Once an ancient waterfall, now a busy port

Once an ancient waterfall, now a busy port
Dr Cheryl Griffin

This photograph was taken in 1906 from one of the tallest buildings in Melbourne at the time – the nine-storey Commercial Travellers Club. The photographer is facing west, towards the area we know today as Docklands.

Although it is hard to imagine the landscape before white settlement, it was once a fertile wetland and for many thousands of years and countless generations of Wurundjeri people it was a hunting and fishing ground, a meeting place for ceremonies and trade. Although the built landscape has changed many times over since 1835, this is still the land of the Kulin, Victoria’s first people.

Rivers and waterways played an important role in traditional culture and in the history of Melbourne’s development. You see here the Yarra Turning Basin (sometimes referred to as the Swinging Basin) a busy, bustling industrial space and passenger terminal, at least until 1930 when the Spencer Street Bridge with its low clearance prevented ships from travelling this far up the river.


Queen’s Bridge, with its flat arch design, was opened in 1890. It intersects this photograph and marks one of the most significant sites in Melbourne. Here was once an ancient waterfall that divided saltwater from freshwater. The waterfall was the reason Melbourne was established here, fresh water being a vital resource for the new settlement. The churning water below the falls also created a basin, the turning point for those earliest ships coming into Melbourne with their cargoes of goods and immigrants.


This is Queen’s Wharf and, in the days before trains and decent roads, this is where ships brought cargoes and passengers into what was then the very centre of the city. Here were wharves, the Customs House (now the Immigration Museum), the warehouses storing the items that made life worth living – tea, sugar and, as Australia grew rich on the sheep’s back, its economic lifeblood, wool. Long before the mall in Bourke St or elegant Collins St with its Block Arcade and impressive shopfronts, this was a busy, bustling centre of commerce and industry.

Off in the distance (to the right in the photograph) is the Melbourne Fish Market with its turrets and copper spires. Opened in 1892, it covered a huge area near Spencer St and was a hive of activity in the early hours of the morning. A steam train snakes its way past the market along the railway viaduct heading for Flinders Street Station. The skyline is smudged with smoke from factory stacks to the city’s west. And on the left of the image the solid presence of the six storeyed Robur Tea House reminds us of the dominance and dependability of this staple of the Australian diet.

Along the eastern edge of the Turning Basin is the Howard Smith Company’s passenger terminal, prominently advertising on its rooftop daily steamer journeys to Portarlington and Geelong. The company began its coastal service to Geelong here in 1854 and later diversified into coal mining, steel production, stevedoring, travel, railway rolling stock building, sugar production and retail. These ships are steam ships although, earlier, the area would have been full of white sails. This is progress. And so are the telegraph poles lining Flinders St and the cable trams (one in Flinders St, another crossing the bridge), although the main form of transport is still horse and cart.

The crane on the southern edge of the Turning Basin reminds us that cargoes are loaded and unloaded here. And in the foreground of the photograph are the Banana Alley vaults, built in the early 1890s. Once used to store produce before it was taken to market, the vaults became redundant in the 1930s when Queen’s Wharf was no longer accessible, and they fell into disuse for a long period.

When I first came across this image, I was reminded of a poem I learned at school – Cargoes by John Masefield. It’s a poem that was written about the same time that this photograph was taken, and it was its third verse that resonated:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

In his celebration of British coastal cargo vessels, Masefield brought to life the busy industry of the docks. The staccato sounds of his words in this final verse of the poem evoke a long-remembered soundscape, just as this photograph evokes a part of Melbourne’s history that is long gone. It’s a far cry from the ancient waterfall that once graced this spot, but as I listen to the rhythms of the poem and close my eyes, I see again the sights and sounds that spoke to me so vividly 60 years ago in my primary school classroom and imagine what it was like to be there at Queen’s Wharf in its heyday. •

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