David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.
Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.
The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.
The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.
Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.
In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.
Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.
David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35
Review by Chris Saliba