No Shit: Defending Werribee Against ‘Postcode Superiority'

Fatima Measham was awarded one of last year’s Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships to work on an essay in defence of her suburb, Werribee. That essay - an attempt to subvert prevailing perceptions of the suburb - has just been published in Meanjin.

In this extract, Measham gives the history of the Western Treatment Plant (second only to Kakadu as one of the most biodiverse areas in Australia, and a mecca for birdwatchers - including Jonathan Franzen when he visited Melbourne in 2011) and explains the dangers of ‘postcode superiority’.

Image by Flying Cloud.

It was one of those moments of congeniality in a friend’s kitchen. I was narrating the many wrong turns I had taken before arriving at their house, when his three-year-old suddenly asked where I live. Before I could answer, his dad said, ‘It’s where your poo goes.’ The gleeful tone stung for days.

The words were a statement of fact, I suppose, but the tenor felt like an indictment of the place itself and the people who live there, including me. Was I expected to laugh along because it was such a joke? I looked at his son’s face and felt unexpectedly humiliated. This child thinks that I live at the endpoint of his toilet.

All I could do was sputter. ‘Actually, the Western Treatment Plant is one of the most highly biodiverse areas in Australia. Second only to Kakadu.’ My friend hadn’t known that, of course. Hardly anyone does. They’re too busy cackling over poo jokes.

I live in Werribee, west of Melbourne. It is ‘the capital of the New West’, according to a council newsletter, part of the Wyndham ‘growth corridor’. It sprawls east from Laverton to Little River, and north towards Mount Cottrell, south of Melton.

The relative isolation has until recently preserved the rural features of Werribee district. Even in the late 1990s it was a sort of no-man’s-land between the cosmopolitan delights of Melbourne and the surf coast charms of Geelong. No-one really stopped by unless they needed to fill up on petrol. Besides, it hosts the Western Treatment Plant, formerly called the Werribee Sewage Farm.

This child thinks that I live at the endpoint of his toilet.

I’m never sure what people visualise when the sewage farm is mentioned, but we don’t grow poo there. The area features wetlands, mudflats, coastal saltmarsh, estuaries, native grasslands and pastures. It sprawls across 105 square kilometres, three times the size of the city of Melbourne. A lagoon system of thirty ponds, known as Lake Borrie, is a habitat for many waterfowl, including some that migrate from as far as Siberia. Around 270 species of birds have been identified there. It is home to endangered native wildlife such as the growling grass frog and the fat-tailed dunnart.

When novelist Jonathan Franzen was in Melbourne for the 2011 Writers Festival, he made a point of visiting the Western Treatment Plant. An avid bird-watcher, he was reportedly blown away by the size of the area and the diversity of birds hosted there. It holds such high ecological significance that it was recognised under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on wetland conservation.

Image of swamp harrier at Werribee by Wayne Butterworth.

It is a picture that interferes with people’s shit-driven narrative of Werribee, one that also exposes most people’s ignorance about the historical and scientific basis for the sewage farm. The truth is that Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee.

Prior to 1890, Melburnians conducted the affairs of their bowels and bladders into cesspits, buckets and, if you were a little more civilised, porcelain chamber pots decorated with rosettes. ‘Night soil’ would often be dumped on public roads. All manner of excreta ran down the street. The Yarra became a de facto sewer — a gigantic open conduit for human and industrial waste. British journalists dubbed the city ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’. Not surprisingly, outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and other communicable diseases attended the era.

Such a state of malady and malodour would have persisted had London physician John Snow not made the connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1854. While investigating an outbreak in the Soho district, Snow used maps and statistics to trace the source of the disease. It turned out to be a public well pump in Broad Street that had been dug only a metre from an old cesspit.

Snow’s study led to the construction of significant sanitation infrastructure, which did more for public health than anything else before it. It was a scientific triumph that reverberated all the way to Australia, where in 1888 the Royal Sanitary Commission established the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works. Two years later, a British sewerage expert, James Mansergh, recommended land irrigation and soil filtration to the Victorian parliament as the best methods for treating sewage. This involved an underground drainage system that pumped waste towards large tracts of pasture, which clarify and oxidise impurities. The idea was to let nature take its course. The resulting abundance of grass would be dealt with by livestock, which would then be sold to sustain the system financially. It was a neat solution for a modern problem.

