FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
From Swamp to Canal
Miss Camm, having arrived in Victoria in August 1854, went with a party for a picnic to Brighton. They made the journey in a dray. On their return, the driver of the dray sought a short cut to St Kilda along the margin of the Elwood Swamp. They were well into the swamp, with its slimy mud bed, when the horses became frightened. The men had to carry the women to the lagoon’s margin where there was firmer land, and in doing so the men sank into the mud as far as their knees.
From Elwood’s first Settlers by
Beverley Broadbent 2005.
The Elwood canal is a unique seam of open space running through the urban fabric of Elwood. In its former life it was the Elster Creek, which drained to a swamp near the beach. This rare nineteenth century canal has shaped Elwood’s pattern of settlement, its parks and public works, recreational spaces and wildlife habitat. Today the Elwood Canal Master Plan of Port Phillip Council is guiding its restoration from a drain to an aesthetic waterway.
For most of the nineteenth century the wetland was viewed as a barrier to European development. While the subject of complaint for moist of its history, it has also been a source of striking recollections, even entering into Australian literature. In his brilliant autobiography, A Fine and Private Place, Brian Mathews describes an epic voyage as a child up the Elwood canal from the foreshore to his home. Leigh Redhead’s crime thriller, Peepshow, culminates in a violent struggle between female sleuth, Simone Kirsch, and a corrupt cop in the ‘oily waters’ of the canal. The brutal murder of Molly Dean in 1930 in a nearby lane off Addison Street was included in one of Australia’s best-known novels, My Brother Jack by George Johnston.
Today, the Elwood Canal is a man-made watercourse connecting the lower reaches of the Elster Creek with Port Phillip Bay, three hundred metres north of Point Ormond. It drains forty square kilometres of southeast Melbourne, including Prahran, Glen Eira and Kingston. The upper reaches of the creek were originally a natural watercourse that ended in an ill-defined wetland near the beach between 108 and 160 acres in size, depending on rainfall.
Swamps like Elwood, which waxed and waned with the weather, were the natural safety valve of streams and rivers and the source of food and wildlife for the traditional owners. However, European settlement changed all that by using waterways for waste disposal. In 1869 the foul conditions of the Elwood swamp prompted local residents to call for the St Kilda Council to remove the nearby abattoir and night soil depot. Added to their problems, the Brighton Council in the early 1870s cut a drain through Elsternwick Park to near the swamp's boundary at St Kilda Street. To prevent Elwood flooding, the St Kilda Council was forced to continue the drain to the Bay, which until 1904 entered the sea about 150 metres north of the canal's present mouth (near today's Meredith Street)
Life by the swamp is illustrated by a story told by R.D. Ireland, a barrister famous for his defense of the Eureka rebels. Ireland and his friends were invited by Richard Heales, Premier of Victoria, to dinner at Tennyson Villa (1860) in Tennyson Street. The mansion stood out like a lighthouse on a ‘forest of piles’ in the middle of the Elwood swamp which heavy rain had turned into a lake. Boats conveyed the distinguished guests to the house. Wet and chilled, Ireland bitterly lamented the lack of alcohol (Heales was a teetotaller) until whisky arrived which was immediately quaffed. The whisky turned out to be lemon concentrate, leaving Ireland and his friends choking, inwardly cursing their host and calling for the boats.
There were physical dangers. A beachcomber who sold mussels to buy alcohol stumbled into the poorly lit canal during a storm and drowned, as did journalist Arthur Davies on the night of 31 July 1898.
By 1888 the Mayor and Health Inspector of St Kilda Council found the stench from the swamp to be an ‘intolerable nuisance’. 11 Sixty men were employed to construct a concrete canal 1.2 kilometres from Glenhuntly Road to Elwood beach. Engineer Carlo Catani (1852-1918), was involved in the design. Mooring rings were provided on the canal’s walls for typing up pleasure boats. Iron girder bridges, supported on brick piers, were initially built at Marine Parade, Barkly, Addison and Ruskin Street, and Broadway.
Most of the water was supposed to be carried out by pipes on the walls but since they weren’t maintained, all water entered the canal. The canal was also found to ‘float’ and now has six inches of concrete base to anchor it. Additional drains such as the brick drain at Byron Street were connected increasing the overload of water.
