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 in 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.
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.