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Melbourne and the Yarra River

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Melbourne and the Yarra River

It was because of the Yarra that Melbourne was settled where it was. Fresh water was available for use next to the broad ‘Bay’ section of the river, that was used as a turning basin for ships. ‘The Falls’ as it was known, divided the freshwater from the sea water at this part of the river and made up of rocks that formed a natural dam and waterfall, they were soon removed by the early settlers for easier navigation, turning the river water brackish.

Over time, waste dumped into the waters from industry on the river banks almost turned this scenic river into a sewer.

The last 35 years has seen Melbourne reverse this and instead embrace the river, to make it one of Melbourne’s greatest assets again.

Below are images of the Yarra River and Melbourne’s love and sometimes indifference to it during the last 160 years.


From the Richmond side of the river, the punt on the Yarra that gave Punt Road its name.

Looking south-east to South Yarra, the rise of the road is unmistakable, the gardens and vineyards you see before you have now given way to apartments and houses. The Hoddle Street Bridge now occupies this site.


Twickenham Ferry, Twickenham Crescent, Burnley, close to where the Mac Robertson Bridge is now.

This service was between Burnley and Toorak. Notice the cable across the river to grab and pull boats from one side to the other.


Ferry paddling up the Yarra in Burnley (Richmond).


Before Moomba there was Henley-on-The Yarra.

The first Henley-on-The Yarra Regatta was held on 19 March 1904.


Ships using the Yarra turning basin before the Spencer Street Bridge blocked them from entering.


Spencer Street Bridge built in 1930 stops ships from entering the turning basin.


Boats moored on the north side of the Yarra next to Flinders Street Station.


Early 1960s view of the city with The Yarra River in the foreground.


Similar view at night in the late 1960s


Another similar view again in the late 1970s.


Eastern cluster on view in the late 1990s.


1970s, A heliport and carpark where the turning basin use to be.


Clearing and development at the western end of the Yarra saw The World Trade Centre and The Melbourne Congress Centre built in the 1980s.


Late 1990s aerial looking west showing disused railway bridge and Melbourne's Southbank developments.


Postcard showing The Yarra Footbridge built in 1989

Cocks Carmichael Whitford PTY LTD.


Early 2000s photograph of Melbourne showing Batman Park, Melbourne Aquarium and the reinstated turning basin. smiley

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The images below show the development of the western part of the Yarra in relation to the city over the years.

In chronological order:





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The Yarra - a natural history

The headwaters of the Yarra River flow from the pristine flanks of Mt Baw Baw in Victoria's West Gippsland region.

 For 242 kilometres the main water course - and 24 tributaries - drain an area of 4060 m2, about half the area of metropolitan Melbourne.

On its journey through Melbourne and to Port Phillip, it supplies 9 catchment dams and provides drinking water to about 2.6 million households.

The much maligned muddy colour of the Yarra is caused by the easily eroded clay soils of the water catchment. The water was clear at the time of European settlement, but intensive land clearing and development since the mid 1800s has resulted in the presence of microscopic clay particles.

The particles are kept suspended by the turbulence in some parts of the middle and lower sections of the river. When the river water combines with marine salts as it enters Port Phillip, the suspended particles clump together and sink.

The muddy appearance does not indicate an unclean waterway. In fact, the Yarra is probably one of the cleanest capital city rivers in the world.

Since the major clean-up campaigns of the late 1970s and 1980s, the river has again become home to several species of fish and even the occasional dolphin.

The Yarra has a tidal range of 2.2 metres. Water craft are able to navigate the river from its mouth, at Williamstown, to the Collingwood Children’s Farm - a distance of about 10 kms.


The Wurundjeri & European discovery

The Yarra has played a pivotal role in the pre-European history and the modern development of Melbourne.

To the original Wurundjeri people, the river was "birrarung" - 'river of mists and shadows'. They camped on both banks of the river, especially near present day Government House and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. They caught eels in the swamps and lagoons of the river and fished using funnel-shaped fish pots.

The first European eyes to appreciate the pristine beauty of the meandering waterway was Charles Grimes, Acting Surveyor General of New South Wales. During his exploration in 1803 he named it 'Freshwater River'. He declared it to be the "the most eligible place for a settlement that I have seen", although he also noted flood debris as high as 13 metres above river level.

The name 'Yarra' is attributed to surveyor John Wedge, who in the 'Rebecca' accompanied John Batman on the 1835 party of exploration on behalf of the Launceston-based Port Phillip Association. Wedge asked local aborigines what they called the cascading waters on the lower section of the river. They replied 'Yarro Yarro', meaning 'it flows'. Wedge's mishearing of the word determined its enduring name.

On the banks of the Yarra on 8 June, 1835 John Batman enacted his now infamous purchase of 600,000 acres of land with a group of local aborigines.

Three months later, George Evans in the 'Enterprize' made landfall on the Yarra on 30 August, 1835, near the site of the present day Immigration Museum in Flinders Street. He constructed huts on the south bank.

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More old and new Yarra postcards.

Absolutely love this one below. smiley

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Yarra River and city scenes photographed by me in 2004.

A view of Southbank.


Southbank and ferry.


View of The Yarra from Southbank.


