Over 150 years ago, Charles La Trobe, Governor of Victoria, took up a spade and dug the first sod on the site of the future Yan Yean Reservoir, which became Melbourne’s first piped water supply. The reservoir was designed as the centrepiece of the young city’s water supply system.
Completed in 1857, the vast and visionary scheme attracted controversy. The project required the creation of a huge artificial lake, one of the largest in the world, along with over 30 kilometres of pipes to bring this clean and reliable source of water into the city. At first, the water supply was less than pure, as the catchment area was used for other purposes that created pollution. This was solved by closing the entire area around the dam, a practice extended to later water catchments established on Melbourne’s fringes.
Yan Yean water was far from good. It was pure when it ran off the Plenty ranges, but before it reached the reservoir it had to flow through four miles of swamp where rotting vegetation discoloured it. Drainage from the small township of Whittlesea also flowed into the reservoir. One correspondent in the daily press asked:
At the restaurants in town I have seen animacules alive in the glasses … Would it not be advisable to call a public meeting to denounce such sickening stuff altogether, and use the healthy water of the Yarra?
Cutting from Argus, 12 August 1858, Historical Records Collection, PROV, VPRS 8609/P28 , Unit 15, file HG 33
The Commissioner of Public Works recommended householders run the water each morning before using it.
Water Restrictions in 1859
In the years that followed the construction of the Yan Yean Reservoir, complaints of low pressure and short supply were forthcoming:
Where can a poor man get a drink of water during the hot days in Melbourne? In the gutters, after the streets have been watered … [you can see] men, prostrate like beasts, drinking from a puddle in the streets in hot weather.
Argus, 4 January 1859
Despite a full reservoir at Yan Yean, many pipes in the city were quite dry. Water rationing was introduced. The Board of Lands and Works blamed Melburnians for their ‘excessive use, and sometimes shameless waste, […] practised even in the very height of misfortune’. Those who watered their gardens each evening were singled out for particular censure.
In April 1873, the superintending engineer of Melbourne’s water supply, Charles Taylor, appointed William Davidson as his assistant. When Taylor was dismissed in January 1878, Davidson was left in charge.
On 16 March 1878 a major flood destroyed most of the bridge which carried the Yan Yean aqueduct over the Plenty River, Davidson saw that the quickest way to restore the supply was to span the gap with a wooden channel (flume) on timber supports. Work continued for three days and nights without a halt under his personal supervision. A few weeks later the Commissioner of Public Works, (Sir) James B Patterson appointed him superintending engineer ‘for the outstanding part he had played in expediting repairs and restoring water to Melbourne in three days’ (Historical Records Collection, PROV, VPRS 8609/P28, Unit 4).