The following article, ' "This Life Suits Me": Dudley Flats to Docklands' was written by Kasia Zygmuntowicz, Public Record Office Victoria, and published in Ancestor December 2002.
At the end of the article are references to the PROV records used to research the article.
I was travelling over the Bolte Bridge the other day, admiring the view of Melbourne as the car zoomed north. Just as the e-tag went ‘ping’, I chanced to look down at the site of the proposed ‘Waterfront City’ and it occurred to me how much things had changed, and were continuing to change, in this part of the world. My 2002 Melbourne street directory already proclaims the new docklands order: this end of Dudley Street is now Docklands Drive, Victoria Dock is Victoria Harbour and Footscray Road is Harbour Esplanade at one end and Docklands Highway at the other. The former waterfront ‘service entrance’ of the city of Melbourne is being transformed. Some day soon it will be difficult to imagine what life might have been like before high-rise apartments, shopping precincts, leisure-craft harbours and restaurants.
A good place to find clues about changing land use in Victoria is VPRS 7312 Microfiche Catalogue to Crown Land and Survey Files, Parish/Township Order. The catalogue provides access to several land record series at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), including land selection, closer and soldier settlement, and crown reserves correspondence. A quick browse through the list of files for Melbourne, for example, reveals an extraordinary depth of information. There are land files covering everything from the Botanic Gardens to an isolation hospital at Coode Island. There are also files relating to the West Melbourne Swamp and neighbouring areas to the east, better known these days as Melbourne Docklands.
The area I spied below the northern pylons of the Bolte Bridge was once known as Dudley Flats, windswept remnants of the West Melbourne Swamp. The flats took their name from Dudley Street, which extended over Footscray Road and down onto the spit of land between the Moonee Ponds Creek and Victoria Dock. During the Depression of the 1930s, Dudley Flats became synonymous with a camp for the unemployed and homeless, which grew up either side of the creek. The nearby wharves and rail yards provided casual work, and the neighbouring refuse tips were an endless source of materials for salvage and sale – and for building humpies. Some of the huts became very elaborate and were nicknamed ‘Dudley Mansions’. Often photographed and featured in the press of the day, along with lurid stories of drunken and depraved camp life, the flats drew crowds of spectators on weekends, and bands of Salvationists at other times.
Most Dudley Flats residents were peripatetic, but some settled down and stayed for years. In 1938 the Melbourne City Council (MCC) decided it was time to act on the illegal occupation of the flats, and the interference of flat dwellers with the operation of the MCC tip. The council hosted a conference of authorities responsible for the land in an effort to come to some unified response to the problem. The parties resolved unanimously,
"that the shacks and their occupants on areas of land at West Melbourne controlled by the Lands Department, Harbour Trust and Railways Dept, constitute a nuisance and should in the occupants’ interests, the interests of the community, and for health reasons, be removed therefrom… the Conference recommends that the Departments concerned be asked to give the occupants notice to vacate the area within one month, and, on vacation, to have the structures entirely demolished"
Despite this resolution, the community at Dudley Flats proved difficult to remove. People were warned to move on, but returned and continued to rebuild their shacks on the flats until the early 1950s. Reports and surveys of the flats population describe the residents and their living conditions in some detail. In 1939 there were 46 shacks. ‘Bachelors Quarters’, huts on the east shore of the Railway Canal (Moonee Ponds Creek), were occupied by single men. Residents included 44-year-old Jack Smith, a fibro-plasterer from Geelong. Smith occupied shack 9 on the MCC’s survey map while the usual occupant, ‘said to be a bad type’, was serving time in Pentridge. Among his neighbours were John McCorey and John Platner in shack 7. McCorey had casual work painting and scraping at the Dry Dock, while Platner earned an income making and hawking wire baskets and similar goods. Across the creek, ‘Group A’ residents were a mix of married and single people. Some residents such as Joan Davis and George Stewart in shack 1 or Horace Bird and his wife in shack 9, provided accommodation and meals for others on the flats.
Jack Peacock, a salvage dealer, was popularly known as the ‘King of Dudley Flats’. The flats’ longest resident, he arrived in about 1932 and remained until the early 1950s. Peacock lived in shack 5, north of Footscray Road, and culled the nearby tips for scrap. He gathered and sold manure to market gardeners and owned a horse and two old spring drays. As authorities became more insistent that the flats be vacated, Peacock wrote letters to the Lands Department offering to lease the land for his salvage yard and for grazing. He required the site for a residence as well as storage, so that he could keep watch over his salvage. He impressed upon the department that, unlike many other Dudley Flats residents, he did not drink nor ‘know the taste of it’. Although his offers to lease land were refused, Peacock continued to live and work on the flats and to rebuild or relocate his hut as necessary. In 1943 when he was again warned that he must vacate his humpy, he told police:
"You give that to me in writing or get the Secretary for Lands to do so, and I will see my Solicitor. I got plenty of money. You can ring the E.S.& A. Bank at North Melbourne. This life suits me and it is only the mental weaklings who desire to remove me. Men of education would allow me to remain."
It wasn’t until 1953 that an inspector in the Lands Department was finally able to report, ‘that after considerable difficulty and many interviews, Mr Peacock has vacated the Crown area fronting the Melbourne-Footscray Road’.
So when the new apartments finally spring up again on the former Dudley Flats, remember the residents who lived there before. Waterside life, though rather different to that of Waterfront City, suited them too.
This article is based on documents found in VPRS 5357 Land Selection and Correspondence Files, unit 4166, item 34, file G 57040 ‘West Melbourne – Dudley Flats’.