It was one of those moments of congeniality in a friend’s kitchen.
I was narrating the many wrong turns I had taken before arriving at their house, when his three-year-old suddenly asked where I live. Before I could answer, his dad said, ‘It’s where your poo goes.’ The gleeful tone stung for days.
The words were a statement of fact, I suppose, but the tenor felt like an indictment of the place itself and the people who live there, including me. Was I expected to laugh along because it was such a joke? I looked at his son’s face and felt unexpectedly humiliated. This child thinks that I live at the endpoint of his toilet.
All I could do was sputter. ‘Actually, the Western Treatment Plant is one of the most highly biodiverse areas in Australia. Second only to Kakadu.’ My friend hadn’t known that, of course. Hardly anyone does. They’re too busy cackling over poo jokes.
I live in Werribee, west of Melbourne. It is ‘the capital of the New West’, according to a council newsletter, part of the Wyndham ‘growth corridor’. It sprawls east from Laverton to Little River, and north towards Mount Cottrell, south of Melton.
The relative isolation has until recently preserved the rural features of Werribee district. Even in the late 1990s it was a sort of no-man’s-land between the cosmopolitan delights of Melbourne and the surf coast charms of Geelong. No-one really stopped by unless they needed to fill up on petrol. Besides, it hosts the Western Treatment Plant, formerly called the Werribee Sewage Farm.
I’m never sure what people visualise when the sewage farm is mentioned, but we don’t grow poo there. The area features wetlands, mudflats, coastal saltmarsh, estuaries, native grasslands and pastures. It sprawls across 105 square kilometres, three times the size of the city of Melbourne. A lagoon system of thirty ponds, known as Lake Borrie, is a habitat for many waterfowl, including some that migrate from as far as Siberia. Around 270 species of birds have been identified there. It is home to endangered native wildlife such as the growling grass frog and the fat-tailed dunnart.
When novelist Jonathan Franzen was in Melbourne for the 2011 Writers Festival, he made a point of visiting the Western Treatment Plant. An avid bird-watcher, he was reportedly blown away by the size of the area and the diversity of birds hosted there. It holds such high ecological significance that it was recognised under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on wetland conservation.
It is a picture that interferes with people’s shit-driven narrative of Werribee, one that also exposes most people’s ignorance about the historical and scientific basis for the sewage farm. The truth is that Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee.
Prior to 1890, Melburnians conducted the affairs of their bowels and bladders into cesspits, buckets and, if you were a little more civilised, porcelain chamber pots decorated with rosettes. ‘Night soil’ would often be dumped on public roads. All manner of excreta ran down the street. The Yarra became a de facto sewer—a gigantic open conduit for human and industrial waste. British journalists dubbed the city ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’. Not surprisingly, outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and other communicable diseases attended the era.
Such a state of malady and malodour would have persisted had London physician John Snow not made the connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1854. While investigating an outbreak in the Soho district, Snow used maps and statistics to trace the source of the disease. It turned out to be a public well pump in Broad Street that had been dug only a metre from an old cesspit.
Snow’s study led to the construction of significant sanitation infrastructure, which did more for public health than anything else before it. It was a scientific triumph that reverberated all the way to Australia, where in 1888 the Royal Sanitary Commission established the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works. Two years later, a British sewerage expert, James Mansergh, recommended land irrigation and soil filtration to the Victorian parliament as the best methods for treating sewage. This involved an underground drainage system that pumped waste towards large tracts of pasture, which clarify and oxidise impurities. The idea was to let nature take its course. The resulting abundance of grass would be dealt with by livestock, which would then be sold to sustain the system financially. It was a neat solution for a modern problem.
Werribee was chosen for the new sewage farm. It was suitable for irrigation, but more importantly, cheaper and further from the metropolitan boundary than the south-eastern option, Mordialloc. It also wasn’t anywhere near Brighton, which even then was a hub of affluence and influence. So Werribee got left with the effluent.
The board bought a portion of the Chirnside family holdings, establishing the sewage farm on 8857 acres. The Metropolitan Farm, as it was later called, was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century. It goes without saying that it was critical to reducing the spread of disease. Its benefits, however, were manifold.
It provided job security for many farmers during the 1890s economic crash as well as the 1930s depression, when it employed more than 400 people. During the postwar immigration scheme instigated by then minister Arthur Calwell, around a hundred men from the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre in north-west Victoria found work there.
The State Research Farm that was established on-site in 1912 was pivotal to creating cereal varieties that could withstand non-English climate and soil conditions. Livestock research was similarly conducted to improve breeds. The agricultural, animal husbandry and dairy practices developed there were implemented throughout Victoria.
By the time the Chirnsides left their properties in 1921, they had turned over a further 25,914 acres to the state government for use as farms under the Closer Settlement Act. Part of this land was used in a soldier settlement scheme, enabling many First World War diggers to reintegrate into the community as farmers. When they moved elsewhere or onto other work, migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia took over the farms. About 150 farms comprise the Werribee South market garden industry today, from which a good portion of the produce in Victoria comes.
