Like other parts of inner Melbourne, such as Port Melbourne and West Melbourne, the area that became Southbank was swampland, with low-lying wetlands that were eventually reclaimed for manufacturing businesses, warehouses and wharves.
However, the soil and the shallow water table made building difficult.
The Yarra River was known as Birrarung. Aboriginal tribes occupied the area for thousands of years, camping on both sides of the generally quietly flowing river, and managing the trees in the landscape with fire.
They found an abundant source of food and materials among the teeming wildlife along the tidal estuary, swamps and sand ridges. A bar of rock, located opposite today’s Crown Casino, banked up water and regularly flooded South Melbourne and kept much of the land south of the Yarra as an almost permanent swamp.
Early colonial development of Southbank (pre-1870s) saw numerous floods to the south of City Rd and east of Kings Way, down to Albert Rd, where Victoria Barracks stands today. One report noted flood debris as high as 13 metres above river level.
Early Melbourne was built on the higher northern banks, while the south bank was dominated by tea-tree scrub, salt marsh, swamp and sandy waste with small stands of trees.
The swamps harboured a variety of species of plant, animal and insect life. Clouds of birds were commonplace and invariably blocked out the sun, blackened the sky and turned day into night.
The local tribes caught fish and eels in the swamps and lagoons of the river and fished using funnel-shaped fish pots, referred to as eel traps. In the early 21st century, a bridge was established across the Yarra, resembling an eel trap, and celebrating its history.
Nearby Albert Park was once a lagoon, described as a marshy place with brackish water, while nearby Emerald Hill was composed of a rich, black soil, thinly wooded with honeysuckle and she-oak.
But colonial society, with an emphasis on agricultural development, regarded wetlands as representing an obstacle to prosperity and the swamplands had become a nuisance, offensive to the eyes and nose. They were methodically drained – a back-breaking exercise undertaken through the 1880s. •