1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Noxious Trades

The trades that process the by-products of livestock slaughtering - the blood, bones, fat, hair, wool, hooves, and the offal - were located near the public and private abattoirs, themselves usually sited along the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers and creeks discharging to Hobsons Bay. Air and water pollution were early evident in Melbourne, particularly during the upsurge of boiling-down of surplus stock during the 1840s depression, and during the meat-preserving boom of the late 1860s and early 1870s. Most of these factories were located on the lower Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers. By contrast tanners, fellmongers and wool-washers tended to locate on the upper Yarra where they could use fresh water.

Agitation against river and air pollution resulted in the Yarra Pollution Act (1855) and the discouragement of noxious trades above and opposite the city. Over time the trades tended to gravitate to the lower Yarra at Fishermans Bend and Yarraville, to Stony Creek and to the Maribyrnong at Flemington and Footscray, encouraged by the Sandridge (Port Melbourne), Footscray and Melbourne municipal councils. Their smells made the river approach to Melbourne notorious, and together with household drainage and nightsoil earned Melbourne the appellation 'Marvellous Smelbourne' (as opposed to Marvellous Melbourne). High levels of meat consumption, the rejection of offal except in hard times, and low levels of development and investment in preventative technology, together with the hot Australian summer, may have made pollution from noxious trades worse than in Britain.

West Melbourne ('Worst Smelbourne' or 'Worst Smelldom') was judged to be even worse, and the glue works, tanneries and bone mills of Footscray, through which the western and northern railway lines passed, gave that suburb a reputation as the Cologne of the Antipodes. The 1887-88 Royal Commission on the Sanitation of Melbourne recommended effective controls on pollution, but the sewering of the City Abattoirs at Flemington and the noxious trades along the Maribyrnong came only in the early 1900s, and it tended to anchor existing industries and attract others, including the Angliss Meatworks. In the long depression of the 1890s and early 1900s, councils in inner working-class Melbourne were reluctant to pressure industrialists to improve or move, and men like James Cuming and William Angliss of Footscray were powerful figures. New traders sprang up on old licences at Braybrook, discharging their wastes to the Maribyrnong River which barely flowed in summer.

During the 1920s there was agitation for the removal of the City Abattoirs and the noxious trades to a special outer site in either Braybrook or Werribee shire, and several inquiries were held. But vested interests, wary of the distances involved, the cost of new works, and the imposition of controls, succeeded in postponing any action. Eventually, after World War II the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works designated a noxious trades zone at Laverton North, and today the pungent odour of industry can sometimes be detected by commuters on the Western Ring Road. Closures of obsolete large abattoirs at Flemington, Footscray and Newport, the growth of country killing, the decline in the local tanning industry, the growth in the export of by-products, improvements in transport, storage and processing, and the substitution of synthetics for natural products have largely eliminated noxious trades odours from Melbourne's suburbs.

John Lack

Lack, John, '"Worst Smelbourne": Melbourne's noxious trades', in Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville (eds), The outcasts of Melbourne: Essays in social history, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985. Details