1. Themes
  2. A to Z


(3011, 6 km W, Maribyrnong City)

The village reserve surveyed in 1848 at the junction of the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) and Yarra rivers was named after the Kentish village of Foots Cray. One year later the adjacent township boasted a hotel, a pound and a river punt connecting tracks from Williamstown and Geelong to the dry-weather tracks to Melbourne that skirted Batmans (West Melbourne) Swamp.

Footscray's first industries were boiling-down works and stone quarries, but the gold rushes and the railway to Williamstown stimulated development. Proclaimed a municipality in 1859, Footscray extended north to the river, west to Maidstone and south to Stony Creek. The first council was bitterly divided but settled down after petitions for western secession and eastern annexation (of the West Melbourne Swamp territory) were refused, replacing the punt with a bridge and beginning the Swamp (Dynon) Road.

Christened 'Stoneopolis' by Melbourne Punch, Footscray was dominated politically by quarry masters, contractors and shopkeepers, who spent rates on road-making, badgered government and developed a keen sense of aggrieved localism. The first schools, churches and the town hall (1877) were built in the ubiquitous bluestone. So were the slaughterhouses and noxious trades premises that congregated along the riverside, encouraged by a council eager to increase rate revenue and earning the district a second nickname: Stinkopolis, the Cologne of the Antipodes.

Footscray was reshaped by the great Melbourne land boom of the 1880s as industries and their workers left the city for cheaper sites. 'Self-made' industrialists joined contractors to dominate local government, promoting Footscray as a respectable working-class community distinguished by high rates of home-ownership (in reality, home-purchasing). On becoming a city in 1891, Footscray celebrated with gusto, but the shallowness of appearances was exposed in the 1890s depression, which saw unemployed men leaving for the Western Australian goldfields.

In the years before World War I, the economy again boomed with the expansion of processing plants and factories such as the Angliss Meatworks and Kinnears Rope Works. When the Victorian and federal Liberal Party abandoned 'New Protection', Footscray turned to the Australian Labor Party, becoming the centre of worker resistance to H.V. McKay of the Sunshine Harvester Works. Largely Protestant, stridently loyalist and avowedly respectable, Footscray responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with a fervour only checked by the decimation of Footscray's Company E at Gallipoli. Later, however, declining living standards fuelled opposition to both conscription referendums. There were serious industrial disputes all along the riverfront in 1917, and 1919 was marked by the influenza epidemic, local flooding and an extended waterfront strike.

The industrial boom of the 1920s saw factory-extension and house-building west of Williamstown and Geelong roads. In 1921 the council, briefly under Labor control, built roads and funded a children's library, swimming pool and playgrounds. Private endowment and State Government support established health centres, a creche and a hospital for babies. Sports mania continued, focused especially on football and cricket, and tennis and lawn bowls clubs at last began to admit respectable workers. But the boom and the optimism were short-lived as, from the late 1920s, Footscray again plunged into depression. While the non-Labor council lost its battle against day-labour principles and award rates - allowing civic projects such as Footscray Park to be completed by sustenance labour without sacrificing basic principles - some private employers were able to undermine labour conditions and dignity.

Vital to the war effort during the Pacific War because of its food-processing, metal-fabricating and munitions industries, Footscray felt vulnerable to enemy attack: 'Darwin bombed - Footscray may be next!'. While the war disrupted lives, the crisis generated a deep pride in Footscray's contribution. For decades thereafter, the council displayed at the town hall the pennants won for the district's war loans efforts.

The boom continued into the late 1940s and 1950s, fuelled now by immigrants. There were jobs aplenty, but competition for housing created tension. Footscray briefly became 'bungalow city' before young couples began heading west for cheaper land at Altona, Sunshine and St Albans. As Footscray's commercial and industrial domination of the western suburbs came to an end, so did its social insularity. Sectarianism - simmering since the conscription battles of 1916-17, and exacerbated by the struggle between 'groupers' and communist fellow travellers in trade unions, and by suspicion of Eastern and Southern European immigrants - burst forth in the Labor split of the 1950s. Only decades of prosperity could assuage the hurt. Meanwhile baby-boomers, educated at local technical and high schools, were moving out, further west, or even to the 'other side' of Melbourne.

From the mid-1970s many of the old social and economic certainties of working-class Australia were falling part. A feeling that rock-solid Labor electorates such as Footscray had not received their fair share of government funding led to a campaign for justice for Melbourne's 'Deprived West', 281 but the tag undercut local pride, generating negative stereotypes in a community that had stressed self-help and self-respect. Local institutions began to change their names: Footscray Girls' became (Dame Mary) Gilmore College, Footscray Hospital the Western General, Footscray Institute of Technology the Victoria University, and Footscray Football Club played as the Western Bulldogs. However, the flagship of the retail centre remained, reassuringly, Forges of Footscray. In 1994 the municipality was enlarged to take in Maribyrnong, Maidstone and Braybrook, and by State Government fiat was renamed the City of Maribyrnong. The property collapse of the late 1980s had left Footscray City Council in significant debt as a result of its bold attempt to remake the riverfront, but new boundaries brought new challenges and greater social and welfare responsibilities.

Footscray has been fundamentally changed by refugee settlement during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1996 one-half of the population had been born overseas, leaving English-speakers in a minority. One quarter spoke Vietnamese or Chinese. However, the 1992 film Romper stomper, depicting Footscray as a battleground between Nazi skinheads and Vietnamese gangs, has no basis in fact. The new settlers' priorities were settlement, survival and education for their children, and while Anglo-Celtic Footscray showed some tendency to attribute social ills to newcomers, the responses from council, churches and voluntary organisations have been very positive.

Post-industrial Footscray has become increasingly appealing to young professionals attracted by affordable real estate, closeness to Melbourne, strong public transport and impressive local amenities. The amalgamation has led to debate about the siting of new facilities, but de-industrialisation, rising land values and urban renewal on recycled industrial sites offer prospects for growing prosperity.

John Lack

Lack, John, A history of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing in conjunction with the City of Footscray, Melbourne, 1991. Details