The Spotswood Pumping Station
The fascinating story of one of Australia's most important industrial heritage sites.
The fascinating story of one of Australia's most important industrial heritage sites.
The Spotswood Pumping Station was built in the 1890s as a key component of the Melbourne Sewerage Scheme. Functioning as the heart of the system, the pumping station played a vital role in helping to overcome the city's early public health and sanitation problems. For almost 70 years from 1898, all the sewage collected in Melbourne's underground sewers passed through the pumps at Spotswood, on its way to the treatment works at Werribee.
Construction of the pumping station began in March 1894, with the local Footscray firm Messrs Garnsworthy & Smith being awarded the contract to prepare the site and foundations. Their first task was to excavate a massive hole measuring 20 metres by 100 metres and almost 25 metres in depth - much of it was blasted out of solid basalt. From the hole was removed some 25,500 cubic metres broken rock and spoil, weighing almost 70,000 tonnes, with the aid of steam cranes and a small steam locomotive.
Work progressed around the clock in continuous shifts with arc lamps providing illumination at night. Electric power for the lighting was supplied by generators at the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works next door.
In the excavated hole were constructed the brick and concrete lined tunnels for the inlet sewers, access tunnels, steel pipes for the outlet sewers, and twelve large elliptical pump wells formed with thick unreinforced concrete walls, strong enough to carry the weight of the buildings and heavy machinery. The space surrounding the wells was then filled with crushed rock.
Construction of the Pumping Station buildings and installation of the machinery commenced in late 1895 and would take almost two years to complete.
The grand facade and imposing mansard towers of the Spotswood Pumping Station look more like a French castle than a major industrial site, but similar architecture could also be seen in power stations and breweries built in Melbourne during the late nineteenth century.
The arrangement of the pumping station buildings form a symmetrical layout, with two engine houses fronting Douglas Parade, behind each of which is a separate boiler house and coal bunker. Between the engines houses is the entrance to a central courtyard, flanked by the imposing towers. At either end of the site is a polygonal straining well house containing equipment that filtered the incoming sewage flow to remove debris that might damage or foul the pumps.
The architectural designs for the pumping station buildings were prepared by the Board of Works’ Designing Engineer, Christian Kussmaul*, based on a classical revival style known as Second French Empire, which was popular in Europe during the mid 19th century. The buildings were constructed by the contractor A.G. Shaw in polychrome brickwork on bluestone footings supplied by the Footscray & Malmsbury Stone Cutting & Quarrying Company. The predominant brick colour is red, with cream brick stringcourses, quoins, window arches and pilasters, and cornices of Barrabool sandstone. The roofs were originally clad in Welsh slate, with glazed skylights over raised lantern ventilators along each ridge line.
Behind the buildings were two 50 metre high brick chimneys connected by underground flues to the boiler houses. These were demolished in the late 1960s after the pumping station ceased operating.
* Kussmaul was born in Germany in 1852 and trained as an engineer, later working for the German Government Railways before emigrating to Victoria in 1885. He joined the Victorian Railways as a draughtsman the following year, remaining with them until he was appointed by the Board of Works in 1891. After 25 years faithful service he was unfairly victimised by the rise of anti-German sentiment following the outbreak of the First World War, being one of eight German-born employees forced to resign from their positions in the organisation.
By the late 1880s, Melbourne had become Australia’s largest city with a population of almost half a million.
Melbourne was being favourably compared to some of the world’s greatest cities, like Philadelphia, Paris and New York. Visitors praised its stately buildings, wide streets and gracious boulevards, while residents benefitted from reticulated water and gas supplies, electric street lighting, telegram and telephone networks, cable trams, railways, hydraulic lifts and some of the world’s tallest buildings. In 1885, when the British journalist George Augustus Sala visited the Australian Colonies, he was so impressed with the city that he praised it with the epithet “Marvellous Melbourne” when publishing a series of articles on this trip in London’s Daily Telegraph. For many of the city’s proud inhabitants, swept up in the heady days of a tremendous land boom, the title had a strong resonance and immediately gained popular currency. But not everyone agreed...
Beneath the grand facades, there was another story. In the street gutters and drains ran raw sewage, horse manure, hospital waste and household slops, while untreated effluent from the city’s many smelting and wool-washing works, tanneries, soap and candle factories and abattoirs flowed unchecked into the rivers and waterways. For some correspondents in the local press, the vile odour of the city’s ‘noxious industries’ and putrid stench of its untreated nightsoil and wastewater was over-bearing, spawning suggestions that the noms de guerre “Marvellous Smellbourne” might be more fitting.
Although by the 1800s, medical research had established that most infectious diseases were caused by bacterial infections spread through poor personal hygiene or contaminated food and water supplies, there was still a strong popular misconception amongst the community that contagions were spread by ‘miasmas’ or noxious vapours emanating from putrid refuse and untreated sewage. To many, the solution for both ridding the city of its notorious stench and containing the regular outbreaks of infectious diseases became linked to the campaign to sewer the city.
