The Falls

The Falls
by Tim Lilley

It was a sultry Saturday afternoon on January 11, 1845, when a little boy of eight or nine and his elder sister went to play at the Yarra Falls. The Falls stood about 8km upstream from the mouth of the Yarra River, at the end of today’s Market Street. Here, a row of basalt boulders jutted out 60-70cm above the water, remnants of Victoria’s spectacular period of volcanic activity that had concluded some 7,500 years prior. Since then, the Indigenous people of the Kulin Nation had crossed the Yarra here and met on its banks to conduct ceremonies, trade, marriages, and business.

But the Falls were unforgiving. So strong were the rapids created by the rush of water over them that a natural basin, deep and wide, had formed downstream, which Europeans named the ‘The Pond.’

Unfortunately, the little boy was having too much fun to recognise the danger; to heed his sister’s command to come home right now, lest she tell Mamma what a disobedient boy he was. As his sister looked back, hoping he was following, she let out a shriek of horror. In his haste to chase after her, her brother had fallen into the river. Alerted by her screams, several nearby Kooris struggled in vain to rescue him from the rapids, but so strong was the current that within moments, he was swept away. Five days later, his body washed up on the river’s south bank, 12 yards below the Falls.

Today, few Melbournians know that the Yarra Falls ever existed, let alone that a young boy drowned there in 1845. Like the Dreamtime world of the Kooris – Melbourne’s Indigenous peoples – they have fallen under the shroud of the past. Yet the Falls, and the boy, are both inextricably linked to the story of the development of the urban jungle that we today call Melbourne. They symbolise two very different societies with diametrically opposed understandings of the relationship between humans and nature. The Falls and the boy remind us, too, of nature’s supremacy, and humans’ inability to ever overcome it.

When Europeans arrived in 1835 at the site of Melbourne, they found a place unrecognisable to today’s residents. Some 400 million years of tectonic activity had transformed the Melbourne Trough, once deep underwater, into a bountiful paradise. Contemporary author Edmund Finn described the Yarra as “a stream shrouded in romance, and wrapped in a grand, grotesque wilderness.” On its northern banks, the landscape was divided into two low hills sloping to a central valley, later christened Elizabeth Street. The hills were covered with a forest of native grasses and red and yellow box trees. To its south, the land stretched away in swampy and scrubby flats, interrupted only by the occasional hill or tea-tree belt. Wildlife abounded; there were emus, kangaroos, wallabies, possums, echidnas, parrots, and platypuses, a plethora of species great and small.

The Falls proved crucial to the choice of this site for the foundation of Melbourne.  They divided the salt water downstream from the fresh water upstream, offering the residents of the new city a reliable source of drinking water. Conveniently, the natural basin just below the Falls – the Pool – was also ideal for mooring and turning ships around. This site was clearly, as the man often dubbed Melbourne’s founder, John Batman, pronounced it on June 8, 1835, “the place for a village.”

The only problem was that Melbourne was already populated.

Historians believe humans first laid eyes on the site of Melbourne some 47,000 years ago. Across 1,600 generations, the Koori people watched the landscape of Melbourne take shape, surviving through a hunter-gatherer lifestyle well-adapted to the native environment. The Kooris understood nature and human societies as indistinguishable from one another, entirely interdependent. To them, the land was “the face of the divine” – its form, flora, and fauna the work of the ancestral creation beings, like Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle. Accordingly, the Kooris saw themselves as the custodians – not owners – of their land ever since the Dreamtime. This is not to say they passively submitted to nature’s whims. As Bill Gammage has shown, Kooris actively burnt their landscape to promote particular plant growth, encourage animals to move to convenient locations for hunting, and regenerate areas of land on a seasonal basis. However, their Law was clear: it was the responsibility of all Kooris to care for the land and ensure it was left how they found it.

Unfortunately, the newly-arrived Europeans had other ideas.

The founding of Melbourne in the nineteenth-century was part of a trans-Pacific push for urbanisation. Within only a few decades, the Pacific was ringed with bustling British colonial cities from Sydney to Vancouver. These grew at stratospheric rates and offered unprecedented access to economic opportunities in their extensive hinterlands. For Melbourne, that opportunity was initially wool, but from 1851 gold and its discovery led to such remarkable development, wealth, and population growth, that George Sala dubbed the city in 1888 “Marvellous Melbourne.”