Engineer George Higgins was also engaged to drain 134 acres of swamp on crown land. An additional 26 acres of private swampland near Byron Street was drained and subdivided for speculation. An advanced dredge built by Alexey Von Schmidt was imported from San Francisco. Acclaimed by the public as a mechanical marvel, it was mounted on a barge, pumping sand and clay from the Elwood foreshore, mixed with water, into the low-lying swamp areas. Surplus water was then channelled back to the Bay. The canal was also extended from Glenhuntly Road to beyond St Kilda Street. By 1905, the St Kilda Council was finally able to report that the swamp had been filled.
Engineer John Monash, later commander of Australian forces at Gallipoli and France, built six bridges across the canal between 1905 and 1907 of which two survive. His first bridge at St Kilda Street is the earliest surviving reinforced concrete girder bridge in Victoria and possibly Australia. This innovative design inspired the use of reinforced concrete for bridge building throughout Victoria. 12
The first sales of residential land allotments on the former swamp took place on 21 January 1908. Most of the land adjacent to the canal between Marine Parade and Broadway was sold in 1914, with those adjacent to the canal upstream of Broadway not sold until the 1920’s.
In 1924 the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) assumed responsibility. They proposed in 1928 to fill in the entire canal to create ‘rateable’ land but were deterred by the Great Depression.
A polio epidemic in 1937-8 caused many panicked parents to label the canal as Plague Canal and ban their children from the vicinity, including the local school which in 1937 closed from June to September. The MMBW reacted by widening the upper reaches of Elster Creek to improve the flow.
Violent storms showed the canal was ineffective in preventing Elwood from flooding. A record high tide, combined with gales of 100 kpm per hour in December 1934, caused the canal to break its banks, extensively damaging a number of homes. The following year saw flooding close Marine Parade in April and Foam Street inundated in May. In November, waves beat on the sea wall, furniture floated in homes and boys delivered papers from rowing boats. In 1955, after another serious flood, a project began on a giant diversion drain beginning at New Street, Brighton, and emptying into the Bay at Head Street to dramatically reduce the flow of water in heavy rain. The dumping of rubbish in waterway and on the banks by local residents was also of continued annoyance.
By the 1960s, the canal had begun to improve with re-grading of banks, planting of lawns and renewing access roads, right-of-ways and footpaths. Two new bridges, for north and south-bound traffic on Marine Parade were constructed across the canal in 1967. These were made possible by the reclaiming of 45 acres of land from the sea, 25 acres of which were set aside for recreation. The remaining 20 acres were allocated for the new St Kilda Marina built in 1969. in 1972 the mouth of the canal, downstream from Marine Parade, was widened and its banks lined with rocks and the adjacent land gazetted as a recreation reserve.
In April 1970, more attention was drawn to the outlet when Prince Charles swam at Elwood and described the water as ‘diluted sewage’. In the same year the MMBW was appointed as the Committee of Management of the land surrounding the canal between Marine Parade and Goldsmith Street. From 1983 onwards, demands from local residents and the council saw it developed as a linear park to encourage recreation with bike and pedestrian paths connecting to the beach.
The environmental group, Earthcare St Kilda, and local residents agitated for change and undertook plantings with St Kilda Council staff. An Elwood Canal Task Force was established in 1993 from the local community, Melbourne Water and the City of St Kilda, resulting in further works to improve the flow of the canal and the condition of its environs. Flood prevention works have also been undertaken, including the construction of lakes in Elsternwick Park to help with water management. Landscaping along the canal and its mouth at Elwood beach, including the construction of the John Cribbes footbridge in 1998, have transformed the water feature into a centre for recreational activities.
Today this open canal remains a unique Melbourne landscape and an integral part of the urban character and history of Elwood.
The removal of the swamp was one of the last barriers to improving Elwood's prosperity. The other barriers were the noxious activities which had plagued the suburb for most of the 19th century.
Elwood Swamp 1886. The bisecting roads are Barkly Street and Glenhuntly Road
(Map Collection, State Library of Victoria)
The Dredge 'Elwood'
(Cooper, History of St Kilda, Volume 1, 1931)
St Kilda Bridge, construction by Sir John Monash, over canal
Elwood Canal east of Glenhuntly Road
Elwood Canal west of Glenhuntly Road
11 117 years later, on 16 March 2005, Melbourne Water and the City of Port Phillip announced a six-week trial to investigate the sources of odour from the Elwood Canal. Councillor Janet Cribbes said she would be ‘waiting with bated breath to smell the results’
12 His Brickwood Street Bridge also survives upstream in Gardenvale.