewage in the 1800s was to throw it into the streets, giving it free reign to meander into waterways. A typhoid and diphtheria epidemic broke out and British journalists were dubbing Melbourne as Marvellous ‘Smellbourne’. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed to set up a sewerage farm at Werribee to treat Melbourne’s sewage. Interestingly, Werribee was chosen over the other option at Mordialloc, which was closer to Melbourne and already gentrifying Brighton in Melbourne’s east. That’s another story for another time. The Farm still treats sewage and is known today as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. It’s about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce required to manage it. Work was plenty at the Farm and Annie and Michael understood that. They knew too, that because of the distance between Melbourne and Werribee, and between the Werribee town centre and the sewerage farm, that those who worked at the Farm were offered a house and two cows to rent, to them and their families to live in.

Michael came from County Clare in Ireland, Annie (Welham) from Ballarat via a convict ship from England that landed in Perth. They must have been accustomed to the cold, but I wonder about the landscape. It’s pretty and pristine out here in its tints of blue and grey, but that can change in an instant. The Australian landscape is known for its chameleon dexterity. It can arouse the harsh and extreme in all hues of a brash and unsettling that many writers at the turn of the 1900s attempted to capture in a most lyrical romantic form. Sitting here wearing two jumpers, a coat and corduroy jeans, beanie, thick socks and safety boots, I wonder how the Hickeys managed, how the children handled living here.

Food and water was plenty: fish in Port Phillip Bay and the Werribee River, eels, rabbits and ducks to catch, chickens and their eggs, pigs reared for meat, sometimes sheep too, cows for milking and making cream and butter, and for producing cheese. People ‘lived off the land,’ as many have said. Water mains across the Farm and into Cocoroc South, also known as the bottom end, provided fresh water. I’m still piecing the story together but I can see from a recently, very generously donated 1906, hand drawn and painted map of the Farm that these were established. Two cottages and the Cocoroc South School with a teacher’s residence are also marked on the map in this area.

Sitting here with the sun now radiating on my back, water resolute in its reeling in that rhythm that you can lose yourself in once you tune in, no one else about, quite secluded considering Melbourne is around 25 kilometres away … it’s quite a place to be. Those Hickey kids would have coped, in a most wonderful playground of salt marsh and grass to run through and play, swimming and fishing. They most likely attended Cocoroc South School, which opened in 1906 nearby. Cocoroc West School in the north-west of the Farm opened in the same year. Cocoroc School in the township had already been operating for 10 years after a residents’ petition to the education department requesting a school be established, considering 40 children lived on the Farm at that time, was successful. It was a sign of the Farm’s rapid growth.

The paddock I walked through to get here is known as ‘Loozy’s’ by many, after the fisherman, Mr Losevitz. He paid an annual licence fee to the MMBW and was appointed Ranger of the foreshore and jetty reserve between 1922 and 1946. Mr Losevitz also cared for the MMBW boat that was moored at the jetty here. Many enjoyed Loozy’s and school sports between the four schools (Murtcaim School was established in 1939) were often held here.

This place is peace, even if parts of me have become numb. It’s a place to think and process, digest all that is this Farm … the Hickeys living here in tents, with 13 children. Summer would have been very different to today: flies lining tent walls in a film of black, gathering as a sheath on warmed water in the copper. And sweltering under a 40-degree Celsius day … cooling with a dip in the sea under a stark summer sun or a full moon on a hot night, in the darkness of a waning moon with maybe only a candle or fire for light.

And the next generation of Annie and Michael … riding eight kilometres on horseback to the town pool or on push-bike with a dog that guarded the bike to stop every kid at the pool from riding it, games of ‘hiekeyo’ (not sure of its spelling) and handbags tied to strings placed on the single-lane highway to Geelong. Inquisitive motorists would stop to check on the handbag, only to have it drawn away from them by a group of scallywags hiding behind bushes on the roadside, who then bolted when that person of unsuspecting chased after them. Then there were the mischievous boys who moved the bottles of beer that men at the weekly dances would stash in bushes outside, and those boys hiding and watching in mirth of giggles as those men searched for their beer … the freedom to play and wander, to explore without fear.

Three to four generations extend over the Farm. Some children walked or rode five and six kilometres to and from school each day, some hitch-hiked from the highway into town … there’s Uncle Frank who never married and lived in a caravan on the foreshore near the Werribee River while working as a waterman. He fought in World War One, got shot, returned to Melbourne to recover, went back to the front line, only to be injured again and returned to Melbourne to recover. He remained a waterman at the Farm and eventually moved out of the caravan and in with his brother and family until he retired. There were ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps, bread and mail delivered in the same box down near Murtcaim, picking peas at Little River … and the little boy that sits in my gut as a weight of unwant, the devastation of him.

Then there’s the granddaughter of Annie and Michael who lives in the home her grandparents once lived in, an old house relocated from the Farm into Werribee … and Annie’s rose-gold wedding ring still worn today, a precious adornment of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes.

I didn’t think it possible, but I’m thawing out. That Melbourne winter warmth that comes from a southern hemisphere sun is turning on its toasty charm. Winter here is different to anywhere else I’ve been, different to the European winters of bleak and fog that can choke to a breathless gag, laced in a pollution that permeates every pore until you can taste it in your every swallow. This space of breath is undeniable, a vast expanse of clarity of sight where nothing can hide and every skerrick of flaw is revealed in full beauty of perfect imperfection, and when cleansed by a sweeping of rain, sharpens in pristine splendour. The veins in the leaves of the salt bush, the life pulsing through them … the shrilling whistles of crested cockatoos streaming between bare-leaved trees, sea birds calling on a belly plump and ripe, waders stealing over mudflats … the stirring of senses in full flight.

The tide’s rolling in. Annie and Michael would have understood those tides, how far they came up and down, where to perch their camp to be clear of even the occasional king tide. The overnight rain too, and the impact of that rain on their camp.

While today with all our mod-cons, living in tents on the foreshore might seem full of challenges, sitting here is this cacophony of crashing waves, bristling breeze and trilling glee, it’s gloriously serene. And with the privilege of time to stop and think, it’s incredibly insightful. Life here was full, and simpler I imagine to some extent, with fewer distractions and an abundance of personal, sensory pleasure.

It’s time to move off the volcanic rock of hard, time for the blood to pump back into those damp parts of numb. Back over these rocks I climb, unsure of my footing sometimes with the wet and dense bush covering, through the salt marsh and over squelching mud beneath my boots, over a wire fence, careful not to knock my laptop. I look for the fine line of gravel on the road that breaks the water’s surface, but am soon in ankle deep water again. Back to my car, covered in dried, tawny mud, back to this mod-con world.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

 

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