For almost a quarter of a century from 1897, steam power was the sole motive power source for driving the pumps at Spotswood Sewerage Pumping Station. Steam power was also used for driving dynamos to supply electric lighting, for driving the workshop machinery, economisers, feedwater pumps and control valves that regulated the sewage flow.
By 1914, the pumping station was equipped with ten triple-expansion steam pumping engines, each rated at 300 horsepower, and capable of lifting 8 million gallons (36 million litres) every 24 hours. Steam was supplied to the engines by ten large coal-fired boilers, each designed to evaporate 9,000 lbs (4077 kg) of water per hour, delivering saturated dry steam at 150 lbs per square inch (1,034 kPa) pressure.
After the first electric pumps were installed in 1921, steam power took a secondary role, being mainly used to handle peak sewage flows, but the steam pumps continued to be used intermittently until 1947. Today five of the original steam engines survive, having been saved by the generation of engineers who had a special affection for the old steam technology on which they began their careers.
The Victorian firm Thompson & Co., of Castlemaine, won the contract to supply most of the initial machinery required for the pumping station against strong competition from other leading Australian and overseas engineering firms. So keen were Thompsons to secure the work that their tender offered no less than 18 different combinations of equipment, including three steam engine designs and three different boiler types, with a corresponding range of prices.
For a total cost of just £38,926, Thompsons undertook to design, manufacture and supply some 500 tons machinery including four 300 horsepower steam pumping engines, six marine-type internally-fired multitubular boilers, surface condensers, Green's economisers, feedwater pumps and a host of other auxiliary equipment such as overhead travelling cranes for each engine house, steam-operated penstock valves, receivers and 420 feet (128 metres) of riveted steel delivery pipes. In order to undertake the contract, Thompson & Co. had to make extensive additions to their own workshop equipment, including the installation of a Siemen's electric lighting plant which allowed work to continue around the clock.
Installation of the Thompson boilers and steam engines commenced in 1895 and took over 18 months, with the first engine tested under steam on 8th February 1897, and the remaining engines and boilers completed over the following month. The engines were installed in the middle two wells in each engine house, with three boilers in each boiler house.
The Thompson engines were of an unusual design described as a Worthington non-rotative direct-acting triple-expansion type. They had no flywheels or crankshaft and six steam cylinders of three different sizes. Two rocking ‘compensating’ beams providing provided coupling between each pair of piston rods and drove the opposing side valve gear. The Worthington engine design had originated in America and was widely used for high-duty pumping plants in both Britain and the United States by the 1890s. In Australia, the Spotswood engines were the earliest example of a vertical Worthington design, although a number of horizontal Worthington engines had previously been installed for water supply and sewage pumps.
Not surprisingly given their unusual design, a number of problems were encountered during the commissioning of the Thompson engines. Although they met the required flow rate, several adjustments were required before they achieved their required economy, and a number of components were found to be defective requiring replacement. The most serious problem involved cracks in the water pump casings that appeared just six months after the first engine was put into service and eventually required the water-end of each engine to be entirely replaced, which involved a complete dismantling and re-assembly of each engine.
Thompson engines Nos. 1 & 2 in the South Engine Room were dismantled and scrapped in 1918, to make way for the second installation of electric pumps at Spotswood. The second pair, Engine Nos. 3 & 4, survived until 1936 when they were also dismantled to make room for the last set of electric pumps.
Established by Irish-born brothers David and James Thompson at Castlemaine in 1874, Thompson’s Foundry was one of Victoria’s largest and most experienced engineering firms by the early 1890s. Beginning as an adjunct to a flour mill that the brothers had started in 1863, the foundry initially concentrated on the manufacture and repair of steam engines and boilers and equipment such as stamp batteries and pumps required by Victorian gold mines. Later they diversified into products such air compressors, condensers, centrifugal pumps, dredges and railway products. Although the company never made any further vertical Worthington pumping engines, they went on to specialise in the manufacture of heavy duty pumping plant during the 20th century, and supplied two centrifugal pumps for the later electric-powered pumping units at Spotswood.
In 1902 the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works began operating a new steam pumping engine at the Spotswood sewerage pumping station. It was built by Hathorn Davey & Co. of Leeds, UK. This engine was an inverted vertical rotative direct-acting triple-expansion surface-condensing design, it featured fully steam-jacketed cylinders and inter-cylinder steam receivers. This engine proved to be 70% more efficient than the four locally-built Thompson & Co Worthington type triple-expansion engines installed at Spotswood between 1895 and 1897 and 28% more efficient than the single Austral Otis Engineering Co pumping engine installed in No. 6 pumping well in 1901.
When the MMBW required additional pumping engines in 1909, Austral Otis were asked to prepare plans for four new engines, this time based largely on the successful Hathorn Davey design, with a few minor modifications. The first two new Austral Otis engines were commissioned in June and July 1911, followed by the remaining two in mid-1914. Four additional boilers, again supplied by Thompson & Co. of Castlemaine, were installed in 1909 in preparation for these engines. This brought the plant at the pumping station to a total of ten manually-stoked coal-fired boilers and ten steam pumping engines, each of about 300 horsepower, with a combined pumping capacity of 80 million gallons per day (363 ML/day).
