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History of Footscray

Nicholson Street, Footscray 1900 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

The Inner Western Suburb of Footscray is located just 5km from the Melbourne CBD, in the city of Maribyrnong. As per the 2016 Census, Footscray has a population of 16,345. People from around 135 countries call Footscray home, which is a testimony to its multicultural character. Footscray has come a long way from its image of a working-class suburb of noxious industries and is currently undergoing gentrification.

House Footscray 1880
A house in Austin Street, Footscray – 1880 . Courtesy: State Library of Victoria


The history of Footscray and the surrounding suburbs, Yarraville, Flemington and Kensington were closely related to the Saltwater River that flows through it. The Saltwater River which later became known as Maribyrnong River is one of Melbourne’s largest rivers stretching 130 kilometres from the Macedon Ranges to Port Phillip Bay. Beginning as Deep Creek, the Maribyrnong gathers Emu Creek, Jacksons Creek (south of Bulla), Taylor’s Creek (near Keilor), and Steeles Creek (near Essendon) before joining the Yarra River at Footscray.

Footscray Park
Aerial View of Footscray Park – 1930 /Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

The area around Footscray was home to Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation before the arrival of Europeans. The aboriginal way of life kept the river pristine until the European arrival. The aborigines never had to change the landscape to suit their lifestyle as they moved from place to place depending on the seasons and the availability of food.

Aerial View of Footscray and Coode Island 1930 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Explorers from NSW and Van Diemen’s Land were the first Europeans to visit the Saltwater River area in recorded history. On 2nd February 1803, after reaching the mouth of Yarra River, Charles Grimes, Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales, explored Saltwater River for several miles.  In 1824, explorers Hume and Howell crossed Saltwater River at the Keilor plains.

Footscray Town Hall 1930 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Thirty-two years after Grimes exploration, on June 2, 1835 John Batman’s Rebecca anchored in Hobson’s Bay, near the mouth of the Yarra. He went a long distance by land, chiefly around the Saltwater River upto the Gumm’s corner at Keilor then crossed Moonee Ponds and reached Merry Creek, where he signed the famous treaty with the natives.

Maribyrnong River Bridge / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

With the arrival of Batman and Fawkner, the settlement of Melbourne began its life as a tent town. Melbourne was built around Yarra River for its fresh water, but Maribyrnong River along which Footscray is located, also known as saltwater river presented an impediment for early settlers for its brackish water. Sheep runs appeared in the Avondale and Sunshine, being the upper reaches of Maribyrnong river.

Napier Street, Footscray 1940 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Aboriginal name for the area between the Yarra and the Maribyrnong river was Iramoo.  Batman’s swamp, as the marsh formed by the overflow of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers was known in the early days of settlement, extended from the Saltwater River to where North Melbourne now stands.

Nicholson Street, Footscray 1900 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

In 1839 Captain William Lonsdale who was appointed as Chief Agent of Government, Police Magistrate and Commandant for the Port Phillip, established a punt on Salt River near the junction with Yarra. This reduced the distance for conveyance to Williamstown and Geelong from Melbourne. A good house of accommodation was erected upon the ferry of the Salt River. Hoodle’s map of 1840 shows one punt and one track that leads to Geelong and Williamstown. The Saltwater river punt was just 6km from Melbourne and land traffic to Geelong was increasing, which also brought in some prosperity to the Saltwater River area. Afte a few years privately licensed punts replaced Lonsdale’s punt. Thomas Watts was the first licensee. Benjamin Levin who is considered as one of the pioneer settlers of Footscray, then operated the punt. A settlement around the punt which was known as ‘Saltwater’ was taking shape around that time. Benjamin and his wife Eliza Levin established an inn on the Footscray side of the river named Victoria Hotel, roughly near where the Shepherd Bridge stands. The Hotel changed a few hands and was burned down in 1848.

Bunbury Street Tunnel under Construction 1928 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Throughout its history, Footscray had its ups and downs and in its early years, it struggled to survive  due to lack of potable water, floods that caused damages year after year and lack of transport facilities. Just a few years after the establishment of Melbourne, the wool price collapsed in the London market. The recession that shook Britain in 1839, resulted in the collapse of markets for Australian Grain and livestock. The speculative land deals suffered and the resultant depression graced Melbourne. It became more profitable to boil down stock for tallow to be sold in English market. This became a large-scale secondary industry in Melbourne soon. Industries sprung up along the Yarra and Batman’s Swamp. There came a use for the Brackish waters of Saltwater River, as the industry did not require fresh water. By the end of 1840’s when the Melbourne Corporation took action to remove these noxious industries from the city’s periphery, they were mostly moved to the Saltwater River’s shoreline.

Barkley Street, Footscray 1930 / Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Footscray Village reserve was named in 1848 and the township survey began in 1849. The name was taken from the village in south-east of London. Surveyor Lindsay Clarke surveyed the high ground surrounded by low lying flood prone land for the township.

The land sales that happened in the 1850’s saw speculative buying accompanied by the wishful thinking of Footscray becoming an important river crossing point. But within three to four years, that euphoria evaporated.

In 1859, Footscray became a Municipal district. But the lack of transport options except for the Punt made it a less attractive location for settling and it continued its existence as a swamp locked island and lack of fresh water remained another impediment.

In 1857 the Victorian Government approved the construction of a railway from Melbourne to the Murray River and from Geelong to Ballarat. The Footscray-Sunbury section was completed by December 1858 and was officially opened on 13 January 1859. This was the first Government built line in Victoria. The Saltwater River Rail Bridge’ was completed in 1858 at Kensington, crossing the Maribyrnong River on the Melbourne to Footscray railway. It had the longest span of any bridge in Victoria at that time. But this didn’t help solve Footscray’s goods and passenger transport issues. Considering Footscray’s low population, the railway authorities were reluctant to improve both goods and passenger services to Footscray.