Given such significant contributions, it’s a wonder that outsiders are still fixated on such a narrow version of Werribee. An unprocessed equivalence between residents and the treatment plant runs through the language used by outsiders.
I realised as much a few years ago, when I was teaching at a local state school. I took a group of Year 11 media students to the Channel 9 studios in Richmond. We were there for a taping of the now-defunct quiz show Temptation (formerly known as Sale of the Century). It was a terrific opportunity given that we were studying production processes and roles at the time. It was also a chance to escape our outer suburban bubble. I was keen for my class to make the most of the experience.
A handsome young model, whose task it was to showcase the prizes, came over to welcome us to the set. We were mostly a mix of school groups, so he asked each contingent where they were from. He seemed pleased that there were delegates from a certain private school where he had studied.
Then he turned to us. The most confident of my brood told him the name of our school. He asked where it was and she told him. This was met with a brief but loaded pause. I only realised how loaded when my student snapped, ‘Don’t judge us!’ I may have involuntarily clapped. In the space of mere seconds, she had detected the prejudice and confronted it. I was abashed that I hadn’t been as quick, but felt proud that one of us was.
The exchange said something to me about the burden that my students face, going out into a world that assumes so many things about them because of where they live. It underlines the injustice of being judged solely on provenance, which hardly anyone gets to choose. There are places across the country that prompt similar responses at the merest mention, such as Logan and Inala in Queensland; Blacktown and Campbelltown in New South Wales; Bridgewater and Glenorchy in Hobart; Elizabeth in South Australia; and Gosnell in Western Australia.
There is a pattern to these negative perceptions, some sort of code that applies to certain places. It seems to emerge from a combination of observation, hearsay and lore. Perhaps such attitudes are an unremarkable form of tribalism or remnant anxiety over what lies beyond the horizon—a kind of ‘there be dragons’ for our time. We all pass judgement on places for various reasons, some of which may even be valid.
The problem is that we do not only expose our sense of postcode superiority when we use places as shorthand for certain types of people. We also abdicate responsibility. Reducing people to the characteristics of their neighbourhood gives us permission to do nothing about the things that make it problematic. Suburbs are ‘bad’ because the people in it are bad. Prevalent disadvantage and restricted social mobility are thus seen as the outcome of such people congregating, rather than as pre-existing conditions that they must endure.
It is a mentality that keeps us from engaging with the structural nature of social problems. We do not realise that such conditions cluster and entrap entire families, sometimes for several generations. We freely mock these places instead of wondering why they have lower rates of educational achievement and higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, mental illness and third-generation poverty. Such failures of insight affect the lives of real people.
A few years ago I attended a First Aid course at work, run by an outsourced instructor. She was discussing some of the symptoms associated with diabetes, particularly ketoacidosis, which include flushed cheeks, staggering, vomiting and confusion. Then she quipped rather derisively to a roomful of locals, ‘Of course in Werribee, the person may just be drunk.’ The temperature in the room dropped by quite a few degrees.
It is the same cavalier attitude that was writ large in 1995 when CSR Limited, the major industrial company known for sugar and building products, proposed the installation of a waste management facility in Werribee. The plan, to develop a ‘prescribed waste landfill’ that would receive 120,000 tonnes of hazardous material over ten to fifteen years, would have reinforced the stigma already endured by locals for hosting the sewage farm. But it also reflected a political and corporate attitude towards the outer west as a receptacle for the by-products of living in a modernised society. It is an echo of the terra nullius mindset: no-one (important) lives there, and so it bothers no-one.
A highly organised local resistance put paid to such assumptions. The campaigners’ case highlighted the potential effects of the project on the local economy and public health. The proposed dump posed a serious risk to the $40 million market garden industry with the possibility of toxins leaching into the water table, or even without such leaks, the likely public perception of contaminated produce. It threatened real estate and tourism values. It posed a hazard not only to the wellbeing of residents but also to the ecological balance of the wetlands that lay several hundred metres from the proposed site. Campaigners drew attention to the lack of democratic consultation.
Corporate assurances of safety and accountability were undermined by a history of breaches of environmental and public health guidelines elsewhere. The level of diligence exercised by the state government, which supported the plan, was questioned.
The campaign against the landfill was vehement and sustained, highlighted by a rally at the Werribee Racecourse in 1998 that saw approximately 15,000 locals turn up on a cold Tuesday night. The CSR plan was eventually scuttled. This was no small feat given that Jeff Kennett, always a formidable politician, led the state government at the time.
The defeat of the CSR plan is an event in Werribee history that perhaps best illuminates the character of its residents. Werribeeans have a sense of stewardship that is communal and activist. This stems from Werribee being a very old district that, until recently, was relatively cloistered. They are the people of the plains, who treasure the vast, open spaces and waterways that form their environment. They are highly protective of their town and its image. They have had to be.
This remains the case even though the demographics have shifted, as they have elsewhere. Recent migrants from China, the Philippines, India, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, as well as Sudanese and Karen refugees, have changed the landscape. The influx of professional couples and young families, attracted by affordable house and land packages, has turned Werribee and surrounding suburbs into a commuter hub. If anything characterises the community today, it is aspiration.
