Melbourne Sewerage Network

The History of Melbourne's Sewerage Network

You may have heard Melbourne referred to as ‘Smellbourne’. Have you ever wondered where this nickname came from?

Metropolitan Plumbing is here to provide you with a detailed history of Melbourne’s water network and plumbing advances from the early settlement to the modern utopia that we know today.

Open Sewers (1850 – 1890)

The discovery of gold in 1851 caused a population boom in Melbourne and just 20 years later, it became the nation’s largest city. As the city began to grow, Melbourne’s sewerage network was virtually non-existent.

Most residence household waste was poured into open drains which ran down the street channels and eventually into the city’s waterways. Because there was no viable alternative, waste from industry and farms were also disposed of in this manner. Over time, Melbourne’s waterways were turned into open sewers that would stink out the land. A British journalist who visited the city famously coined it ‘Smellbourne’.

Back in those days, the methods of disposing of waste were not glamourous at all. A toilet consisted of a bucket that was housed in a wooden structure known as a ‘pan closet toilet’ or ‘thunderbox’. Faeces were mixed with dirt or clay to dry the waste. This would be known as night soil. Once a week, ‘nightmen’ would and pick up the night soil from each house in Melbourne. They were supposed to take the soil to be used as fertiliser in market gardens, however, they often dumped it in public places which only added to the horrendous smell within the city.

Unsurprisingly, this method of waste disposal was extremely unhygienic. A typhoid outbreak killed hundreds in the 19th century because of this. Up until 1879 when a proper sewerage system was established, Melbourne had the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

A Sewerage Revolution (1897 – today)

Melbourne’s sewage problem was getting out of control by the late 1800’s and something had to be done. A Royal Commission as set up to address the problem. The answer was to construct a system of pipes, sewers and drains underground. These systems would transport sewage from homes and factories to a treatment farm in Werribee. And just like that, 10 years later, the first homes in Melbourne were connected to a working sewerage system.

Despite the state’s sewerage systems advancing significantly, Melbournian’s are still encountering problems with their sewerage drains. If your sewerage drain becomes blocked in Melbourne, a simple Google search will reveal the plumbing company for you. Here at Metropolitan Plumbing, we have been servicing Melbourne for over 25 years now.

The Werribee Sewerage Plant

The Werribee Sewerage plant has been in operation since 1897, however, it is now known as the Western Treatment Plant. It has played a crucial role in the development of the Melbourne you know and love today.

The plant’s treatment methods have changed over time. Land filtration was the primary method of treatment during the summer. The process consisted of filtering sewerage into the soil to break down the pollutants. Once it has passed through the soil, it flowed out of the lower end of the paddocks used and into an earthen drain.

In the 1930’s, the main winter treatment method was grass filtration. This method was rather similar to the land filtration one, except that it involved a type of grass that tolerated continuous flooding.

In 1936, the first lagoon treatment was constructed. Sewerage in the lagoon is treated with solutions to remove nitrogen. Today, the plant features a network of lagoons, wetlands and areas that provide a habitat for various forms of wildlife.


Published: 2 Oct, 2020

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