July 15, 2024

The Yarra Waterfall

The Yarra Waterfall used to stretch across the river where Queen Street is today. It was demolished in 1883.

Melbourne's 'Blue Lake': looking north from Flagstaff Hill, 1841
Melbourne’s ‘Blue Lake’: looking north from Flagstaff Hill, 1841

It is hard to imagine what the area Melbourne stands on today looked like, prior to the arrival of Europeans. The landscape has changed completely.

Where the city is now was a flat, grassy plain, surrounded by low hills and light forest. Near the banks of the Yarra River the land was swampy. The south bank was particularly boggy, and towards the coast there were a number of small lakes, comprising an extensive wetland.

The north side of the river was drier, although there was a large expanse of muddy terrain, stretching a few kilometres northwest, with a lake in the middle. Its waters were not deep, but a striking crystal blue, which provided the name, ‘Blue Lake‘.

Map of Melbourne from 1864, showing the Yarra's original course
Map of Melbourne from 1864, showing the Yarra’s original course. Blue Lake is top centre.

The Yarra itself was also very different. Upstream it was closer to the present day, but its path from the bend in Kew, through to the ocean, was less direct.

The river was sluggish. Clogged with tree branches and debris it flowed slowly, the water gathering in a series of pools, as the river meandered back and forth. This provided the perfect habitat for a variety of species, including waterfowl, many types of fish, and eels.

It was also prone to flood, and regularly burst its banks during heavy rain.

Nearing the ocean, the Yarra was divided in two by a waterfall. This was a rough, basalt ledge with a one metre drop, spanning the river where the Queen Street Bridge is today.

There was fresh water above the falls, and salt water below.

Map of Melbourne and surrounds, showing approximate tribal boundaries
Map of Melbourne and surrounds, showing approximate tribal boundaries

The oldest Aboriginal sites in Melbourne have been dated to about 35 000 years ago, and can be found on the Maribyrnong River, near Keilor. It is likely the first people arrived even before that, perhaps as long as 45 000 years ago.

The local Indigenous population were divided into several tribes. They called the river Birrarung, and it was a central part of their lives; it had spiritual significance, and was a primary source of fresh water and food.

They also used it as a boundary.

North of the river were the Woiwurung and south were the Boonwurrung. In the surrounding areas could be found the Wathaurong, Taungurung, and Djadjawurung. The different tribes had distinct identities but related languages, and close relations.

‘Aboriginal people held great gatherings at certain times of the year, to host visiting groups and discuss marriage arrangements and trade deals. They were skilled with intergroup relations, speaking multiple dialects and practising detailed meeting protocol.’


– Richard Broome, ‘Remembering Melbourne’

The waterfall was part of inter-tribal life. It was a good place to cross the river, as it formed a kind of natural bridge, and meetings were often held nearby, on one side or the other.

Sketch of the Collins Settlement
Sketch of the Collins Settlement

European settlement in Port Phillip Bay commenced in the 19th century. The British government tried first.

In 1803, they founded a penal colony at Sullivan Bay, near present day Sorrento. Under the command of David Collins, it was known as the ‘Collins Settlement‘, it was intended to be similar to the colony in Sydney. But this foundered after only six months, the settlers finding the conditions too harsh.

The authorities then prohibited further settlements in the area. This restriction would hold for 30 years, until two private expeditions would try their luck.

John Batman
John Batman

John Batman arrived first.

Batman was the son of a transported convict, who had made a modest fortune as a pastoralist in Van Dieman’s Land. He was one of the co-founders of the ‘Port Phillip Association’, a group of landholders looking for economic opportunities on the mainland.

In May 1835, Batman sailed his ship, ‘Rebecca’, into Port Phillip Bay, exploring the coast and the surrounding area. By June he was sailing up the Birrarung River, where he was halted by the waterfall.

Although low, it presented an impassable barrier for ships. The Rebecca moored in the pool at the waterfall’s base.

The would-be colonists were dazzled by what they saw.

‘The country here is enchantingly beautiful. Extensive, rich plains all around, with gently sloping hills in the distance, thinly wooded and having the appearance of an immense park. The grasses, flowers and herbs that cover the plains are of every variety that can be imagined.’


– John Norcock, officer on the HMS Rattlesnake, 1836

Batman was like minded, and recorded his enthusiasm in his diary in a famous refrain: ‘This will be the place for a village.’ The waterfall had helped set the location for Melbourne.

It also provided the name for the river.

The Indigenous locals referred to the waterfall as ‘Yarra Yarra’, which means ‘ever flowing’. Members of Batman’s party mistook this as their name for the river itself.

Batman meets with tribal leaders, painting by John Wesley Burtt
Batman meets with tribal leaders

Batman met with eight leaders of the Wurrundjeri tribe, and tried to strike a deal; 40 pairs of blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 pairs of scissors, 40 looking glasses, 250 handkerchiefs, and other assorted items, in exchange for 600 000 acres of land.

Both sides signed a pre-prepared document, that Batman claimed was a ‘treaty’. Most historians think it unlikely the Aboriginal signees knew what they were agreeing to, some think their signatures were simply forged.

When the British authorities in Sydney were made aware of what had taken place, they declared Batman’s treaty invalid. But Batman considered the deal struck, and sailed back to Tasmania; he planned to return as soon as possible, with a group of settlers.

While he was gone, a rival claimant appeared.

John Pascoe Fawkner
John Pascoe Fawkner

John Pascoe Fawkner was a Launceston businessman, who had become frustrated with Government restrictions on the island. Like Batman, he also considered the mainland a great entrepreneurial opportunity.

