FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
The Elwood Entity
If stately houses we erect,
And therein think to take delight,
On what a sudden we are checked,
And all our hopes made groundless quite!
One little spark in ashes lays
What we were building half our days.
Thomas Ellwood (1639-1713)
The suburb of Elwood is located eight kilometres south of Melbourne in the City of Port Phillip, on the crescent of Hobson’s Bay between the seaside suburbs of Brighton and St Kilda.
For eighty years Elwood was the south ward of St Kilda but who has ever called it South St Kilda? It has always retained a distinctive identity due to its beginnings as a suburb that no one really wanted. Charles LaTrobe, the Superintendent of Melbourne, had trained as a minister as well as being a poet, musician and artist. He first found a use for Elwood when he galloped down to Point Ormond to select a quarantine site for a plague ship in the autumn of 1840. he was apparently inspired to name this isolated, windy and beautiful place after a poet and religious rebel.
Thomas Ellwood’s life and times are vividly described in his autobiography ‘The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood, Written by his Own Hand’, including descriptions of the English prisons where he was confined for following the Quaker faith. He was the educated son of a bullying Oxfordshire quire, but threw in his lot with the radical ‘Friends’ who proclaimed the equality of all people. He was a close friend of Quaker leader William Penn, to whom the King of England granted Pennsylvania in 1681 where Ellwood City stands today. Ellwood’s ‘A Collection of Poems on Various Subjects’ was published in 1710. He was employed as a reader to the blind poet, John Milton, a fact which encouraged St Kilda Council in 1857 to start naming local streets after other poets.
If Elwood had a totem it would be the magpie. In early days hundreds of magpies could be seen digging for worms on the Elwood flats. They influenced the Treasurer of Victoria, Charles Ebden, to give the name ‘Elster’ (meaning magpie in his German native tongue) to his first home in South Elwood. This was the source name of Elster Creek, today Elwood Canal, and for the suburb of Elsternwick.2
The Elwood suburb’s boundaries follow Dickens Street, then south at Brighton Road, west at Glenhuntly Road, St Kilda Street, Head Street and the foreshore (see map).
Robert Hoddle, who laid out the streets of Melbourne in 1836, surveyed Elwood fourteen years later, assisted by Henry Foot. His plan marked out what was then North and South Elwood near today’s Ormond Esplanade. In 1883 surveyor John Vardy produced a book of maps that marked every house and street in Elwood and provides a benchmark for the heritage studies of today.
The first land sales occurred south of Point Ormond in 1851. By the mid-1860s the original Elwood was still a hamlet on swampy ground, with a few properties on the higher ground south of the Point. The new precinct of St Kilda as well as Brighton cast ambitions eyes over Elwood but feared the expense of public works necessary to build roads and drain the swamp. Instead St Kilda Council saw opportunities, particularly at the beach end of Barkly Street, for unpopular activities such as the abattoir, rifle range, night soil depot and municipal tip.
During the 1860s the handful of residents managed their affairs autonomously through a small committee of management. On 29 August 1870 Elwood was officially incorporated into the borough of St Kilda (which had been proclaimed a municipal district in 1855) but for many years residents of this semi-autonomous ’seashore kingdom’ continued to enjoy the unique benefit of not paying rates. This only increased the reluctance of council to spend any money on improvements.
Simmering tensions over Elwood’s treatment as a wasteland provoked threats of secession by the independent-minded residents. In January 1877 a delegation met with the State Commissioner of Lands to complain about the neglect of Elwood, including the night soil depot, abattoir, rifle range, undrained swamp and lack of roads. Agitator Samuel Griffiths complained: ‘Was human life of no value at Elwood?’
The unhappy delegation returned after being stirred up at a June meeting chaired by Brighton MP, Thomas Bent, at the Elsternwick Hotel. This second delegation proposed that Elwood be severed from St Kilda and joined to Brighton. The Chief Secretary agreed but called for a vote to ensure that the majority of residents were in favour. Tensions ran high and the future of Elwood hung in the balance but cooler heads prevailed. The residents withdrew their petition after the council offered to complete the road from Elwood to Brighton.
After the sale of reclaimed swampland at Elwood began in 1905, the residents petitioned St Kilda Council to create a new and fourth council ward in St Kilda. The city engineer, Carlo Catani 3 drew up the plans and the former ‘comical dreaming kingdom of Elwood’ officially became South Ward on the 8th April 1914. 4 J Hewison, H McDuigan and Burnett Gray were elected as the ward’s first councillors shortly before McDuigan and Gray went off to the Great War. The latter is celebrated today by the name of the Burnett Gray Infant Welfare Centre on the Broadway.
At 649 acres the new ward was the largest in St Kilda but had the smallest population. There were 4,446 residents of whom only 1,611 were ratepayers entitled to vote. The council valued the entire ward at £ 49,898 (less than half the price of a flat in 2005) but hoped for a future valuation of an unheard of £ 83,493. Elwood remained part of the City of St Kilda until 1994 when it joined the new City of Port Phillip after the Kennett Liberal Government legislated to amalgamate local governments.
Today the most optimistic evaluations of Elwood have been more than fulfilled. Elwood has become one of Melbourne’s most desirable locations in which to live. Between 1987 and 1996, median property prices rose to an astonishing 205% of the metropolitan median.
However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. To tell the Elwood story we must leave modern real estate and return to the suburb’s beginnings as a clan estate of the Kulin Nation.
Early Elwood off Ormond Road subdivided 1883.
North Elwood Street is Vautier Street today and South Elwood Street is Docker Street.
(J.E.S. Vardy, 1883)
(Map by Robert Davis, City of Port Phillip)
2 (The original ‘Elsternwick’ was an Elwood housing estate located by the canal in the vicinity of today’s Spray Street.)
3 (Carlo Catani (1852-1918) was born in Florence, Italy, and arrived in Victoria in 1876. He carried out many famous engineering projects including the reclamation and redesign of the foreshore from St Kilda to Port Melbourne.),
4 (A suburb by any other name. Municipal boundaries have been subject to many reorganisations over the years. South Ward also included Ripponlea, and Elwood once extended south to the Brighton Baths. Today the suburb lies within the Elwood/Ripponlea neighbourhood precinct of the City of Port Phillip and within Ormond and Blessington Wards. See Melway page 57 for suburb and 3184 postcode boundaries.)