Werribee was chosen for the new sewage farm. It was suitable for irrigation, but more importantly, cheaper and further from the metropolitan boundary than the south-eastern option, Mordialloc. It also wasn’t anywhere near Brighton, which even then was a hub of affluence and influence. So Werribee got left with the effluent.

The problem is that we do not only expose our sense of postcode superiority when we use places as shorthand for certain types of people.

The board bought a portion of the Chirnside family holdings, establishing the sewage farm on 8857 acres. The Metropolitan Farm, as it was later called, was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century. It goes without saying that it was critical to reducing the spread of disease. Its benefits, however, were manifold.

It provided job security for many farmers during the 1890s economic crash as well as the 1930s depression, when it employed more than 400 people. During the postwar immigration scheme instigated by then minister Arthur Calwell, around a hundred men from the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre in north-west Victoria found work there.

The State Research Farm that was established on-site in 1912 was pivotal to creating cereal varieties that could withstand non-English climate and soil conditions. Livestock research was similarly conducted to improve breeds. The agricultural, animal husbandry and dairy practices developed there were implemented throughout Victoria.

Given such significant contributions, it’s a wonder that outsiders are still fixated on such a narrow version of Werribee. An unprocessed equivalence between residents and the treatment plant runs through the language used by outsiders.

By the time the Chirnsides left their properties in 1921, they had turned over a further 25,914 acres to the state government for use as farms under the Closer Settlement Act 1904. Part of this land was used in a soldier settlement scheme, enabling many First World War diggers to reintegrate into the community as farmers. When they moved elsewhere or onto other work, migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia took over the farms. About 150 farms comprise the Werribee South market garden industry today, from which a good portion of the produce in Victoria comes.

Given such significant contributions, it’s a wonder that outsiders are still fixated on such a narrow version of Werribee. An unprocessed equivalence between residents and the treatment plant runs through the language used by outsiders.

Image of sunset on Werribee plains by ccdoh1

I realised as much a few years ago, when I was teaching at a local state school. I took a group of Year 11 media students to the Channel 9 studios in Richmond. We were there for a taping of the now-defunct quiz show Temptation (formerly known as Sale of the Century). It was a terrific opportunity given that we were studying production processes and roles at the time. It was also a chance to escape our outer suburban bubble. I was keen for my class to make the most of the experience.

A handsome young model, whose task it was to showcase the prizes, came over to welcome us to the set. We were mostly a mix of school groups, so he asked each contingent where they were from. He seemed pleased that there were delegates from a certain private school where he had studied.

Then he turned to us. The most confident of my brood told him the name of our school. He asked where it was and she told him. This was met with a brief but loaded pause. I only realised how loaded when my student snapped, ‘Don’t judge us!’ I may have involuntarily clapped. In the space of mere seconds, she had detected the prejudice and confronted it. I was abashed that I hadn’t been as quick, but felt proud that one of us was.

The exchange said something to me about the burden that my students face, going out into a world that assumes so many things about them because of where they live. It underlines the injustice of being judged solely on provenance, which hardly anyone gets to choose.

There are places across the country that prompt similar responses at the merest mention, such as Logan and Inala in Queensland; Blacktown and Campbelltown in New South Wales; Bridgewater and Glenorchy in Hobart; Elizabeth in South Australia; and Gosnell in Western Australia.

Image of Werribee River, upstream by maccinate.

There is a pattern to these negative perceptions, some sort of code that applies to certain places. It seems to emerge from a combination of observation, hearsay and lore. Perhaps such attitudes are an unremarkable form of tribalism or remnant anxiety over what lies beyond the horizon—a kind of ‘there be dragons’ for our time. We all pass judgement on places for various reasons, some of which may even be valid.

The problem is that we do not only expose our sense of postcode superiority when we use places as shorthand for certain types of people. We also abdicate responsibility. Reducing people to the characteristics of their neighbourhood gives us permission to do nothing about the things that make it problematic. Suburbs are ‘bad’ because the people in it are bad. Prevalent disadvantage and restricted social mobility are thus seen as the outcome of such people congregating, rather than as pre-existing conditions that they must endure.

It is a mentality that keeps us from engaging with the structural nature of social problems. We do not realise that such conditions cluster and entrap entire families, sometimes for several generations. We freely mock these places instead of wondering why they have lower rates of educational achievement and higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, mental illness and third-generation poverty. Such failures of insight affect the lives of real people.

Portrait of Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer with a focus on sociopolitical issues. 

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