Footscray Wharves and Environs

Primal Scene

Drawing of Port Phillip Coastline in 1836 from the Australian Sketcher, 4th September, 1875. Although not strictly the survey area this drawing will give an idea of the look of the shores and river estuaries when the Europeans first arrived. Note also, the relative scale of two people (to vegetation) present on the shore in the drawing.

The Victorian Volcanic Plains

The Victorian Volcanic Plains begin at the Maribyrnong River, and stretch across western Victoria and beyond the state border with South Australia.

Bluestone, or basalt, rock is cooled lava. The dominant black and red clay soils on these plains come from the weathered basalt rocks combined with volcanic ash and volcanic larva flows produced from more than 400 points of eruption that are very new by geological standards, having been laid down between five million to as recently as ten thousand years ago.

The Maribynong River Valley was formed by water running down from the edge of the lava flow of the Victorian Volcanic Plains.

All areas on earth have unique and distinctive groups of native plants and animals that have evolved in relationship with each other and the landscape they are part of.  The plains to the west of Melbourne have their own unique ecosystems and biodiversity.

The original setting or backdrop must have played some part in the development of the sparse and primitive early settlements that became Footscray and the larger metropolis, Melbourne. In fact it was the original indigenous grasslands that brought Batman and his sheep to this part of the world and led to the ‘place for a village’.

The flat and fertile appearance of the plains attracted the attention of early European explorers in the 19th Century, such as John Batman and Major Thomas Mitchell, who both described the plains as having the best pasture for sheep ever seen. Sheep and cattle raising and cropping are now the main occupations on this land today.

Footscray became the busy gateway to the rich pastures of the Victorian Volcanic Plains and to the goldfields. The river became the main form of transport for the produce of industries that arose along the banks. The river also served as the dumping ground for waste and emissions for many of these industries.

One aim of the Footscray Wharves & Environs Project was to change the image of this part of Footscray from its industrial past. The river had been intensely industrial in living memory.
But earlier reports described it like this  –

‘The river flowed with the clearest of water along pebbly banks and its sides were lined with ti-tree, wattles and undergrowth of every conceivable kind of green, and the banks were emblazoned with gorgeous flowers, some of which still can be seen along the water’s edge. It teemed with fish and its surface carried every kind of waterfowl indigenous to Victoria.’  

Section of a map that shows the coverage of she-oaks on the west bank of the Maribyrnong River when the Europeans first arrived

The Garden of Eden described here was one man’s impression of our survey area on the banks of the Maribyrnong before Europeans arrived.

Believe it or not, that industrial wharf area you see on your left as you come into Footscray over the Dynon Road Bridge, or Hopetoun Bridge, was once “emblazoned with gorgeous flowers” and “teemed with fish”.

This description was written by a local real estate agent, Claude Smith Esq., in the 1930s. Claude Smith wrote several articles for local papers at this time.

Picture of a She-oak tree

There was still some indigenous vegetation left in the thirties to build such pictures on, but now it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find samples of the original plant species that grew along the river.

Artists impression of an indigenous crane of the area

Australia’s settlement by Europeans is quite recent, by world standards, and consequently we can get an idea of the primal environment from early records and pictures. The original picture of the land can give an interesting backdrop to the flow of history since the Europeans came to these shores.

There is a small nature reserve tucked away on the south side of Dynon Road just before the bridge takes you into Footscray. This was established in the 1980s under a ‘Regional Action Program’ run by the Planning Department of the State Government.

Pre-Settlement Vegetation Map of the Western Region of Melbourne

This link to download a high resolution version of this Pre-Settlement Vegetation Map of the Western Region of Melbourne.

30 MB

Links and further information

For more information on the original vegetation of the area read Gary Preslands, ‘The Place for a Village’. See