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Sewers and the City

Capitalising on fear of the bubonic plague in 1901 the suburb of Haberfield was built in Sydney. Australia’s first planned model suburb had limited height, there were no pubs and no back lanes. The back lanes were used for the ‘night-soil cart’; you can still see the low doors in the brick fences in some of the lanes in Fitzroy. We can assume from the absence of lanes that houses in Haberfield was connected to main sewers. (For more on Haberfield read Art and Architecture for more on bubonic plague and its effects on Sydney see the digital records of NSW.)

A lane in Brunswick

                  A lane in Brunswick

In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd was appalled at the tangle of overhead wires but he doesn’t get beneath the surface ugliness to notice that although these suburban homes that were now connected to telephone and electricity had not yet been connected to the sewers. That Melbourne had a telephone system before a sewerage system is a striking fact. In 1880 a telephone exchange opened in Collins Street and seven years later, in 1887 the first Melbourne homes to be connected to sewers. Some homes in the suburb of Frankston were only connected to the sewerage in 1991.

Bootscraper in Carlton

Bootscraper in Carlton

The architectural evidence for nineteenth century Smellbourne’s muddy, shit covered streets and open sewers is still evident, not just with network of back lanes, but in the iron boot scrapers, a necessary architectural feature, built into the entrances of its older buildings.

My own suburb of Coburg, in Melbourne’s inner north, contains many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century suburban development, most with back lanes but a few without. Lincoln Street and the adjoining street have a single house block, instead of the usual double blocks with a laneway down the middle. In “Lascelles Park” development there only a lane between the houses on Jamieson and Lascelles streets and two very short lanes behind the four larger lots at the Reynard Gosling Road ends.

Over last century suburban planners were turning against lanes as more suburbs were connected to sewers. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties the Moreland City Council was sell off several of the lanes in Coburg as they were no longer used except for fly-tipping and discreet access for burglars. The bluestone cobbles are expensive to repair and make traversing the lanes uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible especially for people with disabilities, cyclist and even ordinary pedestrians.

In spite of all of this the inhabitants of Moreland now want to preserve the lanes. After a 2,400-signature petition was presented to Moreland City Council in September 2013 the Council resolved to maintain Moreland’s bluestone laneways and there is now a plan to preserve these lanes. The Council explains on it web page devoted to bluestone lanes that “Moreland values the network of bluestone laneways as a community asset which is an important part of Moreland’s heritage and urban character.”

Unlike the lanes in the inner city Melbourne that are famous for their street art, little bars and boutiques these back lanes are amongst the least attractive features of the suburb, generally backing onto old rusted corrugated iron fences and old sheds. Maybe someone is hoping that their historic ambience of Coburg and Brunswick before sewers will add to their property value.

Coburg lane painted

                   Coburg lane painted

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Sewers and the City

  • Eucalypso

    Fascinating article, thanks! The worst of your laneways are still beautiful, especially as photographed by Daniel Crooks. In Adelaide they are mostly bitumanised. At least if they still exist there is the possibility of street art in the future.

  • Mark Holsworth

    It would be good to see more street art in the lanes of Coburg but in the suburban environment most of the laneways are like redundant appendixes, even when photographed by Daniel Crooks (I don’t think that any of Coburg’s lanes featured in his video).

  • Alice Dickens

    It’s great that we are valuing and preserving even the “ugly” side of our city’s history. I am surprised there is not more street art in these suburbs given the popularity of Moreland amongst young people and artists.

    • Mark Holsworth

      It is an odd reversal. There is a lot of street art in Brunswick but Coburg is far more suburban and therefore less suitable walls. The building of new apartments in Coburg has added more walls, so things may change but I doubt that this will increase the use of the lanes much more.

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