In the 19th century, Melbourne was nicknamed ‘Smellbourne’. The solution lay in the western treatment plant

In the late 1800s, the population of Melbourne grew rapidly, but the streets were rinsed with rubbish and human waste.

It was so bad that it got a royal commission.

The Royal Commission of 1888, which investigated the state of the city’s public health, led to the development of a crucial part of the city’s infrastructure: the Melbourne Western Treatment Plant at Werribee.

Nearly 125 years later, this facility in the city’s outer west treats more than half of Melbourne’s wastewater and is the first wastewater farm to be added to Victoria’s Heritage Register.

An aerial photo of the western treatment plant in Werribee.(Delivered by: David Mullins)

From ‘Smellbourne’ to Melbourne

To understand the significance of the treatment plant, one has to imagine Melbourne in the 1880s – in all its inconveniences.

Researcher Monika Schott said in the late 1800s that Melburnians would either use backyard pit toilets or flush them directly on the street, and typhus and diphtheria were worse than in London or Paris.

“All the night soil, commercial waste, waste from kitchens and homes, was just thrown out in open canals on the street, and it just flowed wherever gravity would take it,” said Dr. Schott.

The problem got so bad that British journalists described Melbourne as ‘Smellbourne’, according to Heritage Victoria’s CEO Steven Avery.

“So they appointed the Royal Sanitation Commission to try to find a solution to what was a public health crisis,” he said.

Problem solved in the city west

That solution involved connecting a system of canals across the western part of Melbourne from Spotswood, Brooklyn and out to a large farm at Werribee.

“It was a great engineering achievement for the era, the converted pastoral area into a wastewater filtration system,” Mr Avery said.

A black-and-white image of a bunch of people in 19th-century fashion with someone holding a shovel.
Turning of sod to the main drain at Werribee site in May 1892.(Delivered)

The 2016 census registered a population of 40,000 in Werribee, but in the 1890s it was a very different place.

“Back then, Werribee was not an area with significant population, it was far enough from the city to be out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

Of course, all those workers had to have a place to live, so the plant’s board built a small town to house all the workers and their families, where up to 500 people lived at its peak in the 1930s.

The remaining buildings from the town of Cocoroc, including a courtyard, will also be included on the cultural heritage.

A black and white photo of a group outside a school building in 1970.
A group outside Cocoroc North State School in 1970.(Delivered)

Alanna Wright, head of the Melbourne Waters Western Treatment Plant, said workers and families played a crucial role in the city’s development.

“For more than 80 years, Cocoroc has been a thriving community with over 100 houses for workers and their families,” she said.

“This recognition of inclusion in the Victorian Heritage Register is a fitting tribute to the many generations who lived and worked on the farm and have left their legacy on Melbourne’s life and viability.”

A man standing near a steam train filled with logs in a fold.
The life and work around the treatment plant was isolated in its early days.(Delivered)

Isolated Cocoroc a happy ‘utopia’

Dr. Schott said many of the residents of Cocoroc described living there as a ‘utopia’, and not just because they were among the lucky Melburners who kept their jobs during the Great Depression.

“They had the freedom to just be, they could let their kids wander around,” she said.

“They had rabbits and fish and ducks, and because they were so isolated, they learned to trust each other and be self-sufficient.”

But Dr. Schott said life on Cocoroc could be pretty tough, in part because of the isolation.

Old rusty farm equipment and a water tower building in the wind surrounded by trees and grass.
Old sewage equipment and the Corococ water tower.(Delivered by: David Mullins)

“Not to mention the prejudice of living on a sewage farm that exists today for people living in Werribee,” she said.

A lot of ducks are sitting on a floating black plastic spot on a large dam
Melbourne’s Western Treatment Plant is a popular place for bird watchers.(Delivered by: Chris Purnell, Birdlife Australia)

Sir. Avery said the western sewage treatment plant was a worthy entry in the Cultural Heritage Register.

“I think a lot of people raise their eyebrows when you say the western sewage treatment plant is hereditary, but it’s a pretty amazing place,” he said.

“It’s one of the unusual things to consider part of the legacy, but it’s a big part of Victoria’s history.”


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