Re-taking Melbourne From Smellbourne

Like in most cities across the globe, Melbourne takes its sewage system for granted and notice it only when something goes wrong. Today, drainage contractors and city engineers work with one of the most modern sewage systems in the world, but sewerage wasn’t always a priority.


Early settlers first discovered gold in Melbourne in 1851. This triggered a gold rush that turned the city into one of the richest in the world. The prosperous economy inflated the population of Melbourne to about half a million people during the 1880s. But, like many cities on a quick rise, it had to deal with the problem of pollution – a problem that grew worse for every citizen each passing year.

Back then, people would simply dump waste material from their kitchens, laundries, and baths, along with the contents of their chamber pots, down open drains that flowed into the rivers and creeks. The Yarra River, in those days, was essentially an open sewer. Chamber pots and thunderboxes were only emptied once a week by a night man, an interval that made every home smell like a toilet. The stench was such a pronounced problem that British journalists dubbed the city ‘Smellbourne’.

The System

In 1888, the authorities of Melbourne carried out a Royal Commission ordering the construction of a sewerage system. This system, built underground, connected every home to the sewage treatment farm via a series of pipes.

In 1889, the government commissioned an English engineer named James Mansergh to draw the plans for the new sewerage system. Authorities formed the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) to take responsibility for the water supply and treatment of the sewage, in 1891.

William Thwaites, MMBW’s first engineer-in-chief modified Mansergh’s plans, and began construction on Melbourne’s sewerage system in May 1892. The treatment facility went up in Werribee, and a pump station accompanied it in Spotswood. The Spotswood site has since been replaced by the Scienceworks Museum.

The first Melbourne homes connected to the system in 1897. Today, even though many modifications were applied to the system, drainage contractors still use some of the first plans to map out the pipe landscape of the general area before they start their work.