This is the original Hathorn Davey engine located at the No. 5 pumping well in the South Engine Room which was received in 1901 and was operating by October 1902. It is now the oldest pumping engine left at Spotswood, it is believed to also be the oldest engine of this type and make in the world.
The four Austral Otis pumping engines in the North Engine Room were all installed between 1911 and 1914. Each engine was rated at 300 horsepower and was capable of pumping 36 million litres of sewage a day.
Engine drivers and greasers operated the engines, while engine fitters, riggers and labourers assisted with maintenance. Although the steam pumps last run in 1947, they continued to be cleaned and polished regularly until the pumping station closed.
A tall brick chimney connected to the boilers once stood behind each of the coal bunkers on what is now the Scienceworks arena. Coal for the boilers was delivered in railway trucks. A siding from Spotswood Station brought the coal trucks along the top of the embankment behind the coal bunkers. The coal was hand shovelled from the railway trucks through the openings at the rear of each bunker. Each bunker had a sloping floor so that the coal would roll down towards the boilers.
Initially most of the coal burnt at the Pumping Station was supplied by smaller private mines in South Gippsland. Between 1897 and 1903, 82% of all coal consumed was purchased from the Coal Creek Company, at Korumburra, and the nearby Outtrim-Howitt and Jumbunna Companies. In 1909 the situation changed somewhat with the opening of the Powlett River coalfield. From then on the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi, owned by the Victorian Railways Department, became the major local source of coal. By 1914, however, only 41% of coal burnt was being supplied by Victorian mines, with most of the remainder coming from the Newcastle mines in New South Wales.
Generally speaking the Victorian black coal seams were narrower and of poorer quality than those in New South Wales, however, being under constant pressure to reduce operating costs, the managing engineers often purchased cheaper slack coal from local mines, rather than the better quality interstate coal.
Each boiler burnt up to nine tonnes of coal a day. In the peak year of 1917, some 14,000 tonnes of coal were consumed, which meant refilling the bunker every five weeks to the level of the rear openings.
Between 1918 and 1938, nine electric-powered centrifugal pumps were installed at the Spotswood Pumping Station. Although dwarfed by their predecessors, each of the electric pumps could handle from 1½ to 2 times the flow rate as one of the steam pumping engines.
By 1918, the average daily sewage flow handled at the pumping station had risen to 36 million gallons (164 ML), but peak flows on days of big storm activity were reaching up to 76 million gallons (346 ML), alarmingly close to the combined 90 million gallons (409 ML) capacity of the ten steam engines then available. Should more than one engine break down or be out of service for maintenance, the pumping station would have been unable to keep up with the flow.
The first two electric pumps came online in 1922, with a further three units available by 1925. From this point onwards most of the normal daily flows were handled by the electric pumps, with the steam engines being used to help cover peak flows and provide emergency backup.
As a direct consequence of the conversion to electricity, average pumping costs fell significantly and the pumping station workforce that had reached a peak of 88 in 1918, declined to only 53 ten years later.
The conversion to electric pumping helped reduce operating costs at the pumping station by up to 30 percent. The size of the workforce also declined – from a peak of 88 people in 1918, to just 53 ten years later. Fewer staff were required for each shift, with roles like boiler attendant and coal trimmer being phased out, while greasers became pump attendants and multiple engine drivers were replaced by a single shift engineer. Where possible existing staff were retrained into new roles, but some staff with new skills were also recruited, such as the first electrician who joined the workforce in 1923.
The completion of the Victorian Railway Department’s Newport Power Station in 1918 provided the impetus for the installation of the first electric pumps at Spotswood Pumping Station. Situated just 500 metres south of the pumping station, the power station was built primarily to provide electric current for the electrification of Melbourne’s suburban railway network, however, a delay in the conversation schedule for some lines created an opportunity with spare capacity available for several years to supply the pumping station and other local industries.
A sub-station was built in 1920 near the south-eastern corner of the pumping station site, adjacent to Douglas Parade, to step down the 20,000 volt 25 cycles per second alternating current supply from the Newport Power Station distribution lines to the 440 volts required for the electric pump motors. Transformers and control gear were installed in the sub-station by Railways Department electrical fitters, with the equipment ready for operation by July 1921. The substation also supplied electric power to the William Angliss meatworks in Footscray.
In 1921, the State Electricity Commission (SECV) announced that it would extent the Newport Power Station and install additional generating plant in order to provide an interim supply to the commission’s electricity distribution gird until the first Latrobe Valley power station at Yallourn came online. This provided the opportunity to install additional electric pumps at Spotswood, but because the SECV’s alternating current supply was run at a frequency of 50 cycles per second, a separate sub-station was required. The second sub-station was built in 1923 on the southern boundary of the Pumping Station site adjacent to Craig Street.