In the 1860’s many roads were built connecting Melbourne suburbs which passed through Footscray giving some relief to its isolation.

The economy of Footscray relied mostly on quarrying until the 1860’s and later. Bluestone quarries at Footscray and Braybrook supplied bluestone as building materials and as ballast for ships. The development of railways in Victoria after the 1850’s increased the demand for quarried stones.

Footscray was also asserting its position as an industrial hub becoming one of the highly industrialised municipalities in Melbourne.

Most of the industries that moved to the area were linked to animal slaughter – bone mills at Yarraville, a tannery and bacon-curing works at Footscray. The industrial growth of Footscray continued until the 1890s. Footscray was also known as the Birmingham of Australia.  But it remained a place inhibited by people from the lowest echelons of society – a working class suburb. The demand for workers to its factories were giving a boost to the population of Footscray. Footscray was officially proclaimed a town in the government gazette of 1887.

All of Melbourne’s noxious trades like boiling down works, tanneries, wool washers and slaughterhouses found their place at Footscray, Flemington and Kensington, which gave it a reputation as a place that stinks.

A reader’s response published in Williamstown Chronicle in May 1879 explains the public anger.


I do not believe there is a suburb of Melbourne which has been so much retarded in its progress by “stinks,” as the nuisance is appropriately designated, as this borough of Footscray. In years gone by residence here was next to intolerable in consequence of the abominable effluvia which rose on every hand. When the wind was from one direction the stink was wafted over the river from the Boiling-Down Works, so that you could almost cut it with a knife. It was so rich and full of all that was abominable that the inhabitants of the place risked their lives in trying to avoid breathing. When it was’ from another quarter the concentrated essence of all that is vile was borne in upon us from the northern piggeries, and when it came from the south’ the lower district had its sea breeze laden with the nauseating odours emanating from a certain manure factory. At all seasons of the year, in all weathers, the atmosphere of Footscray was poisoned by the vile odours with which it was impregnated.

The Melbourne Harbour Trust was formed in 1877 to manage the Port of Melbourne and its territory included the Maribyrnong River as far as Footscray. The Trust undertook the creation of a new course for the Yarra River and the blocking of the old junction between the two rivers near Footscray. The trust deepened and widened the river for vessels to navigate and constructed wharves at Yarraville and Footscray.

Footscray’s two decades of boom ended by the 1890’s. Once again recession knocked the doors – a fall in wool prices, mounting debts and speculative bubble in property prices ended nearly two decades of relative prosperity for Victoria. There were unemployed job seekers everywhere without a glimmer of hope.

From the 1900 onwards, Footscray was changing, undertaking public works and beautification on its way.  Footscray Park was reserved in 1911. The Grand Theatre, Footscray’s first purpose-built cinema was opened on 15 November 1911.

From 1910 onwards Footscray was booming again with its noxious industries and quarrying. The suburbs around Saltwater river were campaigning for cleaner air and better living surroundings and to signal it all, a new name for the river. Saltwater river was officially renamed on 10th March 1913 as Maribyrnong River.

In the 1920’s Footscray was experiencing another wave of property and land boom. To spice it up, Footscray’s tramway system was opened on 6th September 1921. In the early 1900’s, time and again there were calls to remove the noxious industries from Kensington, Footscray and Flemington, but whenever the movement gained strength, the periodic economic downturn shut those voices down as people feared for job losses.

But many of those industries closed since the 1960’s and 70’s due to lack of economic viability, change of technology etc. This resulted in much of the river front land being opened up for parklands and residential estates. The growing environmental awareness that followed saw the Government taking initiative to clean up the river and the valley. The Environmental Protection Authority also stepped into police discharges to the river. Maribyrnong River Plan was launched in 1984.

In the 1990’s and later, Commonwealth land associated with the munitions industry and industrial and abattoir uses in Footscray and Kensington were developed for residential use and also turned into Office spaces for modern enterprises.

City of Maribyrnong was formed in 1994 with the merger of City of Footscray and parts of City of Sunshine.  The City of Maribyrnong comprises the suburbs of Braybrook, Footscray, Kingsville, Maidstone, Maribyrnong, Seddon, Tottenham, West Footscray and Yarraville.

Footscray Today

2016 Census shows that 43.8% of people in Footscray were born in Australia. The most common countries of birth were Vietnam 9.6%, India 6.7%, China 3.9%, New Zealand 2.1% and England 1.9%. Footscray is undergoing gentrification after remaining a working-class suburb all these years.

Today Footscray is considered as a suburb that is content with its industrial past and proud of its multicultural present. But its multi-cultural character comes with a few disadvantages.

We conclude this article with a few lines from an article published in “The Age “on 29th April 2017 titled, “The problem with Footscray’s ‘Little Africa’”

“The precinct around the Nicholson Street mall features wares and fashions from across the African continent, everything from wigs, homemade Eritrean-style dresses and Somali Sambusa pastries.

But traders say their businesses are being crippled by drug-affected people congregating in front of their stores, occasionally breaking into shops, and intimidating customers by swearing and threatening them.”  With noxious industries gone, lack of fresh water and frequent flooding issues solved, now Footscray is facing an African Problem, yet to be fixed – – but only for those who find it hard to adjust their taste buds to multicultural flavour.

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      The Inner Western Suburb of Footscray is located just 5km from the Melbourne CBD, in the city of Maribyrnong. As per the 2016 Census, Footscray has a
      [See the full post at: History of Footscray]

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