1. Themes
  2. A to Z


(3013, 7 km W, Maribyrnong City)

This inner western residential and industrial suburb of Melbourne occupies the high ground and escarpment above the Maribyrnong River and Yarra River junction, north of Stony Creek. In 1859 Biers, Henningham & Co. threw a banquet to launch land sales at their Yarraville estate, extolling the views of Melbourne and suburbs to be had from this salubrious rural retreat. But distance and isolation (there was no local station on the Melbourne-Williamstown line until 1871) meant that Yarraville primarily housed workers in local quarries and riverside industries.

Quarrying began in the 1840s. Shipping ballast and flag and building stone, destined for export or local construction, were lightered into the Bay from Stony Creek and loaded from wharves on the Lower Yarra. Quarrymen from Portland, Dorset, pioneered the industry. Often linked by marriage, they established and supported local churches, friendly societies and, after a 10-year agitation from 1866, a state school at Francis Street. By the 1870s they were joined by manufacturers: Macmeikan's bone mill (1871), Robert Smith's acid works (1872) and the Victoria Sugar Co.'s refinery (1874) on the Yarra, and the Melbourne Woollen Mill at Stony Creek (1873). The bone mill and acid works, driven westwards from Flemington and Emerald Hill, and gladly accepted by Footscray Council, became the nucleus of Victoria's fertiliser industry. In 1872 three Scottish migrants formed Cuming Smith & Co. to purchase the acid works and they subsequently acquired the Victoria Bone Mill. In 1887 the Yarraville refinery became the Melbourne base of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Most of the workers in these enterprises lived locally, as did some owners and managers, who gave a lead in community life: James Reid of Macmeikan & Co., James Cuming and his son James of Cuming Smith, and John Campbell and his son Edward at the refinery. To defend and advance his business interests against critics of air pollution, Cuming entered Footscray Council as the representative for South Ward, and became a champion of the noxious trades lobby.

Yarraville's industrial base diversified from the 1880s as city firms sought larger and cheaper sites in the west. Engineers, iron founders, and rope-makers came to Yarraville; implement-makers and the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works transferred to nearby Spotswood. Road connection with Melbourne remained poor, but railway and water connections had improved, making Yarraville, Spotswood and Newport attractive industrial locations. Engineers, chemists, glassblowers, rope-weavers, furnacemen, founders, blacksmiths and stevedores settled in the area, slaking their thirst at the end of the day in Yarraville's numerous hotels. Housing boomed, and scattered shops coalesced near the station in Anderson Street and along Ballarat Street. Behind the shops there was a goods siding with access to Somerville Road for traffic from the riverside factories.

Described in 1887 as embracing the 640 acres (256 ha) bounded on the north and west by Somerville and Williams-town roads, Yarraville had a village feel with its many cul-de-sacs and private subdivisions. Workers marched or pedalled off to work. Deeper water, direct access to the Yarra and Melbourne, and eventually its own timber and oil wharves, made Yarraville a far busier port than Footscray. Until the early 1900s much of what became Seddon remained vacant, creating a sense of separateness that in 1891 spawned a move for secession from Footscray. While the secessionists failed, Yarraville Progress Association and the Yarraville Vigilance Association (1918) jealously guarded local interests, as did the local newspapers - the Yarraville Standard 1888-93 and the Weekly News 1905-21. The Footscray councillors and the Footscray Advertiser weekly column 'In Cinderella Land' were wont to jibe at 'South Footscray', but institutions claiming a representative status took care to name themselves accordingly: the Footscray and Yarraville Ministers Association, the Footscray-Yarraville City Band.

Yarraville developed its own institutions. Its hall (1886) was home to Yarraville Drama Club, served as a temporary Catholic church 1891-94, and a cinema in 1905. By 1914 there were 50 shops, several major banks, cricket and football clubs and brass band. Yarraville voted for the Australian Labor Party in council, State and federal elections and decisively opposed conscription in 1916-17. The coming of trams through Middle Footscray and along Somerville Road to Williamstown Road in 1921 encouraged house building. In the 1930s depression Yarraville's unemployed organised for self-help and to elicit public support, and the Yarraville Traders Association was formed to encourage local shopping. Yarraville's Mouth Organ Band is still going strong. Recovery was heralded by the opening of the Sun Theatre in 1938, but after prospering in the 1940s the shopping centre was marginalised by the Somerville Road overpass, built to accommodate the coming of the motor car. Yarraville languished while Footscray's retail centre moved ahead.

Yarraville West, developed in the 1920s by meat king William Angliss, boomed after the war. Yarraville was transformed by immigration. The Greek community recycled the old fire brigade station as a Greek Orthodox church, and provided patrons for Greek language films at the Sun Theatre. Protestant churches and halls, and abandoned shops, were recycled as Orthodox churches and ethnic clubs. Television put paid to the cinemas: the Lyric became a factory, the St George's a dance studio, and the Sun finally closed in 1982. Traders fought back, organising a multicultural Festa in 1987 that extolled Yarraville's 'heritage village' qualities. Identified by the Footscray Conservation Study as a unique surviving late-Victorian and Edwardian precinct, planning strategies now encourage retention of surviving historic features, shopfront restoration, and reinstatement of Edwardian street lamps.

Gentrification brought young professionals into Yarraville attracted by its affordable Victorian and Edwardian housing. The reopening of the Sun Theatre was evidence of a local renaissance. In 1990 Footscray Mayor Jeff King had hoped that Yarraville would 'remain [an] affordable workers' suburb'. By 2004, with escalating real estate values, the question was just how successfully Yarraville's working-class past could blend with its young professionals' future.

John Lack

Smith, Frances (ed.), Yarraville Village and Club, and intro by John Lack, Footscray Historical Society, Melbourne, 1992. Details