Both of the electricity sub-station buildings at Spotswood survive today, but have been converted to alternate uses, with the original sub-station equipment removed after the Pumping Station closed down.
In August 1918 the Board of Works invited tenders for the supply and installation of two additional pumping units at Spotswood. The specifications called for each unit to comprise an 18 million gallons per day (81.8 ML/day) capacity centrifugal pump, powered by either a steam turbine or electric motor. After much deliberation by the Board’s Sewerage Committee, awarded a contract to the Victorian firm G. Weymouth Pty. Ltd., of Richmond, in January 1919, for two 750 horsepower (555 kW) electric induction motors with direct-coupled single-stage centrifugal pumps and associated pipework, at a cost of £18,572.
Winning such as prestigious contract was a considerable achievement for the local manufacturing firm founded by George Weymouth in 1898. As one of the first electrical engineering firms in Australia, G. Weymouth & Co had pioneered the introduction of electrical equipment into the mining and manufacturing industry and was one of the first firms to manufacture large electric motors and generators in Australia, at a time when most equipment of this type was imported. After relocating to larger premises at Richmond in 1908, Weymouths had won contracts to supply centrifugal pumps for irrigation to the State Rivers & Water Supply Commission and to provide the complete condensing plant and circulating pumps for the Railway Department’s Newport Power Station. The Spotswood contract, however, would be a step further in the firm’s development, requiring both the largest electric motors and largest centrifugal pumps yet manufactured in Australia.
The noted Melbourne consulting engineer, A.G.M. Michell was brought in to work on the hydraulic design for the pumps which were required to lift almost 1,000 litres of sewage a second against a head of 41 metres in a single stage. A feat that the Board’s engineers had doubted was even possible only a decade earlier.
Manufacture of the pump components and electric motors was completed by September 1920, but they had to be fully assembled and tested at the manufacturer’s works before being delivered to the pumping station for installation at the bottom of Wells Nos. 1 & 2, in the South Engine Room – the only spare wells without steam engines. Installation at Spotswood was completed by September 1921, with additional onsite tests being completed before the pumps underwent their official duty trials in January 1922.
Although the installation and commissioning of the first two electric pumps at Spotswood took 18 months longer than initially expected, the plant was an immediate success once finally put into operation. So impressed were the Board’s engineers that just three months later, in April 1922, tenders were called for two additional electric pumps with a capacity of 12 million gallons per day (54.6 ML/day) each and two more electric pumps with a capacity of 18 million gallons per day (81.8 ML/day) each.
Five tenders were received by the Board of Works for the smaller pumps, with G.W. Kelly & Lewis Pty Ltd, of Melbourne, winning the contract to supply and install the equipment at a cost of £11,161. The winning bid was for a combination of Melbourne-made centrifugal pumps designed and manufactured by Kelly & Lewis, with British-made electric starting gear and 500 horsepower electric motors from the British Thomson-Houston Co Ltd of Rugby. As with the contract for the original steam pumping plant awarded to Thompson & Co, of Castlemaine, thirty years earlier, part of Kelly & Lewis’s winning tactic involved submitting multiple tenders for different combinations of equipment. Their alternate tenders that were rejected had included one for similar equipment but with American-made electrical starting gear, at a £900 lower cost, and one for entirely Victorian-made pumps and electric motors at an additional cost of £1,500.
Founded by George William Kelly and Edward Powell Lewis in 1899, Kelly & Lewis had developed by the early 1920s into one of Victoria’s largest engineering firms with a workforce of 300 people, manufacturing a diverse range of products from steam engines, air compressors and internal combustion engines, to mining & manufacturing equipment, structural steelwork and pumps. Their contract for the Spotswood pumps was their first significant project for the Board of Works, however, the firm would go on to specialise in the manufacture of centrifugal pumps of all sizes and subsequently won major contracts provide later electric pumps for both the Spotswood Pumping Station and its successor, the Brooklyn Pumping Station.
In September 1922, Weymouths Limited, of Richmond, were awarded a contract to supply not two - as advertised – but one additional electric pumping unit of 18 million gallons per day capacity, at a cost of £9,560. Although the design of the centrifugal pump for this unit was similar to the earlier pumps Weymouths had supplied in 1921, this time the pump was equipped with a British-built 750 horsepower electric motor from the British Thomson-Houston Co Ltd., rather than a locally-made motor.
As there were no more spare wells at the pumping station by this time, work commenced in June 1923 on dismantling the two Thompson steam engines in Wells 3 & 4 of the South Engine Room and the 1901 Austral Otis steam engine in Well 6, to make room for the three new electric pumps.
By 1925, the Spotswood Pumping Station had five electric pumps installed, with a combined capacity of 78 million gallons per day (355 ML/day), equivalent to twice the average daily sewage flow and 58% of the site’s overall steam and electric pumping capacity of 134 million gallons per day (609 ML/day). By transferring almost entirely to electric pumping, a saving of £30,000 on the annual running costs of the pumping station had been achieved.
With continued growth, Melbourne’s population reach over a million by 1938, with over quarter of a million properties connected to the sewers creating an average daily flow of 46.8 million gallons a day (212 ML/day).