Fawkner outfitted a ship, the ‘Enterprise’, which sailed for Port Phillip Bay in August 1835. Delayed by his creditors, Fawkner followed on a second sailing, in October.

The Enterprise was also stopped by the waterfall. But unlike Batman, Fawkner’s party arrived ready to settle.

They began clearing the adjacent land, and erected some basic wooden structures, the settlement’s first shops and houses. On the south side of the river, alongside the falls, they planted the first market garden.

When Batman returned in November, he was surprised to find a small village already in place.

Batman's House, on Batman's Hill
Batman’s House, on Batman’s Hill

Fawkner and Batman were rivals, who would have a difficult relationship, but they were forced to make the best of their situation.

The settlement was illegal, and would not be recognised by the authorities in Sydney until 1837. Then, an official party was sent to survey the area, and establish colonial rule. The town was named ‘Melbourne’ after the British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.

Fawkner opened a hotel on Flinders Lane, which became the town’s small commercial centre. Batman claimed an area for himself on the low hill at the west end of the settlement, and built a house and garden.

This became known as ‘Batman’s Hill’, and was one of Melbourne’s most prominent landmarks for decades. It was eventually flattened, to make way for Spencer Street station.

The Indigenous tribes, who had lived in the area for thousands of years, were now excluded. They were initially confined to an Aboriginal ‘mission’, where Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens stands today; as the city expanded, they were moved further away.

The Yarra Waterfall
The Yarra Waterfall

The Yarra Waterfall was an integral part of Melbourne’s early development.

The fresh water above the falls was initially the town’s primary source of water. A crude dam was erected, to help coral more of it for use.

Below the falls was the broad pool that Batman and Fawkner had used as mooring place. This became the town’s first dock.

Adjacent to the wharf was ‘Market Street’, named after the public market that sprang up there, selling the goods that arrived by boat. The short, stub-like nature of Market Street shows how small Melbourne was at the time.

The ferry crossing at 'Punt' Road
The ferry crossing at ‘Punt’ Road

The city’s new inhabitants used the waterfall as a river crossing. The first Princes Bridge, a basic construction of wood connecting Swanston Street and St Kilda Road, was not built until 1844.

Prior to that, people crossed the river via punt. Several were in operation: one at Swanston Street, one in Hawthorn, and one in Richmond: Punt Road was named after the ferry crossing there.

For the more intrepid, a quicker way to cross the river was across the top of the waterfall. This spot was also popular for fishing.

‘In four hours angling at the Yarra Falls it was commonplace to catch over 150 bream, each weighing over a kilogram. Great knob-headed snapper weighing over 15 kilograms were plentiful, while crayfish and large flathead were to be had for the spearing in the shallows.’


– Tim Flannery, ‘The Birth of Melbourne’

But this past time was not entirely safe. Batman’s only son, also named John, lost his footing while fishing from the falls and drowned there, in 1845.

'Canvas Town', a shanty alongside St Kilda Road
‘Canvas Town’, a tent shanty alongside St Kilda Road

After the discovery of gold in Victoria, in 1851, Melbourne expanded rapidly.

Alongside the glut of arriving fortune hunters, many from overseas, the city boomed. New suburbs were created to accommodate the swelling population, when these proved inadequate, tent cities popped up alongside St Kilda Road.

Businesses expanded as well. The south bank of the river become an industrial centre, home to brick works, breweries and abattoirs, which spread through to Abbotsford.

The toll this expansion took on the city’s natural environment was pronounced. Sewage and effluent were pumped directly into the Yarra.

A riverside factory pumps waste directly into the Yarra
A riverside factory pumps waste directly into the Yarra

By the mid 1850s, its water was too polluted to drink. The crystal blue lake, once the city’s best known beauty spot, also became fouled, and was eventually filled in with dirt from the flattening of Batman’s Hill.

People stopped fishing from the Yarra waterfall. A proper sewage system was not constructed until the 1890s, in the meantime the city acquired an unwelcome new nickname: Smellbourne.

The idyllic natural paradise of just twenty years earlier was consigned to history.

The creation of Coode's Canal, and Victoria Dock
The creation of Coode’s Canal, and Victoria Dock

The Yarra would be changed in other ways as well.

The waterfall, and the river’s meandering course, contributed to its propensity to flood. Now a growing modern city stood on its banks, this became a more serious issue.

In Melbourne’s first decades, many of the city’s warehouses were built near the river, when it flooded a lot of stored goods were destroyed.

In 1880, the Government employed English engineer John Coode to devise a program to reduce flooding.

A huge channel was dug from the city to the ocean, known as ‘Coode’s Canal’, that shortened and straightened the river’s course. The banks on either were raised and reinforced, the river dredged to deepen it, and Victoria Dock established as the prime mooring point for ships (you can read more about this, here).

Among the many changes, the Yarra waterfall was demolished.

The Yarra Waterfall, 1837
The Yarra Waterfall, 1837
The Yarra Waterfall, 1958
The Yarra Waterfall, 1858
Yarra Falls Bridge, 1890
Yarra Falls Bridge, 1890

In 1883, city engineers used dynamite to obliterate the waterfall. Ships could now sail up and down the river freely, and one more cause of flooding had been removed.

Six years later, a bridge was built on the spot. It was originally called ‘Yarra Falls Bridge’, to commemorate the destroyed falls. In the 20th century if was renamed Queens Bridge.


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