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Every city's smells are anchored for its citizens in time, place and memory. Melbourne's olfactory landscape, most potent during the hot summer months, continues to shape its character and the daily experience of its inhabitants: the seasonal whiff of wattle-blossom heralding deep winter and early spring; the salty tang of a cool change sweeping off Port Phillip Bay; a brewery's yeasty odour drifting over the inner suburbs on a summer evening; the hot baked bitumen of a schoolyard; vinegary fish and chips on a Friday; newly mown grass on a suburban Sunday; the musty amalgam of formaldehyde and dust that infused the Swanston Street museum for over a century; the smell of streets and gardens settled by rain; a multitude of backyard barbecues fired up on warm weekends. Seasonal, natural, industrial - smells fix Melburnians' sense of place, their feelings of comfort and familiarity, loss and anticipation, the exoticism of the unknown, the aversion to the unwanted.

Melbourne's grid plan was suited to its climate as well as to the necessities of colonial governance. Its wide streets were regarded as a defence against the miasmas thought to cause disease, enabling the town to be well ventilated. In the second half of the 19th century, smell had developing class connotations. Cleanliness - next to godliness for moral reformers and slum-clearance advocates - had both physical and spiritual virtues. The putrescent odours of Melbourne's back streets and rubbish heaps contrasted with the perfumed promenade on Collins Street's Block, where, observed Hume Nisbet (in A colonial tramp, 1891), one could 'stroll along inhaling the delicate perfumes from the floating draperies, gazing upon the beautiful and refined faces'.

A horrible plaster of animal droppings, market refuse, dead cats, chimney discharges, the washings from butchers' shambles, domestic slops and horse urine - the pestiferous odours and feculent matters that saturated Melbourne's streets were early feared as causes of plague and epidemic. By the middle of the 19th century the urban stink contrasted markedly with the salt freshness of the ocean and with the sweet eucalyptus of the bush. An era of municipal adhocery - of open sewers, centralised noxious trades and poor cleansing - gave way to a growing concern for public health.

The replacement of the old wooden culverts and the formation of new stone water-channels in the mid-1850s signalled a new era of hygiene. But in the 1860s and 1870s, all about the town, piles of rotten matter, pools of stagnant filth and heaps of decomposing litter assailed the order of the public street and intruded into private quarters. Mounds of putrid matter lay about Collins Street, and newcomers acutely experienced the sensory affront.

The carcasses of bullocks, cows, horses, dogs and cats lay stinking outside city premises, regularly offending passersby. In wet weather, rail commuters of the early 1870s, having to pass by the fish market at the corner of Swanston and Flinders streets, were greeted by a most offensive odour. The streets adjacent to other markets were invariably left in a dirty state after market days. All the fetid and putrid liquid of the town, a noisome cocktail of urine, chemicals, blood, manure, dyes and unnameable matter decayed and decomposing, lay stagnant at the street's edge, seeped through the foundations of adjacent houses, and oozed and gravitated in ever greater accumulation through gutter and culvert to pollute the Yarra River at Melbourne's southern edge. In 1868 the stinking refuse from a piggery in Little Collins between Queen and Elizabeth streets was washed into the main street channel every day. By the early 1880s residents in Lonsdale Street still complained of chemical emanations of zinc, ammonia and nitric acid from Hughes & Harvey's galvanising and zinc-smelting works. Foul-smelling water from a steam boiler used for cleansing tripe and a steam sausage machine ran across Little Collins Street East in 1883. An 1870 royal commission was the result of growing indignation against noxious trades within central city limits, and by the 1880s the slaughterhouses and noxious trades that had rubbed shoulders with central city residences and businesses were being banished to the city's fringe.

The streets were flanked by open drainage channels 3 feet (91 cm) wide and 11⁄2 feet (46 cm) deep, spanned by wooden gangways at convenient intervals. By the 1860s Melbourne's 'monster evil' was the foul drainage that flowed through them. A malodorous stream from the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital percolated down Swanston Street as far as Collins Street, and parts of Bourke Street were a foot deep in putrid matter. By 1870 the open channels bared to the world a public landscape in total contradiction to developing civic propriety. According to an 1873 complaint, even the ducks were driven away.

Increasingly health and building regulations intruded into private properties and restaurants. In 1870, inspector of nuisances John Fullerton, under instructions from the Central Board of Health to enforce the provisions of the Public Health Act 1854 and Melbourne City Council by-laws, tracked down the sources of city stenches and encouraged landowners to prevent the overflowing of cesspools and closets, to maintain the cleanliness of yards and to form rights of way. The carriage of nightsoil through the streets before 11 p.m. added to the annoyance of city residents. The stink flowed on and on until the formation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1891, and the sewering of Melbourne.

Since the 1830s horse manure had been the ever-present and ubiquitous urban smell that, however unpleasant, was generally not regarded as a remarkable or pathological urban ill until after the turn of the 20th century. It was in many respects the fundamental and unnoticed city odour. While it is true that in the ensuing decades the sight and smell of horse manure was gradually eliminated from the streets, new sources of pollution took their place, and motor car emissions presented a new and enduring urban nuisance.

Andrew May