The final four electric pumps installed at Spotswood were again supplied by Kelly & Lewis, with the last two original Thompson steam engines being dismantled in 1936 to make room for the new pumps in the middle wells of the North Engine Room. Unlike all the earlier electric pumps, which were of a horizontal-axis design, the final pumps were of a vertical-axis type, enabling two 10 million gallons per day (45.5 ML/day) pumps to be installed in each well, providing two and a half times the pumping capacity of each steam engines they replaced. Installation of the pumps was completed in 1938.
One of the key tasks involved in running the Spotswood Pumping Station was the maintenance of both machinery and fixed infrastructure such as the pipes and tunnels that carried the sewage and control valves that manipulated and regulated the flow. By the 1920s, after almost 25 years of continuous operation, problems had begun to emerge with the decay of the concrete lining in the straining wells and tunnels and corrosion of the metal pipes used for the delivery mains beneath the pumping station buildings and the rising mains that carried the outflow from the pumping station to Brooklyn.
Although interior bypass mains had been provided beneath the courtyard when the pumping station was built in the 1890s, these only allowed the receiver that feed the rising mains to be taken out of service for inspection or cleaning. If any of the other receiving main pipes or control valves within the pumping station required maintenance or repair, it had been necessary to shut down at least one pair of wells and in some cases a whole engine house taking half the pumping capacity out of commission.
In 1921, work began on the construction of two exterior bypass mains designed to enable sewage flowing from the pumps to be diverted to the north and south around the outside to the main buildings. Once completed the exterior bypasses would enable any section of the delivery system to be isolated for repair without major disruptions to the pumping operations.
Where the exterior bypass mains rejoined the rising mains to the west of the main pumping station buildings a valve house was built. In the basement of the Valve House a nest of large hydraulically-operated control valves was installed to enable flow to be transferred from the bypass mains into any of the three rising mains or switched between any two rising mains.
Cowley's Eureka Ironworks, of Ballarat, were awarded a contract for £11,885 to manufacture and deliver the large 6-foot (1.8 m) diameter riveted steel pipes required for the exterior bypass mains, but before the pipes could be laid large trenches had to be excavated through solid basalt requiring much blasting. A.T. Harman & Sons, of Port Melbourne, won the contract to supply twelve 30-inch (1,548 mm) diameter control valves for the bypass mains and valve house.
Following the completion of the bypass mains work began on the duplication of straining wells with E.G. Stone, being awarded a contract to undertake the work as a cost of £15,807.
To keep up with constant flow of Melbourne’s sewage the Pumping Station operated 24 hours a day, every day of the year. During the early years most employees lived within a few kilometres of Spotswood and either rode a bike or walked to work. In later decades many lived further afield and caught a train to Spotswood or drove their own car.
Operating crews worked in three 8-hour shifts, with the roster rotated every week so that everyone took a turn at each shift. The day shift initially ran from 8 am to 4 pm, afternoon shift from 4 pm to midnight and night shift from midnight to 8 am. Later on the times were adjusted an hour so that workers finished the afternoon shift at 11 pm, allowing them time to walk to the Spotswood Railway Station and catch the last train home.
When the Pumping Station began operations in 1897, the workforce consisted of a managing engineer, one senior engineer, two junior engineers, four engine-drivers, four stokers, two coal trimmers to break up the coal, and two cleaners or general labourers. As Melbourne grew and sewage flows increased, more pumping engines and workers were required. Maintenance workers were also taken on, such as fitters and turners, a blacksmith, boilermaker, pattern-maker, carpenters, painter, bricklayer, rigger, cleaners and a storeman and nightwatchman. There was a hierarchy amongst the workers, with engineers being the most senior and the labourers or tradesmen’s assistants the lowest and most poorly paid.
The original workforce of less than 20 increased to a peak of almost 90 in 1918, before the first electric pumps were installed. The changing technology meant that fewer operating staff were required, but also created new roles, with the first electrician being taken on in 1923, while other staff were retrained into new positions, with engine-drivers becoming shift engineers, firemen or stokers becoming pump attendants and coal trimmers transferring to general labourers or tradesmen’s assistants. Once on the permanent workforce many employees stayed until reaching retiring age, while others transferred across to other divisions within the Board of Works, such as in sewer maintenance or water supply. Jobs at the Pumping Station were always in high demand, prompting one former employee to remark ‘You had to wait for someone to die to get a job with the Board’.
The Pumping Station was just one of many workplaces in Melbourne’s west that maintained essential services to Victoria. Others included the Williamstown shipyards and port, the Newport Power Station and the Newport Railway Workshops.
Many of the Pumping Station employees were recruited from a maritime background. The Board of Works made a point of employing former marine engineers, as they had experience running large steam engines of a similar design, were generally self-reliant and used to keeping machinery running smoothly around the clock with minimum outside help, and had a reputation for keeping things ‘shipshape’. They also employed former able seamen as riggers, tradesmen’s assistants and general labourers, because they were accustomed to shift work and hard physical work.
