By Peter Dewar
For a Cinderella story, look no further than Footscray’s first century. I’ve just waded through John Lack’s ‘History of Footscray’, only to realise how much of my hometown’s rags-to-riches fairytale belongs to people power.
The town was conceived in silt on banks of Saltwater River (later renamed Maribyrnong), where in 1839, pioneer Captain Lonsdale set up a punt to cut the horse-drawn trip from Melbourne to Williamstown or Geelong.
The Victoria Hotel came next thanks to a Jewish couple named Levien, Footscray’s first permanent settlers. Carting early Victorians and their cargo across the river proved lucrative, so more punts followed … and pubs.
Accounts of the early ‘Saltwater’ port settlement, isolated by swamp from Melbourne, tell of a motley assembly of huts, tents and hotels sharing little in common with a charming Scottish hamlet, Foots Cray, the township would be named after mid-century John Lack writes:
‘Tens of thousands of tiny hooves had trodden the marsh and lagoon into mud, the air rang with the bleating of sheep and the bellowing of cattle awaiting slaughter, the river ran with ribbons of blood and bobbed with blobs of tallow. And the sky … was wreathed by chimney smoke and boiler steam.”
Dirty industry seemed the best Footscray could hope for, and like Cinderella, the town was destined to a life of hard labour, humiliated by taunts from posh suburbs.
Melbourne’s Punch magazine thought it amusing to call Footscray ‘Stoneopolis’ on account of stony craters that pitted the area, the workplace of quarrymen carving out grey stone for ship ballast and building materials.
Worse still, a growing number of chimneys and smokestacks were headed for Saltwater River, an ideal waterway to spew toxic waste in a town where industrialists scorned elsewhere were welcome.
The rest of Melbourne sneered with, ‘Stinkopolis’ or ‘Smelldom’, unaware they fed a resentment and hometown patriotism that helped drive the Cinderella-like transformation in years to come. For the time being, all locals could do is point to their jobs and take perverse pride in the town’s: chemical works; slaughterhouses; tanneries; boiling-down works; and glue, manure, soap and candle factories.
A bad rep wasn’t the only price to pay. An ugly, polluted landscape was one thing, but news of the high incidence of typhoid and appalling infant mortality couldn’t be ignored. This in a suburb where, during the cruel 1880s Depression, half of Footscray’s residents were said to be starving.
Cinderella may have crawled out of the mud, but she was chain-smoking and smelling every bit like a dead carcass. There was no sign of a handsome twenty-something stepping out of a carriage into Barkly Street, glass slipper in hand.
Instead, it was up to committed locals to make sure Footscray was blessed with roads, sewers, electricity, schools, a hospital. And libraries, parks, sporting facilities. Even pollution, working conditions and needs of the less fortunate would attract attention.
Voluntary committees were so often mentioned in John Lack’s encyclopedic work that I decided to start a list.
There was the caring: Footscray Ladies’ Benevolent Society organised free doctor’s visits, medicines and even funerals for poor during the desperate years. The ever-patient: Footscray and District Representatives Committee formed in 1919 waited over twenty years to see a public hospital built. Political dreamers: The Village Settlement Association of 1892 sought ‘to relieve the unemployed by placing them in co-operative settlements established on lands bought with publicly subscribed funds’. And, even those on the wrong side of history: the Harvester Defence League held meetings at Federal Hall in Nicholson Street before the famous Harvester Case judgement resulted in a minimum-wage.
That hardly scratches the surface, with no mention of standout church and community leaders. The forlorn statue nearby may not look like Prince Charming … chances are though, it’s yesterday’s champion of working people.
My favourite? They weren’t heroic or dedicated to a grand social cause. But the unremarkable, grassroots, working bees of a Citizens’ Committee and Boy Scouts’ troop were instrumental in transforming derelict slopes at Footscray Hill, near ‘Poverty Point’ into Footscray Park. Terraced hills, plantings and pavilions became the pride of the town, lauded as one of Melbourne’s showcases. On Cup Day, hundreds now stand there peering across the river at Flemington Racecourse, cheering their horse across the line.
It wasn’t by chance that Footscray – born on a riverbank, with no natural advantages to speak of and notorious for its shortcomings – roared into the twenties.
Downtown, Nicholson Street pulsed day and night. Locals, streaming in by tram from housing estates, made a beeline for shops under ornate verandahs.
At evenings, picture-theatre lights announced show time, and in dance halls, a new generation kicked-up their heels to the Charleston. Schools, libraries and infant welfare centres were popping up. Working conditions had improved, and noxious industries were on notice. Thanks to unions, people even had spare time to watch their newly-inducted VFL Bulldogs on a Saturday afternoon.
And the best years we’re still to come.
Approaching the middle of a new century, Footscray City was promoted as ‘the Birmingham of Australia’; Nicholson/Barkly Street shopping centre was bustling and arguably the Chadstone of its time; and let’s not forget 1954, the year Charlie Sutton led the Doggies to their first premiership flag.
So here’s a shout-out to those grinding away for a better neighbourhood. Perhaps you’re showcasing homegrown artists, removing trucks from our roads, giving asylum-seekers a hand or keeping local parking free. You continue a tradition of community work and activism in a town where fairy-tales come true. That foot you’re helping into a slipper might just belong to the next Cinderella.
WESTPECTIVE: Peter has always lived here. Writing about the west has opened his eyes to its many heroes.