Park history

NOTE:  This section is still being written as we discover more about the history of the Park.  If you have a story about the area, we would love to hear it.  Write to us via our ‘Comment’ page.  Here is our work on the history so far:

Pre-history

~150 million years ago volcanic action formed the eastern highlands from which the Yarra drains

~100 million years ago Yarra River is known to have existed and its form has changed over time in response to Australia’s separation from Antarctica ~60 million years ago and to climate and sea level change.

50-25 million years ago Port Phillip Bay was formed by subsidence occurring between the Selwyn Fault along the eastern shore and faults on the Bellarine Peninsula and west of the You Yangs.  This subsidence is still slowly occurring and the faults are still active, an earthquake centred near Mornington occurring in 1932.  This, together with falls in sea level, has resulted in sediment deposition in the floodplains of the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers.

….. the shore at the north end of Hobson’s Bay directly east of the Yarra consisted of a line of sand dunes which have been destroyed since European settlement.  South of the river is a coastal plain which extends from St Kilda Road southwards to Mordialloc. (The Yarra; A Natural Treasure, David & Cam Beardsell)

~25,000 years ago the Woi wurrung people occupied the area of the Yarra Valley

~18,000 years ago, during an ice age, the sea level was 150 meters below today’s level and Tasmania was connected to Victoria.  The two major channels now in Port Phillip Bay were formed by the course of the Yarra as it made its way to the ocean through a gorge, now known as the Heads.

~8,500 years ago, sea levels were 19 meters below today,  4,000 years ago sea levels were 4 meters higher.

History post-European settlement

Surveyor Charles Grimes, sent by Governor King to explore Port Phillip, reached the site that would be Melbourne on 4 February 1803 and reported it a ‘most eligible place for a settlement’

 

There was no further interest until John Batman visited in 1835 looking for good pastoral land and wrote in his diary ‘This will be the place for a village’.  He determined that Melbourne would be sited on the banks of the Yarra Yarra River, as close as possible to Hobson’s Bay where ships could anchor, only as far upstream as necessary to have good access fresh water and encompassing a grassy knoll – known as Batman’s Hill – befitting the administrators of this new town.  The Falls – a rock wall across the river, 0.5m above  high tide level, at what is now William Street – ensured that salt water went no further upstream.

The site was by no means perfect.  The journey from Williamstown to Melbourne was said to be a ‘circuitous’ one around Fishermen’s Bend. The river was full of snags, mudbars and bassalt rock ledges and the journey on land directly to the Bay was across low scrubby flats and marsh. Closer to the coast, the sandy soil was moderately wooded with River Red and Coast Manna gums.

Westgate Park is in what is known as the Estuarine Yarra which runs from the former Falls to Hobson’s Bay.

Floods were a regular occurrence in many sections of the Yarra before major dams and water diversion works were constructed……..

Aboriginal Melbourne

The Aboriginal clans who occupied the Estuarine Yarra were the Woi wurrung (north of the Yarra) and the Boon wurrung (along the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay).  The Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung belong to the Kulin nation of 5 or 6 language groups around Port Phillip district and surrounding country.  Linguists have classified the languages of the Kulin nation as being 80% similar and there was also a strong social connection between these groups.

The area of The Falls was, according to William Thomas, Assistant Protector, an important meeting place for Aboriginal clans in the area.  They were able to cross the river at this point and further upstream at Dight’s Falls.

Not much is known about the use by Aboriginal people of the area that is now Westgate Park, however, many species of water-dependent birds were known to inhabit the wetlands, including migratory birds, and these would have been hunted by Aboriginal people.  Food was collected in a sustainable manner under Aboriginal lore (law) under the direction of the elders.

A number of mammals were known in the area: dingoes, the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, 3 species of wallaby, wombats, 3 species of possum, the Eastern Quoll, pademelons, the Southern Bettong, koalas, antechinus, the White-footed Dunnart and bandicoots.  Six species of rat, including the Bush Rat, the Sugar Glider, Brush-tail Phascogale, flying foxes and bats were also recorded in Melbourne in the 1850s.

Fish and eel traps were reported to have been used by Aboriginal People on the Maribyrnong River

The fact that Estuarine Yarra was regularly flooded suggests that Aboriginal People moved to higher ground in the wetter months.

The Woi wurrung and the Boon wurrung People were eventually forced from their country into the territories of other clans, in Melbourne as in so many parts of Victoria.  This often resulted in violent conflicts.

In 1839 a quarantine station was established at Point Ormond, the ‘Glen Huntly’, overcrowded with immigrants, had docked in the bay flying the fever flag.  Several passengers died of typhoid.

The introduction of European diseases was one of the factors leading to the decimation of the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung people.  When the Assistant Protector, William Thomas, first visited the Aboriginal camp at the Yarra near Melbourne, he was appalled at the suffering from venereal disease, dysentery and tuberculosis.

