The selection of Melbourne as the site for a village was largely due to it having a source of fresh water. A natural dam of rocks, known as 'the falls' crossed the Yarra River near to where Queen Street is today. Below this was a widening of the river that formed a basin. Salt water from Port Phillip Bay was largely prevented from travelling up the Yarra beyond 'the falls.' However tidal flows caused the river level to change by about four feet and salt water was often able to reach beyond 'the falls' at high tide. A number of attempts were made to make this dam more secure but none were entirely successful. Raising the level of the dam caused low-lying areas of nearby land to be easily flooded. It was eventually removed in the 1880's.
The early settlers would collect their fresh water in buckets at low tide. As the need for water increased horse-drawn water carts began to be used and a trade of collecting water from the river and delivering it to homes developed. Prices could range from three to ten shillings per 120 gallon barrel. These barrels had a hole in the top for filling with water and a leather hose at the bottom for emptying the water into the householder's barrel, usually located just inside their boundary fence. According to Garryowen "One load of water per week sufficed for the majority of families, and, presuming a load to be delivered on Monday, its residue was the reverse of pleasant drinking on the Friday or Saturday following, by which time many of the household barrels contained an unsavoury sediment of mosquitos, centipedes, spiders and cockroaches, dead, alive, and dying."
There then developed a need for an easier way to fill the water carts at the river. This led to the establishment of numerous pumps located on wooden platforms. These enabled the water carts to be filled without the risk of getting stuck in the riverside mud.
In May 1840 a public meeting was held in Melbourne to consider ways of providing Melbourne with a better water supply. Eminent citizens were in attendance and resolutions were passed for the appointment of a Provisional Committee of Management pending the establishment of a Joint Stock Company to be known as "The Melbourne Water Works Company." However Melbourne was at the time heading into a financial downturn and the scheme came to nought.
Numerous other ideas were publicised and attempts made to provide a better water supply in the following years. Few got very far due to lack of support or finance. Meanwhile the Yarra River was becoming more polluted and illnesses and deaths were increasing. People were suffering and dying from such things as dysentry, cholera, typhoid and 'colonial fever.'
In the middle of 1847 there was an attempt by certain water carters to combine in order to increase their prices to the public. Not all carters were in favour of this. In one incident Daniel Reardon tried to prevent another carter named John Stevens from operating at a lower price. He removed Stevens' horse and cart from a pump while the cask was being filled and when Stevens tried to intervene he was knocked down and kicked. In the ensuing case Stevens was represented by solicitor John Stephen who pointed out that the carters who were combining together to raise their prices were commiting an indictable offence punishable by a fine and imprisonment. The Police Bench, while dismissing the charge against Reardon, believed that there was evidence that a spirit of combination and intimidation existed and stated their intention to make an example of any such offenders in future cases.
As early as December 1847 it was suggested that a one hundred yard tunnel through a hill at a bend in the Yarra between the Studley Punt and Dight's Mill would give a fall of from 20 to 25 feet. This would furnish sufficient water power to raise enough water up to a reservoir on top of an adjoining hill where it could supply water to every house in Melbourne using gravity and a system of pipes. This plan was still gaining support in June 1850 and was even considered in James Blackburn's report in January 1851 but was eventually abandoned. The effects of flooding in this area was given as one reason.
In 1849 James Blackburn and J. W. Peppers formed a partnership known as the "Water Company" to construct a water works at the junction of Elizabeth and Flinders Street. A large trunk brought water from the Yarra to a reservoir in the centre of their premises. From there a steam engine pumped the water to another reservoir at one end of the building which was raised about six feet from the ground. From there it was filtered through sand and charcoal and passed into a tank from which it was able to flow by means of tubes into water carts below. Eight carts could be loaded at once, with each cart being filled in 30 to 40 seconds. The planned price per load was said to be one penny. However when operations commenced in early September 1849 the price was set at a halfpenny more. This caused many complaints from the carters and, though it was discovered that the promise had only been verbal, the company reduced the price to one penny. It was pointed out that similar loads were costing two pence in Hobart and four pence each in Launceston and Sydney.
Following the opening of these water works the partners decided to buy all the existing pumps on the banks of the Yarra. There were 13 of these located between Russell and Queen Streets. Some of them were kept in operation as a back up system and to supply customers who preferred not to use the new works. Water carriers and others were initially allowed the free use of them.
When applications for the position of City Surveyor were considered in October 1849, James Blackburn's reputation ensured that he was a front runner for the appointment. He was a former convict who had successfully completed a number of public projects in Van Diemen's Land. Applications for the position were received from Messrs. Nathaniel L. Kentish, Joseph R. Burns, John Augustus Manton, James Blackburn, William Stewart, Captain Alexander Cheyne, J. W. Rollings, William Standering, F. Thompson, Moritz Hahn (a German) and Thomas James Everist. A vote of Council resulted in 10 votes for Blackburn, 3 votes for Burns and 2 votes for Cheyne. James Blackburn was therefore appointed.
In January 1851 James Blackburn, as City Surveyor, presented a report to the Melbourne Council on the best plan of Water Works for the supply of Melbourne with fresh water. He stated he had examined the inclines and marshes on the southern face of Mount Macedon, which drains into the Deep Creek and Moonee Ponds' Creek; also the inclines and marshes at the base of Mount Disappointment, which drain into the Merri Creek, the Darebin Creek and the Plenty River, also the southern bank of the Upper Yarra, together with several of the tributaries which flow into that river above the Plenty. He had also acquainted himself with the entire course of those rivers and creeks, excepting the Yarra, which he had not examined further eastward than Ryrie's run. He recommended the Yan Yean scheme which had benefits that included the water flow being largely driven by gravity and the possibility of supplying settlers along the route with water.
In May 1851 James Blackburn presented another report to the Melbourne Council. This looked into the quality of the water then being used from the Yarra River and what could be done to improve it. He found that the river was being polluted by:
(1) the decomposition of animal and vegetable matter;
(2) the drainage into the river of land springs charged with mineral salts;
(3) the drainage from various factories on its banks;
(4) the use of the river for watering and cleansing horses and cattle; and
(5) the unclean state of the barrels used by water carriers and householders.
In fact the "Argus" newspaper described the Yarra water as being "a vile compound, sometimes actually viscid, of infusion of gum-tree, wool-broth, essence of leather, melting-establishment soup, esprit de carcase, mineral springs, and horse washings." Blackburn made a number of recommendations to improve the water quality.
Blackburn's recommendation of the Yan Yean scheme was adopted. On 20 December 1853 Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe turned the first sod to start construction and on 31 December 1857 a ceremony was held to officially turn on the water in Melbourne.
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)
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