But the push for urbanisation did not arise spontaneously. For millennia, European thought about the relationship between humans and the natural world had placed humans at the apex of a ‘Great Chain of Being.’ This idea was drawn from the Christian belief that God had created a divinely-planned world over which humans were given dominion. The growth in human knowledge during the Enlightenment only strengthened the conviction that humans should advance God’s plan of improving the earth – ‘civilising’ it and making it productive through interventions and modifications.

The impetus for urbanisation came when such views combined with the emerging nineteenth-century idea of ‘progress.’ While European philosophers had previously believed humanity was regressing from an antique golden age, with advances in human knowledge leading to industrialisation, population growth, new inventions, and rising standards of living, it began to seem as if humanity was progressing. Entrepreneurial, liberal-minded young men, seeking to escape the Old World’s intellectual and economic shackles, were attracted to the opportunities for progress (and personal advancement) offered in places like Marvellous Melbourne. Capitalism was at the heart of these opportunities. Owning and controlling land, labour, and capital – ideas completely foreign to hunter-gatherer societies – were progress’s drivers.

Unfortunately, progress came at a cost. This cost was to be paid by the Kooris and their land.

It has been said that the land can tell you a story. Indeed, the story of the Yarra Falls mirrors what happened to the Kooris. Both experienced containment, destruction, and replacement, as their natural world was usurped by urban Melbourne. Both were buried beneath the new society constructed on top of them, yet their presence lingered.

In 1838, surveyor Robert Hoddle and police magistrate William Lonsdale wrote to Governor Gipps to suggest a dam be constructed across the Yarra Falls. This was the first major intervention in what for thousands of years had been the centre of Melbourne’s vibrant ecosystem. The dam was justified, in Hoddle’s view, by the “inconvenience” that “the inhabitants at Melbourne suffer[ed]… from the salt water mixing at high tides with the fresh.” Although the colonial government initially feared the dam would cause floodwaters from upstream to inundate Melbourne, Lonsdale assured them that this had happened but once in Koori memory.

Lonsdale’s promise proved fatally inaccurate. Not only did the Yarra have a history of flooding – hence why the Wurundjeri people of Melbourne usually moved to the higher ground of Mount Dandenong in wetter months – but the dam exacerbated the problem. Melbourne experienced its worst flood on record in 1863, followed by more in 1864, 1866, and 1876. In 1879, John Coode of the Harbour Trust recommended removing the dam and falls, and enlarging and embanking the river from the Botanic Gardens to the sea, to prevent future floodwaters from inundating the city. On May 23, 1883, work began dynamiting the rocks and reef below to a uniform depth of 15 feet, six inches. Within weeks, the Yarra Falls were no more.

But this was not the end of their story. The Falls-Bridge, built in the early days of the colony, had long connected Melbourne and South Melbourne, relying on the solid, rocky reef under the Falls for its foundation. However, by the 1880s, the bridge had become inadequate for moving Melbourne’s ever-expanding population. By then, as Edmund Finn lamented, the Yarra had become “a fetid, festering sewer, befouled amidst the horrors of wool-washing, fellmongering, bone-crushing and other unmentionable abominations” as industry lined its banks. The Falls-Bridge’s replacement, Queen’s-Bridge, opened to great fanfare on April 18, 1890. The opening party, including Governor Hopetoun and Public Works Minister Davies, congratulated themselves for the “progress” they had made in realising the “wealth… afforded” by “the vast wilderness” Europeans had witnessed at Melbourne “within the memory of men now living.”