The last census of the Boon wurrung, taken in 1863, recorded only 11 individuals from a population estimated to be between 250 and 500 prior to 1800.  After 1856, most lived in an Aboriginal Reserves at Mordialloc and Coranderrk.[1] Other sources suggest there were 15,000 Aboriginal people living in the Port Phillip district in the mid 1830s and by the mid 1860s approximately 40 Wurundjeri and Tuangurong people of the Kulin Nation had left Mohican Reserve near Yea and moved onto Coranderrk.

The site has been very substantially altered since European settlement and there are no extant archeological sites there.


[1] The Melbourne Dreaming – A Guide to the Aboriginal Places of Melbourne, Meyer Eidelson, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 1997

Plant species

The early botanist Daniel Bunce described the south of the river  as having low heathy shrubs.[1]

In the permanent brackish wetlands that were known to be on the site close to the bank of the Yarra (Fig 1), it is likely that Phragmites australis (Common Reed), Juncus krausii (Sea Rush), Bolboschoenus caldwellii (Salt Club-sedge) , Selliera radicans (Shiny Swamp-mat) and grasses; Triglochlin striatum (Streaked Arrowgrass) and Poa poiformis (Tussock Grass) grew.

Early settlers recorded dense and sometimes tall reeds and tea tree vegetation along the low banks of the Yarra.

The daughter of WFE Liardet, Josephine Macdonald, wrote “…. “Quite close to where the tide came in there was a skirting of what we called tea-tree.  Above that again, all along the beach grew the wild cactus that produced a rich-looking flower of a dark mauve (probably Carpobrotus rossii (Karkalla)).  Beyond all these lovely flowers was the forest and silver wattle (probably Black Wattle) … then he-oak and she-oak …. The needles of one tree droop down (Drooping Sheoake), while the needles of the other tree stand up (Black Sheoake) ; then wild cherry (Cherry Ballard)…. There were also lots of blue gume or eucalypts, from which my little brothers and sisters used to gather the manna which fell down from them (possibly Coast Manna Gum).”[1]

On the south western section of the site there may have been woodland vegetation of Eucalyptus viminalis ssp. pryoriana (Coast Manna Gum), Eucalyptus radiate (Narrow-leaf Peppermint and smaller trees like Black Wattle, Banksia integrifolia (Coast Banksia), Banksia marginata (Silver Banksia), Leptospermum continentale (Prickly Tea Tree) and Leptospermum laevigatum (Coast Tea Tree).

Climbing species, Billardiera scandens (Common Apple-berry and Clematis microphylla (Small–leaved Clematis) were seen, as were Hydrocotyle laxiflora (Stinking Pennywort), Oxalis corniculata (Creeping Wood-sorrel), Dichondra repens (Kidneyweed), Lagenophora stipitata (Common Lagenifera, Blue Bottle Daisy), Viola hederacea (Native Violet), Hydrocotyle hirta (Hairy Pennywort) and Ficina nodosa (Club-sedge).  Grasses present were Austrodanthonia setacea (Bristly Wallaby Grass) and Microlaena stipoides (Weeping Grass).[2]


[1] The Yarra; A Natural Treasure, David & Cam Beardsell, Royal Society of Victoria, 1999, p. 49-50

[2] The Place for a Village – how nature has shaped the City of Melbourne, Gary Presland, Museum Victoria, 2008, p. 147

In 1850 work commenced to straighten and deepen the river.  West Melbourne Swamp was used to develop Melbourne’s port and in 1883 the William Street Falls were blasted away.

……………….

In 1937 the Department of Aircraft Production established a factory at Fisherman’s Bend to build fighter and bomber aircraft.  In 1938 the Commonwealth Government obtained a 50-year lease from the Victorian Government for a site for aeronautical research.

In 1939 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research set up the Aeronautical & Engine Research Test Laboratory which was renamed the Aeronautical Research Laboratories and a runway was constructed in 19….. which occupied much of the land which is now Westgate Park.

In 1948 the first FX Holden produced at Fishermans Bend.

By the 1950′s this runway was inadequate for newer jet aircraft and development was encroaching on Fisherman’s Bend.  Part of the Avalon homestead and sheep station near Lara was purchased and the Avalon Airport was opened there in 1953 to cater for military aircraft.

The airfield was also used for motorbike races in August 1948 then cars from 1949.  There were no permanent facilities for races so they took place wherever the racers found a good place to go.  The track survived until 1960 but by then a rubbish tip and the docks had made the track decidedly unglamorous.

Sand mining and rubbish dumps ……

In 1964 plans were announced for a lower Yarra crossing  and work started on the Westgate Bridge in 1968. On 125 October 1970 the box girder span between piers 10 and 11 of the bridge collapsed killing 35 men and injuring another 18.  The reconstructed bridge was finally opened on 15 November 1978 at a total cost of over $200m.

Transformation into a Park

The earth moving works

Westgate Park - shifting topsoil to island Westgate Park - shifting topsoil to island 2 Westgate Park - the bloody ibis Westgate Park - depot area east of Todd Rd Westgate Park - main lagoon looking east Westgate Park - CEP crew starting planting Westgate Park - CEP crew spreading topsoil

Planting begins

Early scenes

 


7th November 1985 – the Foundation Stone is set in the park commemorating Victoria’s 150th anniversary and dedicating the Park to the people of Victoria.