With 8,400 km of waterways in its care, Melbourne Water is custodian of a significant heritage base. The history of Yan Yean and the search for a reliable supply of water to Melbourne stems back to the days when white settlers took over sites with fresh water with no regard for the indigenous people living in those areas. This history is now seen as important and engineer Paul Balassone is the Heritage Services Co-ordinator at Melbourne Water.
For decades, Melbourne's early white settlers pumped water out of the Yarra River into barrels which were transported by horse and cart to and around Melbourne. The water was ofter contaminated by salt, human, and industrial waste.
Established in 1842, the Melbourne City Council was given the responsibility of designing, constructing and financing a water supply system but did not have taxing or borrowing powers. Its brief was to make a cost estimate to supply water, including materials and labour, with fountains at Eastern Hill and Western Hill.
The designs proposed were all based on the Yarra River as the source of water. All included the use of pumps as the Yarra Valley was too flat for gravity to play a part.
In 1842 James Blackburn, a pardoned convict who had arrived in Australia in 1833 on a charge of forgery set up the Melbourne Water Company. He put filter beds, steam pumps and overhead tanks at the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders Streets and here a procession of water carters would wait to fill their barrels.
Blackburn was appointed City Surveyor in 1849. Rather than the Yarra River, he preferred the Plenty River at Yan Yean as its elevation of 600 feet meant the water could flow by gravitation to Melbourne. The area where the reservoir was constructed was a swamp fed by mountain streams.
Blackburn estimated a flow of 5,000 gallons a minute for a population of 70,000. That meant 40 gallons a day per person. At that time Melbourne's population was 21,000. Construction was estimated to cost £167,000 and £1,400 annually thereafter.
When Victoria was proclaimed in 1851, the Council hoped to obtain finance but the Legislative Assembly saw no role for Council in the provision of a water supply.
In 1852, the Victoria Government appointed a Select Committee to investigate the design proposals. they questioned Blackburn's optimistic figures at a time when there were no long term statistics on rainfall, etc. Blackburn conceded that there might be a problem if there was a severe drought. He spent six days at Yan Yean with Clement Hodgkinson, engineer, and Charles Oldham, contractor. Oldham suggested an underground pipeline to carry water to melbourne rather than an aqueduct.
The Committee suggested a paid body of five Commissioners should take over from the City Council. In 1853 legislation was passed and the Commission of Sewers and Water Supply was created. To Appease the outraged City Council, the Mayor of Melbourne and the Town Clerk were appointed as Commissioners. Finance became available immediately for the Plenty River design.
Matthew Bullock Jackson was in charge of construction. Although he wanted to use English contractors the Commission insisted on local people. Pipes were imported from England. The supply of water was reduced to 30 gallons a day per person but the capacity was to serve 200,000 as by this stage the gold rush had caused a large increase in the population. There was a huge blow out in the final cost mainly due to the increase in labourers' wages during the gold rush.
On 23 December 1853, Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe turned the first sod in the construction of the reservoir.
Whilst the dam was being built, pipes were being laid throughout Melbourne and in December 1857 a crowd gathered in the Carlton Gardens to watch a valve being opened to allow water to flow into the pipes in Melbourne. The first 'tap' was turned on at the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders Streets. Gravity worked so well that the pressure was too much for a lot of pipes which burst and ultimately a holding reservoir was constructed in High Street, Reservoir.
By 1870 the population had reached 200,000 and periodically the water supply failed. The public was not impressed and Matthew Jackson returned to England. In the mid 1880s Toorourrong Reservoir near Whittlesea was constructed.
William Thwaites, 1st Engineer and Chief of MMBW considered diverting water from north of the Dividing Range. Wallaby Creek Weir was constructed in 1882-1883 and water was diverted via aqueducts and 'cascades' to Jacks Creek which runs into Toorourrong Reservoir. A further extension was a weir on Silver Creek also north of the Great Dividing Range.
Even after the construction of Yan Yean, there was some water contamination. This was due to animal waste from horses and bullocks, used in timber logging around the reservoir. This was stopped in 1872. Lead lined tin pipes were eventually replaced. The 'puddle clay' core construction of the dam wall which was innovative in its day no longer meets today's standards and is being updated.
Although Yan Yean is an insignificant part of our water supply now, its construction was very important in the history of Melbourne.
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