After years spent at sea, often being months at a time away from family, maritime workers were often only too happy to secure a permanent land-based job. Because the Pumping Station was situated beside the Yarra River, workers could maintain their former maritime connection, with the regular daily routine being interrupted to pause and watch the large steamers and graceful old sailing ships ‘passing the front door’ as they proceeded upstream or downstream to and from the Melbourne docks.
The Pumping Station was run with ship-like precision and always kept scrupulously clean. Senior engineers wore white overalls, the engine brass-work and gauges shone from regular polishing and the exposed walls of the open electric pump wells were regularly whitewashed. Every Saturday morning all workers were rostered on and the whole place was hosed down from top to bottom, above and below ground. The metal floor plates were scrubbed with kerosene, the clockwork driven flow meters were all wound up, and all the ‘bright metal’ on the engines was polished till it gleamed – a practise maintained even years after the last engine ran on steam.
Even communications in the Pumping Station had a nautical flavour. A speaking tube ran down each of the open electric pump wells, with a conical mouth or earpiece at top and bottom ends, so that staff could communicate over the roar of the pumps and their electric motors. Geoff Archer, a former shift engineer, recalled:
‘You used to whack the pipes, you’d hear two whacks and you knew it was all clear. If you wanted him you’d go bang bang and he’d come up to the speaking tube, just like the old seamen.’
The only women employed at the Pumping Station during 68 years of operation were a bacteriologist, Lucey Alford, and two assistants who worked in a laboratory in the South Tower between 1941 and 1943.
During the late 1930s a temporary experimental sewage treatment plant was built at the Pumping Station in order to investigate odour control and aerated sludge treatment methods as alternatives to the passive decomposition processes being used at the Werribee Treatment Farm. Guy Parker was employed as a chemist to oversee the experiments and a laboratory was built on the first floor of the South Engine House tower.
In 1941, after investigations turned to the bacteria that were causing decay of concrete sewer linings, the Board of Works advertised for an assistant bacteriologist. Because of the war no suitably qualified men applied, so Miss Lucey Ray Alford, a 26 year old female science graduate, was ‘temporarily’ appointed to the position. After graduating from Melbourne University with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in 1936, Lucey had worked for several years in the pathology department at the Royal Perth Hospital and with the CSIRO in Sydney before returning to Melbourne to become the first female employed in a technical role by the Board of Works.
A microbiology lab was established on the top floor of the south tower under the Mansard roof, where Lucey worked under the direction of Guy Parker, making the long climb “up 72 steps everyday” as she would recall years later. As she was the first female worker at the Pumping Station, a separate toilet was specially installed for her in a small room off the landing opposite her laboratory. The following year two female laboratory assistants, Miss M. McNeil and Miss S.E. Gorham, were employed to work with Guy Parker and Lucey Alford, and they shared her private, wallpapered, lavatory with a view!
In June 1943, all of the laboratory staff at Spotswood were transferred to new purpose-built M.M.B.W. Laboratories for both the Sewerage and Water Supply Divisions in Wells Street, South Melbourne. There Lucey continued to work as a bacteriologist and later as manager of the Water Supply laboratories for twenty years until her retirement in 1975. She became a strong role model to a younger generation of female employees, having learnt early on of the importance of standing up for herself. On one occasion when male colleagues complained about the way younger female staff were pouring cups of tea at teatime, she encouraged them to refuse to fill the teapot the next day and the men soon learnt to be appreciative or make their own tea.
As primarily a European conflict, the First World War had little impact on the operations of the Spotswood Pumping Station. By December 1915, eleven staff had volunteered for active military service, but most were rejected either on the grounds of age or ‘physical defects’. At least seven men, however, did serve overseas during the next few years and all were given their old jobs back or promoted to more senior roles when they returned in 1919. One employee Henry Valentine Gunther, of Yarraville, enlisted in July 1915 and served with the 7th Infantry Battalion on the western front as a private, and later sergeant, being awarded the Military Medal for bravery. Although he had only worked as a labourer and coal trimmer before enlistment, since first starting at the Pumping Station in 1912, on his return in August 1919, he was retrained and promoted to the role of Fireman, in charge of operating the steam boilers.
The experience of the Pumping Station during the Second World War was far more dramatic. Within a year of war being declared, Spotswood was in the thick of a major military build-up. Being situated on the Lower Yarra River the Pumping Station was barely 2 kilometres upstream from the Williamstown naval dockyards and a similar distance downstream from the bustling Melbourne docks. Immediately across the river were two major aircraft factories and just next door, a large part of the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works site was transformed into an armaments manufacturing annexe.
Following the Japanese attack on Darwin in February 1942, the Board of Works became concerned that the Spotswood Pumping Station might be at risk if a similar raid was launched on Melbourne. Three reinforced concrete air raid shelters were built into the embankment behind the Pumping Station for the protection of workers, with the one off the centre courtyard being used as a ‘nerve centre’ or command post for the local district air raid wardens.