The population of the City of Wyndham has doubled in the past decade. More than 12,000 people move there each year. The spike in development barely paused during the global financial crisis. Numerous housing estates, new commercial precincts, the promise of new rail infrastructure and a multipurpose marina have drastically changed this rural hamlet.
It is an impressive rate of growth that calls to mind the pace at which this area was colonised. It wasn’t that long after Matthew Flinders looked over the Iramoo plains from the You Yangs in 1802 when the explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell camped by the Werribee River. In 1835 John Helder Wedge surveyed the area for John Batman and the Port Phillip Association, paving the way for overstraiters from Tasmania. Sixteen years later, the land was incorporated into the new state of Victoria.
The area had become a settlement by default when squatters refused to depart with their stock, aggressively displacing the Wathaurong, Woiwurrung, Bunwurrung and Yawangi peoples. Captain William Lonsdale, the first magistrate of Port Phillip, subsequently recommended the establishment of a township in 1838, which occurred eleven years later. By 1863 the Chirnside family dominated the district, with almost 90,000 freehold acres to their name. All this is by way of saying that Werribee history is Victorian history. The names that feature in its telling—Flinders, Hume and Hovell, Wedge, Batman, Lonsdale and Chirnside—give away the significance of the district.
Few Victorians, however, would be aware of its place in the colony. They wouldn’t know, for instance, that the north and south base stones that were used in a geodetic survey of the state from 1858 to 1872 are located in Werribee. The five-mile (eight-kilometre) baseline between these solid bluestones, along with a survey point at Green Hill, Eynesbury, were used in triangulating the area of Victoria. This land survey was crucial to establishing land titles and expanding settlements, delineating the towns and shires that we travel through today.
These are the sorts of details that have been buried deep in favour of an image of Werribee district as a stagnant hole that lies at the outskirts of civilisation. It is a view I have difficulty reconciling with my experience of the place, especially when I am out in the open spaces and waterways that distinguish it. Indeed, there are pockets of deep magic that belie the perception of blandness and seediness that encumber the place I call home.
There is, for instance, a creek behind our house that winds through several estates. It flows past 300-year-old river red gums, through clefts in the plains, curving gently around small marshy coves. If you knew how to look, you would find traces of the Marpeang people who used to live on and with this land.
I am never entirely alone despite the secluded location. The music of birds and frogs often provides the soundtrack for my walks. I see rainbow lorikeets in splashes of colour against new bark, tiny fairy wrens twitching their tails among the grass, mallards preening their emerald feathers, and swamphens wading through the reeds, blue breasts lustrous under the sun. When I walk along the creek, taking in the scent of gum leaves and listening to the birds, I sometimes feel transported. The scent and the sound take on an eternal quality, as if I am sharing space with others who, long ago, were similarly caught by the moment.
These moments are not rare in Werribee. In the early morning sun, the Werribee River becomes enchanting, the play of light and shadow emphasising its curves and billabongs. It runs for 110 kilometres from its tributaries in the Wombat State Forest, through a 200-metre-deep, geologically significant gorge near Bacchus Marsh and onto the sculpted savannah of the Werribee Open Range Zoo.
Where the river cleaves a path through the township of Werribee, there are shallow crossings and gentler slopes that lend themselves to recreation. Its quiet bends are deceptive, opening as it does into breathtaking vistas along the K Road cliffs before it empties into Port Phillip Bay. There are rocks that have lain on these plains for tens of thousands of years, and even further back when the Anakie hills still flowed as lava. At an undisclosed location near the You Yangs lies an ovoid arrangement of approximately 100 basalt stones, set along a 150-metre circumference. Some of them are a metre in height.
It is a site of significance to the Wathaurong, who are its traditional custodians. While present elders are unable to attest with certainty to the purpose and process of its construction—due to the swift destruction of their language and practice during the colonial period—they are providing invaluable assistance to CSIRO researchers and other academics. Solar alignments have so far been confirmed for outlying stones, that is, that they match the sun at equinox, and summer and winter solstices. It suggests an ancient Aboriginal sophistication in astronomy of which few today are aware.
Werribee is an old town with a fascinating Indigenous and colonial past, steeped in natural beauty, enhanced by an aspirational and diverse population, which has contributed in important ways to the state. But it lies obscured, an enigma to outsiders, if not an object of dismissal or scorn. A lump of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere.
It is worth wondering why we are so eager to construct hierarchies of place, where certain suburbs are reduced to their worst features at the expense of the people who live there. Communities are, after all, inherently multidimensional.
In Melbourne there are housing commission flats in the prestigious inner-city suburbs of Toorak and Camberwell just as there are state-of-the-art mansions in outlying Frankston. Tradespeople live among the university students, young families and retirees of bohemian Northcote. Migrant professionals and newly arrived refugees share the streets of Flemington.
Werribee is similarly multifaceted in its demographics and geography. Its natural and historical heritage, along with its economic and cultural offerings, belongs to all Victorians. It clearly has more than one story to tell. It is time we all started listening.