Punts and ferries, and then bridges, crossed the Yarra River to permit the free movement of people and commerce. Upstream of the growing city industries – fellmongers, wool washers, tanneries and other noxious trades – clustered along the banks.
The river was not only a source of water for industry, but also a convenient place to dispose of waste, and an accumulating mass of rotting animal parts, household rubbish and other pollutants flowed down the stream towards Hobsons Bay. People living in Melbourne drew their drinking water from pumps between Queen and Russell streets and risked the ever-present threat of water-borne diseases until the Yan Yean reservoir scheme rescued them in 1857. Legislation was introduced to combat pollution but it was not effectively enforced. By the 1890s a Scottish traveller claimed it was ‘the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on’.
By the end of the nineteenth century the worst of the abuse was over. Most of the noxious industries had migrated to Footscray and Flemington on the Maribyrnong. After the belated construction of an underground sewerage system in the 1890s, the city’s wastes went to the sewerage farm at Werribee to be treated, instead of filtering into the Yarra and its tributaries.