FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
Has human life no quality at Elwood?
This was the heartfelt cry of defiant residents from Elwood seeking redress from government for their common predicament. The swamps regularly flooded, the abattoir dumped offal into the creek and the smell from the human manure depot was not pleasant. Then there was the lack of roads and the bullets that whistled overhead from the rifle range. Elwood was isolated from St Kilda by wetlands, distant from Melbourne for business and residence and the subject of dispute between its neighboring suburbs. At one point a hostile Brighton simply cut a canal to Elwood’s border and dumped its floodwaters into what early historian John Cooper described as ‘the comical autonomous dreaming kingdom of Elwood.’
Elwood’s early destiny was largely determined by two geographic features, namely the Elster Creek (now Elwood Canal), and the promontory at Point Ormond, once known as Little Red Bluff.
Fires burned for eons on the bluff where the traditional owners cooked shellfish in middens, signaled other clans and burned back the country with ‘fire stick farming’ to create pastures for kangaroos. Europeans celebrated their colonial successes by lighting beacons on the bluff on many occasions including 1851 and 1988 to celebrate the creation of Victoria and Australia respectively. Humans have occupied Elwood for up to forty thousand years or more. Yet, in a minute fraction of this time, we have traveled from an indigenous landscape to an information age, an extraordinary journey documented in this book.
Fever brought the first large group of settlers to Elwood when the desperate immigrant ship Glen Huntley landed at Point Ormond in 1840, flying the fever flag and initiating Victoria’s fist quarantine station and St Kilda’s first graveyard.
Flooding has characterised the history of Elwood. It cut roads to Melbourne in the winter, caused disputes between neighboring councils, stalled development and aggravated residents even in recent times. As late as 1989 locals could be seen riding surfboards and canoes in Elwood streets when the canal burst its banks yet again.
Despite its history of adversity, a modern suburb now thrives by the bay in one of Melbourne’s most prized locations. Café life in the Elwood village seems a long way from the flood, fire and fever of earlier days.
Coloured lorikeets flock to the green corridors of shady trees, a native forest has been planted on the foreshore and the once despised canal area is undergoing rejuvenation as a haven for walkers and cyclists.
My parents were two of many Holocaust survivors who arrived in Melbourne in 1948 to create a family and home with the usual energy of migrants whose future appears far better than their past. As a child I can vividly remember waiting for the bus with the magic sign ‘Point Ormond’ that transported us along Punt Road – shimmering in a heat wave – to the cool blue waters of Elwood.
My father eventually bought an Edwardian house at 21 Docker Street in the 1960s while my mother purchased a home in Ormond Road in 1973 where she still lives, at the age of 85. My love affair with Elwood began when I lived in my father’s home between the 1970s and 1990s. The backyard was converted to a wildlife refuge and every day I experienced Elwood’s fantastic skies, parklands, waterways, promenades and beach. But my sacred site has always been that dome of dreams, the hill at Point Ormond. Here one can scan Hobson’s Bay for dolphins and seals, regard other Elwoodians at play, view the distant towers of old ‘Smellbourne”, and dream about the life of the Kulin.
Elwood is soaked in memory permeating layers of soil and soul, fissures and cracks, flood and fire, buildings and bridges, the living and the dead, the forgotten and unforgotten. It is the places of our childhoods and our present and our future, our kingdom.
This is the story of that ‘comical dreaming kingdom’.
Point Ormond Hill (Sketch by Sharyn Madder)