In the 19th century, Melbourne was called “Smelbourne”. The solution lies in the western processing plant

In the late 19th century, Melbourne’s population was growing rapidly, but the streets were littered with rubbish and human waste.

It was too bad, which led to the creation of a royal commission.

That 1888 Royal Commission investigating the city’s public health led to the development of an important part of the city’s infrastructure: Melbourne’s Western Processing Plant at Werribee.

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

An aerial view of the historic town of Kokrok surrounded by pastures from the Western Processing Plant.
Aerial view of the western processing plant at Wouribe.(Supplied: David Mullins)

From “Smellbourne” to Melbourne

To understand the significance of a treatment plant, you have to imagine Melbourne in the 1880s – in all its misery.

In the late nineteenth century, Melbourne residents were either using pit toilets in their backyard, or emptying them directly on the street, said researcher Monica Schutt, and rates of typhoid and diphtheria were worse than in London or Paris.

“All the nocturnal soil, commercial waste, and waste from kitchens and homes, was just dumped into open channels on the street and flowed wherever gravity would take it,” Dr. Schott said.

The problem has worsened, with British journalists describing Melbourne as “Smelbourne,” according to Heritage Victoria CEO Stephen Avery.

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

The problem is solved in the west of the city

This solution involved connecting a system of canals across western Melbourne from Spotswood and Brooklyn to a large farm in Werribee.

“It was a major engineering feat of the era, it transformed the pastoral area into a sewage filtration system,” said Mr. Avery.

Black and white photo of a crowd in 19th century fashion with a person holding a shovel.
Sod diversion of the main sewage at the Werribee site in May 1892.(supplied)

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

“At the time Wouribie was not a very densely populated area, it was far enough from the city to be out of sight and out of mind,” he said.

Of course, all these workers needed somewhere to live, so the Council of Works 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 that city, Cocoroc, including Farm Hall, will also be included in the Heritage List.

Black and white photo of a group outside the school building in 1970.
A group outside Cocoroc North State School in 1970.(supplied)

The manager of Melbourne Water’s Western Processing Plant, Alana Wright, said workers and families played a vital role in the city’s development.

“For more than 80 years, Kokoroc has been a thriving community of more than 100 homes for workers and their families,” she said.

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

A man stands near a steam train loaded with logs in a soil field.
Life and work around the treatment plant were isolated during its early days.(supplied)

Cocoroc isolated happy “utopia”

Dr Schott said that many Kokorok residents described living there as a “utopia,” and not just because they were among the lucky Melbourne residents who kept their jobs during the Great Depression.

“They had the freedom to be, and they could let their kids roam,” she said.

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

But Dr Schott said life in Kokorok can be very difficult, in part because of the isolation.

Rusty old farming equipment and a blue water tower building surrounded by trees and grass.
Old sewage farm equipment and Corococ water tower.(Supplied: David Mullins)

“Not to mention the prejudice that the residents of Warby have in living on a sewage farm,” she said.

Lots of ducks sitting on a black plastic perch floating on a large dam
Melbourne’s Western Processing Station is a popular site for bird watchers.(Supplied: Chris Burnell, BirdLife Australia)

Mr. Avery said the Western Processing Plant was a good inclusion in the Heritage Register.

“I think a lot of people are surprised when you say that the Western Processing Plant is of heritage importance but it’s a very cool place,” he said.

“One of those extraordinary things is that it’s part of the heritage but it’s a big part of Victoria’s story.”

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