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Taming the River

Although the habitats and environs of the Yarra suffered from pollution and neglect, it regularly reminded Melburnians that it was still a force of nature.

Every few decades it burst its banks and flooded on those who had built on its floodplain. European settlers experienced their first major flood on Christmas Day 1839 and from then on a fear of floods was a continuing anxiety. A great flood in December 1863 stretched from the Customs House in Flinders Street to present-day Toorak Road.

English engineer Sir John Coode’s 1879 report to the Melbourne Harbour Trust was an initiative for major flood control schemes and harbour extensions. In addition to taming the river by dredging and the removal of reefs, he recommended the cutting of a channel to shorten the river’s erratic course at Fisherman’s Bend. In 1880 unemployed relief workers dug out reefs and water was let into new Fishermen’s Bend cut in 1886. The cut was officially named Coode Canal in 1899, with the island it created known as Coode Island. Coode also recommended the construction of Victoria Dock. Its completion in 1892 was the first stage in the migration of the wharves and docks downstream towards Hobsons Bay, a process that has continued to the present day.


Photograph by Charles Nettleton, Harbor Trust's Work (Swinging Basin) River Yarra, 1886. PROV, VPRS 8357/P3, Unit 3, photograph 103.

Harbor Trust's Work (Swinging Basin) River Yarra, 1886

Construction of Coode Channel, c. 1880

Fisherman's Bend Cutting, c. 1885

Views of the Canal at Fisherman's Bend, August 1886

Dredging of Coode Canal, c. 1930

Yarra River flood, 1891

After a major flood in 1891 a Yarra Floods Board recommended the river be widened and deepened along its lower reaches. The Yarra Improvement Act 1896 enabled the Board of Land and Works to undertake major realignments between Princes Bridge and Church Street. Between 1897 and 1901, the Botanic Gardens Cut straightened the Yarra by removing a series of billabongs which had banked up flood waters. This route diverted the river beneath the newly built Morrell Bridge (1899) designed by Sir John Monash as one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Australia.


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