There are many significant moments in history – local, national and international – but it is often difficult to recognise them except in retrospect or as part of some invented tradition.
In Port Melbourne one of those moments was memorialised more than four decades ago but the memorial was almost lost and has only now been reinstated.
The moment, arguably one of the most significant in Port Melbourne’s (where the blog lives and about which he wrote a history with Nancy U’Ren) history and its community was on August 17 1897 when the All England XI hotel was the first property in Melbourne to be connected to Melbourne’s new sewer.
Within a few months some 500 properties had been connected and it was only a year later when the Town Hall, the market and local schools were connected. By February 1899 the ‘night soil’ service was dispensed with and by as early as 1898 the local health officer reported that the town’s death rate was 12.85 per thousand people – the lowest in the town’s history. In 1892 it was 18.83 per thousand and typhoid fever cases were reported in ten of the 12 months in 1891.
The local medical officer of health, W.S.Smythe, reported in January 1892 that diarrhoea, diphtheria, typhoid and other diseases were endemic. “The deadly practice of filling in vacant land with offal, street scrapings, and other offensive materials has been steadily continued. No words too strong can be used in condemnation of a custom fraught with present and future danger.” Smythe had a way with words which would have equipped him well 137 years later to write the scripts for apocalyptic action films.
The crackdown, following his warning, created a public health awareness which was important to the community when Melbourne faced a bubonic plague threat in 1900 – although the threat did prompt the then government to propose building a bubonic plague clinic in the area which transmogrified into a quarantine station on Coode Island – now a major chemical industrial centre from which, on several occasions, the rest of Melbourne needed to be quarantined when chemical fires occurred.
The blog achieved almost as little as a local councillor back then as it has in recent years urging the current Council to pursue sensible policies and best practice governance and community consultation.
But it has been able to be proud of one small thing it achieved in 1977 which, for a while, seemed to be lost but has now been recovered.
While a councillor it persuaded its colleagues to approach the then Board of Works to mark the 1897 event with a plaque outside the property on which the All England XI stood. By then it was a sound but modest single storey house. But the plaque was duly installed as a reminder to locals and passers-by of a very significant moment in Port Melbourne and Melbourne history and the original occupier of the site.
But this century the house was replaced by a three story apartment block which has recently been completed. At the time when the house was demolished to make way for the apartment block the blog and the doyenne of the local historical society, Pat Grainger, expressed concern about the plaque and what might happen to it. Fortunately, a local councillor, Janet Bolitho, undertook to rescue the plaque and, worked with the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society after her retirement from Council to ensure it was reinstated when the construction work was completed by making reinstatement a condition of the planning permit.
The construction was completed a few months ago and the blog has since been walking past as religiously as any atheist can be to check whether the plaque had reappeared.
This week, Janet Bolitho, announced that it had been as the picture shows.
It is rare in history for single moments to be significant. This moment was preceded by a community-wide campaign to improve the public health of the city at a time when the colony was recovering from a major depression caused by the same sort of business people who caused the Great Recession of our time. But it is arguable that the connection of the All England XI hotel is a significant moment – actually and symbolically.
The Port Melbourne community continued to suffer major problems and during the Great Depression, and following the attacks on waterside workers and their union in the 1920s, many families were deprived of the means to feed and clothe themselves. Sickness and death were common again.
Today the residents of the multi-million dollar apartments in the blocks around the plaque may wonder why the plaque is important and may even let their dogs urinate on it. But at least there is a tangible marker of a very tangible turning point in Victorian history.
Walking past it at the weekend the blog did wonder whether the plaque might have been cleaned up a bit before its re-installation. But after pondering it a bit the patina of four decades of age on the footpath and in storage it has acquired seems quite appropriate.