What they did not spare a thought for were the detrimental effects such ‘progress’ had had on that vast wilderness and its original inhabitants. The forests across the low hills of Melbourne were gone, the trees cut down to build houses or make fire, and the grasses eaten by sheep. Much of the native wildlife had fled or been consumed by the destruction. The Yarra had become brackish as the natural boundary between salt and fresh water was blown away, and the river was filled with the waste waters of the city’s people and industries. The once-proud people of the Kulin nations had dwindled to a handful of survivors through dispossession, disease, and frontier conflict. They were transferred between missions and protectorates, the first at the Botanic Gardens in 1837, with each progressive settlement further from the city. As Emily Potter has argued, removing the Kooris from urban space, and destroying their former lands, was crucial to the colonial project. It gave rise to a discourse characterising Indigenous people as belonging only to the outback. It allowed them to be marginalised to the status of outsiders in urban spaces, reinforcing the doctrine of European superiority. In short, it allowed non-Indigenous Melbournians to forget.

If you peer over the ledge on the southern upstream corner of Queen’s-Bridge today, you will be confronted with a curious sight. There, just below the surface of the water, lies a huge, jagged boulder – the last remnant of the Falls, spared from the dynamite for reasons unknown. The growth of interest in Indigenous history in recent decades has spawned many a memorial, but there is no marker here to recognise this rock. Like the Kooris, dismissed as a dying race in the nineteenth-century, it seems out of place in the urban environment of Melbourne.

Many urbanists have questioned whether Indigeneity and the memory of the pre-colonial landscape can ever truly be integrated into the modern metropolis. I think they can be. Urbanists increasingly highlight the importance of more than just a city’s architecture in constructing its identity. As Deyan Sudjic has argued, “to make sense of a city, you need to know something about the people who live in it, and the people who built it.” Perhaps that can be extended: you also need to know about the people and spaces that came before it. As has often been said, a city is a palimpsest. Its identity is never grounded in one time or one people, but rather, is built in layers as successive generations of inhabitants remake and interact in new ways with its physical form. But what often gets forgotten is the original manuscript beneath. For Melbourne, to peel back the palimpsest, to uncover this manuscript, is to uncover the story of the land, and of its first peoples.

The original manuscript of Melbourne’s urban palimpsest lives on in myriad, often unrecognised ways. Like the 7,000 or so people of Koori descent who live in Melbourne today, while its presence has been buried beneath the city’s layers, it is not gone. The last rock of the Yarra Falls is a stark reminder of this. Cities grow, change, and fall. But as the Kooris knew, nature, regardless of human efforts to tame it, endures, and its landscape will tell you the story of its people.

One last thing. Perhaps you wonder why I began with the story of the little boy who drowned at the Falls on that sultry Saturday afternoon in 1845. Perhaps you question how a young boy could be so symbolic of the European colonisation of Melbourne, and of nature’s ultimate power in the face of all human endeavours. Or perhaps you just wonder what this unfortunate boy’s name was.

He was named after his father, John. John Batman.




Primary sources

“Domestic Intelligence.” The Melbourne Weekly Courier, January 17, 1845.

“The New Queen’s Bridge.” The Argus, April 17, 1890.

“Opening of the Queen’s-Bridge.” The Argus, April 19, 1890.

“Removal of the Yarra Falls.” The Argus, May 24, 1883.

Secondary sources

Batten, Bronwyn, and Paul Batten. “Memorialising the Past: Is there an ‘Aboriginal’ Way?” Public History Review 15 (2008): 92-116.

Cannon, Michael, and Ian MacFarlane. The Early Development of Melbourne. Melbourne: Victorian Government Printing Office, 1984.

Eidelson, Meyer. Melbourne Dreaming: A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014.

Eidelson, Meyer. The Melbourne Dreaming: A Guide to the Aboriginal Places of Melbourne. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997.

Ewen, Shane. What is Urban History? Cambridge: Polity, 2016.

Flannery, Tim. The Birth of Melbourne. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2002.

Gammage, Bill. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012.

Kroessler, Jeffrey A. “The City as Palimpsest.” CUNY Academic Works. New York: City University of New York, 2015.

Lewis, Miles, Philip Goad, and Alan Mayne. Melbourne: The City’s History and Development. Melbourne: City of Melbourne, 1994.

Ponting, Clive. A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Potter, Emily. “Introduction: Making Indigenous Place in the Australian City.” Postcolonial Studies 15, no. 2 (2012): 131-142.

Presland, Gary. Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People. Forest Hill: Harriland Press, 2001.

Sudjic, Deyan. The Language of Cities. Milton Keynes: Allen Lane, 2016.

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