Boarding a Southbank Ferry.


West end of city with Rialto Towers looking like crystals.


The Melbourne Aquarium.

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Main text from Ferries on the Yarra


(a blast from the past)

The great event on the river each year was the Henley-on-Yarra regatta. Melbourne, so often regarded by those who do not know it as a dull, sober city, is good at festivals, and Henley was one of the best. It fitted neatly into the social calendar on a Saturday afternoon between the two major events of the spring racing season, the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup, and from its inception in 1904 it was immensely popular. Like Cup Day, it was an occasion on which it never rained, and the newspapers invariably waxed poetic in their descriptions of the day. The Argus in 1905 reported it as

‘a water carnival to rank in aquatics as a fixture like the Melbourne Cup in racing, the final test match of an English cricketing tour, or the Austral Wheel Race in Cycling.’

Oarsman would come from far and wide to compete in the races at Henley. Elaborate ‘houseboats’ would be built up on pontoons for the occasion and lavishly decorated, and those who did not have their own boat would crowd aboard the ferry boats moored against the bank at Batman Avenue to cheer on their favourites as they crossed the finishing line. People also packed the grassy river banks over the whole length of the course from Morell Bridge to Princes Bridge, and on the bridges themselves. The Argus report continues:

‘Almost as soon as it became apparent that the day would be fine and sunny, people began to assemble on the bank of the Yarra – a river which is far too little appreciated by those who live around it…

From the steps at Prince’s Bridge to the last house-boat there was a glittering assemblage, constantly moving – though with difficulty at times – and radiant with the costumes of the ladies….’

Henley-on-Yarra started in 1904 and eventually morphed into Moomba.

Moomba started in 1954.


Above, the scene on one bank and below, the girl in the prizewinning canoe in 1936 is justifiably pleased with the riot of fancy cushions that surround her, and that not one has fallen in the Yarra.

Above, on the southern bank, one can see the Henley equivalent of the corporate box, the houseboat, built and decorated for the occasion on a pontoon base. Prizes were offered for best decorated.

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Another blast from the past:

The Hawthorn Tea Gardens as they looked in 1926, demolished in 1971 to make way for The Leonda Function Centre.

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Kristin Otto

The Text Publishing Company

First published in 2005

In print

Around the same time someone explains the mechanics of an Australian hoop snake to you, you might also hear how the Yarra flows upside down.

The explanation for the river’s famous muddiness, they’ll tell you, is that it carries its bed turgidly on the surface, the clear water flowing underneath.

To thin to plough, they’ll say; too thick to  drink… 

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Melbourne’s Yarra River


Ferries on the Yarra

Colin Jones

Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd

First published in 1981

Out of print

The first majestic ferry steamed up the Yarra in 1854. The Gondola, as she was known, was an extravagant affair headed for the pleasures and frivolity of the Cremorne Gardens. In her wake came a succession of boats, from ferries lavishly decorated as houseboats during the golden days of Henley, and those equipped with ‘fast’ dance floors and crowds of dancers, to workman-like ferries capable of sailing on the Bay, and modern ferries transporting a handful of passengers at a leisurely pace.

Colin Jones has talked to the men who ran the ferries, the dedicated old-timers with a love of the Yarra. He recounts contemporary – and often amusing – tales of the ferry boats.

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Sketch of the Yarra River in the 1880s.

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Absolutely love this painting featuring the Yarra River and its central role to Melbourne.

Jan Senbergs Melbourne 1998-99

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More photographs by me.smiley

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Development & Planning

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 12:00
The swirl of development activity in Footscray has found another gear as new projects are submitted for approval, or are on the verge of beginning construction. Two separate planning applications have been advertised by Maribyrnong City Council; their subsequent addition to the Urban Melbourne Project Database has seen the overall number of apartment developments within Footscray in development swell to 40.

Policy, Culture & Opinion

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 12:00
The marriage of old and new can be a difficult process, particularly when the existing structure has intrinsic heritage value. In previous times Fitzroy's 237 Napier Street served as the home of furniture manufacturer C.F. Rojo and Sons. Taking root during 1887, Christobel Rojo oversaw operations though over time the site would become home to furniture manufacturer Thonet.


Visual Melbourne

Friday, August 25, 2017 - 07:00
The former site of John Batman's home, Batman's Hill is entering the final stages of its redevelopment. Collins Square's final tower has begun its skyward ascent, as has Lendlease's Melbourne Quarter Commercial and Residential precinct already. Melbourne Quarter's first stage is at construction and involves a new 12-storey home for consultancy firm Arup along with a skypark.

Transport & Design

Friday, December 15, 2017 - 11:00
Infrastructure Victoria unveiled a new round of research into its larger programme of work dealing with managing transport demand. The authority contracted Arup and KPMG to produce the Melbourne Activity Based Model (MABM) and while it is new, it is considered fit for purpose in the strategic context.

Sustainability & Environment

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 12:00
Cbus Property's office development for Medibank at 720 Bourke Street in Docklands recently became the first Australian existing property to receive a WELL Certification, Gold Shell and Core rating. The WELL rating goes beyond sustainable building features with a greater focus on the health and well-being of a building's occupants.