The Working Dock

13th January 2014

"The water is reflected in the facades of the buildings you live and work in, both surfaces – hard and liquid – sparkling and clear."

While Victoria Harbour is ever-changing, the one constant is the water, writes Rowena Robertson.

Across the 178 years since the founding of Melbourne, Victoria Harbour has always been a working port, seeing both hard physical labour from the wharfies of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a more cerebral kind from the office workers of the twenty-first. All of this commercial activity has centred – either directly or indirectly – on one of the fundamental substances to humankind – water.

Greek philosopher Thales (c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC) believed that water was the principal substance in nature; the originating element of all things on earth. Water may be considered a pure substance, and the environment you are sitting or standing in now may look pristine, but back in the late 1800s and well into the twentieth century Victoria Harbour was filled with the crunch and grit of trade vessels. Its waters heaved with the debris from their loads – coal, flour, wool, even rabbit pelts – all loaded into ships by leathery-skinned wharfies. Neat container vessels were still to come.

These waters played a part in many Melbourne traditions that no longer exist, including the ‘six o’clock swill’, a furious hour of drinking after work before the pubs shut at 6pm, which the wharfies enthusiastically engaged in. There were grave but compassionate ‘traditions’ at the docks, too – ships full of Australian produce would set off from them destined for the war-torn, depleted Europe of the early to mid 1900s. These waters also saw the richness of human traffic: the docks were the departure and arrival point for passenger vessels. It is this historical essence of Melbourne that underpins the Victoria Harbour of today.

Post World War II the waters of Victoria Harbour quietened; gradually, as containerisation became more widespread, activity shifted west along Footscray Road to Swanson and Appleton Docks. By the early 1990s Victoria Harbour was ready for regeneration, and the seeds of the Harbour you know now began to be sown. Many of the sheds lying dormant were enlivened by the irregular underground dance parties that were central to the flourishing rave culture in Melbourne of the time.

Today the water of Victoria Harbour is reflected in the facades of the buildings you live and work in, both surfaces – hard and liquid – sparkling and clear. There is still boat life here, too, in the form of smaller vessels that are used for pleasure. But if you trail down to the sheds at the end of North Wharf, you’ll still  find some good old-fashioned physical labour taking place, at the operational boat workshop.

Water used for practical purposes may once again be a part of Victoria Harbour and the wider Yarra and Docklands story. Water taxis have been trialled to success, with the Yarra Loop service between Federation Square and Collins Landing starting again from this November. Passengers can get a different view of the city, as well a renewed sense of the link between water and life.

There are also plans for a boating hub at Victoria Harbour, adjacent to the new Docklands Library and Community Centre. The two-storey building’s architecture will draw inspiration from the existing maritime surrounds within Victoria Harbour and will be home to the Docklands Yacht Club, the Victorian Dragon Boat Association and the Melbourne Outrigger Canoe Club.

At the top of end of the Victoria Harbour pier stands a control tower. It looms proud and stoic, watching over the waterways of Victoria Harbour and quietly taking in the changes and the life springing up from it and around it. Thales would surely be overcome by the sight.

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