On the vacant ground behind the embankment wall a military camp was established with tents being pitched to accommodate army personnel. Armed guards were stationed at each gateway and Pumping Station workers were issued with passes to enable them to get in and out. Joe Harrison, who joined the staff during the War, recalled that when the change of guards took place ‘it was just like Buckingham Palace!’
Six-foot high blast walls were built around the doorways to the Engine Houses and blackout regulations were strictly enforced. Because the Pumping Station operated 24 hours a day this meant that all windows and skylights had to be boarded over or painted out and pasted over with paper to prevent shards flying if the glass was shattered by a blast. Inside, the electric lights were left on day and night.
Retaining and recruiting skilled staff was a difficult matter during the Second World War. Being an essential service, Pumping Station staff were exempt from military service but this involved the superintendent, John Key, issuing a “Certificate of Exemption” each time someone was called up and in some cases they were required to at least attend basic training. Some of the men volunteered for military service, although this was actively discouraged by Mr Key.
Throughout the War the old steam pumps were regularly run once a month to ensure they remained in operating condition and could be quickly brought online if there was an electric power failure. As an added precaution the four newest electric pumps in Wells 9 & 10, of the North Engine House were dismantled and removed for safe keeping.
Joe Harrison, who had worked for the contractors Kelly & Lewis on the installation of these pumps, was recalled to the Pumping Station by Mr Key in 1940 and offered an ongoing job as an electrical fitter. After giving the matter some consideration he accepted, only to discover that one of the first tasks he was given was to dismantle the equipment he had installed just two years before. The virtually brand-new electric motors, associated control gear and pumps were carefully removed and components dispersed for safe-keeping at the Watsonia army barracks and various Board of Works properties.
Should the Pumping Station have been bombed and the pumping equipment seriously damaged, it was planned that the spare pumps would be rushed out of storage and quickly reinstalled to have the Pumping Station back into operation within 36 hours. Fortunately such emergency action was never required and the pumps were subsequently reinstalled at the end of the War, enabling the last steam engines to be finally retired in 1947.
During the early decades of operation, overall responsibilities for the operation of the Spotswood Pumping Station came under the Managing Engineer. The position was responsible for tasks such as staff recruitment, overall operation and maintenance of the pumping station equipment, oversight of operating expenses and communications with head office, including the fortnightly report submitted to the M.M.B.W. Engineer-in-Chief or Engineer of Sewerage.
The first incumbent in the position was Thomas Robertson-Smith. Born in 1848 at Blair Athol, a small town in the Scottish lowlands, he had emigrated to Victoria to serve as engineer on the colonial warship H.M.V.S. Cerberus, before joining the Board of Works as the first employee at the Pumping Station on 2 December 1895. “T.R. Smith”, as he was often known, would play a key role in the installation and commissioning of the original pumping equipment built by Thompson & Co., including the difficult task of rectifying the design defects that threatened to completely disrupt pumping operations during the early years.
A two-storey brick residence, named “Blair Athol”, was built for the Managing Engineer and his family on the north-west corner of the Pumping Station site, adjacent to Booker Street. The house was unusually orientated as it faced away from the street, with the front entrance and smart upstairs ornamental cast-iron balcony facing eastwards to command a fine view of the Pumping Station and river beyond. Being resident on site the Managing Engineer was on call 24 hours a day. An electric bell connected the Pumping Station to his house in case he was needed during the night or on weekends to handle an emergency, such as an accident or sudden breakdown of equipment, or an event of heavy rain and flooding that might require additional pumping crews to be brought in.
Edwin Henry Chesterman was appointed as T.R. Smith’s deputy in the role of Senior Engineer, commencing at the Pumping Station on 16 December 1896. He was responsible for running the engines during the early duty trials and testing, then trained other staff as they were brought on. Once regular pumping began in 1898, the Senior Engineer was responsible for overseeing regular maintenance work, organising the shift rosters and ensuring that the daily engineer’s log was filled in recording details such as coal consumption and the amount of work performed by each steam boiler and pumping engine.
After T.R. Smith retired in 1918, Edwin Chesterman was promoted to Managing Engineer, holding the role until his in retirement in 1922. At this point, with the first electric pumps about to be commissioned, the management of the Pumping Station was reorganised. John Frederick Key was appointed as Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer, responsible both for overall operations of the Spotswood Pumping Station and the engineering workshop established on site to undertake maintenance of pumping equipment and the Board’s growing fleet of motor trucks and earthmoving machinery. Later his role was extended to responsibilities for the installation and maintenance of equipment at six auxiliary automatic pumping stations constructed at Preston, Sunshine, Box Hill, Black Rock, Braybrook and Port Melbourne between 1929 and 1936.
At the same time the Senior Engineer’s role was changed to a Superintendent Engineer, responsible for the day to day operation of the Spotswood Pumping Station, with the position being held by David Bell Harkness (1922-1928), John A. Halliday (1928-1945) and Albert Henry Jobling (1945-1965). In October 1929, John Key elected to move out of the residence and return to his own home in Ivanhoe, so the Pumping Station residence then became home to the Halliday and later the Jobling families until pumping operations ended.
