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Spotswood Pumping Station

The group of brick and bluestone buildings that make up the pumping station at Spotswood are now dwarfed by the West Gate Bridge and the industrial and museum buildings that have gradually surrounded it. Once they stood alone, dominating the banks of the Yarra River with the smokestack visible from afar. The pumping station was designed by the staff of the newly created Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and built and equipped at great speed between 1894 and 1897 as the pumping heart of Melbourne's new underground waterborne sewerage system. The elegant French Gothic style of the buildings is unusual in Melbourne. It was considered to be an appropriate treatment for the visible centrepiece of the network of invisible sewers that was expected to improve greatly the city's natural environment and its people's health.

Melbourne's favourable topography allowed almost all its sewage to flow by gravity towards Spotswood, the lowest point in the system, so that only this one large pumping facility was required. As a consequence, Spotswood was bigger than anything found in other Australian cities and large by world standards. Four 300-horsepower triple-expansion steam engines made by Thompsons of Castlemaine initially powered the plunger-type pumps, giving a daily pumping capacity of 32 million gallons (145 million L). Sewage entered the pump wells from two great main sewers, the Hobsons Bay Main, which crossed beneath the Yarra from Port Melbourne after collecting the wastes of the southern suburbs and the central city, and the North Yarra Main, which followed the west bank of the Yarra after draining western and northern suburbs. The pumps then forced the sewage up a rising main to an aqueduct at Brooklyn, from where it could flow by gravity once more to the sewage farm at Werribee. Capacity was expanded rapidly with the addition of more steam engines as the network of sewers grew to serve most of the metropolis.

From 1920 onwards there was a changeover to the newer and more powerful technology of the electricity-powered centrifugal pumps, each of which was rated at 750 horsepower and could pump 18 million gallons a day yet took up only a fraction of the space in the pumping wells required by the massive steam pumps that they replaced. Power was drawn from the nearby Newport Power Station, which was generating electricity for the newly electrified suburban railway network. Spotswood's pumping capacity was expanded periodically as Melbourne's population grew. The pumps could never stop for there was no storage capacity in the system. For nearly seven decades the body wastes of all Melburnians connected to the sewers passed this way. Finally it was decommissioned in September 1965 with the opening of a new pumping station at Brooklyn. The buildings lay largely deserted for a quarter of a century while sewage continued to flow beneath them, and they provided film locations for Mad Max (1979) and the comedy Spotswood (1992). They were finally handed over to the Museum of Victoria and have become a centrepiece of Scienceworks Museum, which incorporates a unique display of steam and electrical pumping machinery.

Tony Dingle