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Melbourne's butchers commonly slaughtered livestock on their premises, until parliament and Melbourne City Council confined slaughtering to public slaughterhouses (abattoirs), first (1849) below Batmans Hill on the Yarra River, and from 1861 at Flemington on the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River. Arguing that shops and markets had to be supplied quickly and regularly with fresh meat in the warmer Australian climate, butchers resisted what they termed 'civic interference', and objected to abattoir fees, road tolls and the distance to Flemington. They were swiftly accommodated by municipal abattoirs, erected from 1861 in an arc stretching along the Yarra from Collingwood to Williamstown, and in 1870 only one-third of Melbourne's meat was being supplied from Flemington.

Public abattoirs gave control to lessees and specialist slaughterers who, laxly supervised, simply concentrated the nuisances. While waste (blood and offal) from the premises of butchers who defied the law went into street channels, that from public abattoirs drained directly to the rivers and Port Phillip Bay, and that from private slaughterhouses on the outskirts of suburbia discharged to creeks, sandpits and quarries. The droving of stock along suburban streets caused local nuisances to householders, but smells from filthy riverside abattoirs and their attendant noxious trades were carried by northerly and westerly winds into Melbourne's salubrious suburbs, and the tidal rivers delivered solid wastes to the city's front door. 'Meat three times a day' was a proud colonial boast, but Marvellous Melbourne was suffocating in the effluence of its own affluence.

From the 1870s numerous parliamentary inquiries wrestled with the issues of public nuisance and sanitation. More stringently regulated by the Board of Public Health from the late 1880s, suburban abattoirs declined in number. Increasingly the eastern and south-eastern suburbs were supplied from abattoirs at Oakleigh, Mulgrave (1909) and Box Hill (1910), but vested interests (rural stockowners and city-based meat processors) blocked attempts to relocate to the city's western fringe the ever-growing Flemington abattoirs and their attendant Newmarket saleyards. Meat exporting had boomed in the 1860s and did again from the 1880s. The early meat-preserving works were congregated along the Saltwater River, and their successors, which also exported frozen meat, located themselves in the inner western suburbs at Newport (public and private freezing works), Footscray (Angliss Meatworks, 1905), and Brooklyn (Borthwicks). Eventually, efficient refrigerated road transport, country killing, the growing live sheep export trade and more stringent export standards created a cycle of declining profitability and investment in the older metropolitan premises. Their deterioration brought obsolescence. The closure in 1977 of the Flemington abattoirs, and of Angliss, all but ended central metropolitan slaughtering.

John Lack