Today the Spotswood Sewerage Pumping Station is recognised as one of Australia’s foremost industrial heritage sites. Noted not only for the quality of its superb Second French Empire style architecture, but also for its remarkable collection of early steam and electric-powered pumping technology and associated historic engineering equipment.
The Spotswood Pumping Station is unique within Australia as the only site that retains five surviving triple-expansion steam pumping engines, still ‘in situ’ in their original locations. Complementing these are two later generations of centrifugal pumps and electrical equipment, much of which were the product of local Victorian engineering firms.
The Spotswood Pumping Station is listed on the Register of the National Estate, the Victorian Heritage Register and the Hobsons Bay City Council Heritage Overlay. It has also been classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria).
The Statement of Significance for the site on the Register of the National Estate reads as follows:
Spotswood Pumping Station is of technological significance in being a major intact sewage pumping station of the nineteenth century, which clearly illustrates the pumping technology of that time. The complex was the heart of the Melbourne gravity flow sewerage system. The basic design of the original system, which included two separate mains, is reflected in the design of the complex, with two pumping houses and two straining wells. The design of the buildings is also of architectural importance both for the detailing and for the context of industrial architecture. While the original boiler driven pumps have been replaced with electric pumps, the basic structure is all original.
By the early 1950s, Melbourne’s sewerage scheme was beginning to show its age. After heavy rain falls the Spotswood Pumping Station struggled to keep up with the sewage flow from a city whose population had reached almost 1.5 million. Although there was room to expand the capacity of the pumping station by removing more of the five remaining steam engines (by then all retired and no longer in active service) and replacing them with larger capacity electric pumps, it was the size and condition of the three rising mains that carried the sewage from Spotswood to Brooklyn that were creating the main constraint on the system’s capacity.
After almost 60 years of service the old riveted wrought-iron and steel pipes of the rising mains had significantly deteriorated from corrosion caused by hydrogen sulphide gas given off by the sewage. Whenever flow rates were at a peak, pressure in the pipes increased, heightening the risk of failure. On several occasions sections of the pipe burst allowing raw sewage to flow down street gutters and through the backyards of local houses causing a public outcry and much embarrassment to the Board of Works.
In 1957 the decision was made to build a new pumping station at Brooklyn, with twice the capacity of the Spotswood Pumping Station, and a new 3.5 kilometre long tunnel to divert flows from the incoming Hobsons Bay and North Yarra Main Sewers at Spotswood to the new pumping station site. The £6¼ million project cost twice as much as the entire original sewerage scheme and took six years to complete, with the Brooklyn Pumping Station being officially opened on 11th September 1964. The pumping load was progressively transferred from Spotswood over the following 12 months as additional pumps at Brooklyn came online and were tested and commissioned, with the pumps at Spotswood falling silent for the last time in September 1965.
Following its closure as a pumping station, the Spotswood site remained in use as a depot by the Board of Works Deep Sewer Maintenance Division and as an engineering maintenance workshop. Boilers and associated equipment were cleared out of the two former boiler houses so that machine tools and welding equipment could be installed for repair and maintenance of the Board’s off-site pumping plant and mobile construction equipment, while the North Coal Bunker was converted into a pattern store and the South Coal Bunker into a materials and tool store, and blacksmith’s forge.
Largely through the efforts of a few key staff within the Board of Works, including Bob Pithie, Charlie Bray, Chick Adams (former pumping station shift engineers) and Stan Appleby (engineering workshop supervisor), the importance of the historic steam engines and pumping machinery gradually came to be more widely appreciated and they were saved from the threat of being scrapped.
In 1982, the Board’s engineering workshop staff overhauled one of the historic Kelly & Lewis air compressors in the South Engine House and restored the No. 8 pumping engine in the North Boiler House, adapting it to operate on compressed air. Over the following decade, several open days were held allowing members of the public to see inside the historic buildings for the first time and view a demonstration of the No. 8 Engine running.
These are some of our favourite Pumping Station things. Join us on Museums Victoria Collections to find out more! Follow the links below.
Explore the Pumping Station through the five videos playlisted below, which include animations, oral histories, archival footage and a number of interviews with museum experts and former workers.
1. Introduction to the Spotswood Pumping Station (04:15)
An overview of the largest infrastructure project undertaken in Victoria, Australia, for its time.
2 The Advent of the Pumping Station (05:02)
Melbourne was the commercial centre of Australia in the 1880s and was undergoing great change. New systems were required to support the growth of the city.
3. How Does the Pumping Station Work? (04:12)
The quiet achiever of the engineering world - see the pumps that helped move the sewerage out of Melbourne.
4. Stories from the Coal Face (04:08)
Former Shift Engineer Geoffrey Archer revisits his former workplace and shares some stories of his working life at the Pumping Station.
5. Behind the Scenes Tour (03:16)
Join Customer Services Officer, Antonio Cappetta for some stories and tour highlights from the Pumping Station.
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