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Sanitation and the City (c.1957)


A documentary produced for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works which provides an overview of Melbourne’s development and expansion since the 1880s, the history of the city’s sewerage system and the work of the MMBW in managing Melbourne’s water supply and sanitation. It includes an introductory address to camera by a representative from the board, and animated sequences and diagrams.

Curator’s notes

In 1888, a royal commission into Melbourne’s public health conditions identified the need for a board to be responsible for the city’s water supply and sewerage system. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1891. Since the 1920s, the MMBW has documented some of its activities and achievements on film including A Day at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Farm, Werribee (c1920) and Sewerage of a Great City: Melbourne (c1922). Like these earlier films, Sanitation and the City is largely a public relations exercise. The board had a dedicated Film and Photographic Department for many years and produced a number of documentaries about the planning and management of Melbourne’s sanitation and water infrastructure.

The film opens with an address to camera by a representative of the board, who states that the film is meant ‘primarily to inform you of the board’s activities’. The film contextualises the work of the MMBW as an essential public service through a ten-minute history of Melbourne’s development and expansion in the late nineteenth century (including its unhygienic sanitation). The film then outlines the range and scope of the board’s work including the laying and maintenance of sewer networks, the testing of plumbing fixtures and stoneware pipes, the running of the land filtration system at Werribee (including the farming of sheep and cattle to maintain the land), the operation of the pumping station at Spotswood, and the quality testing of treated effluent before it is discharged into Port Phillip Bay. Employees are presented as working to fulfil the board’s motto: ‘The public health is my reward’. In 1992, the MMBW was rebranded as Melbourne Water.

The animated sequences, maps and diagrams in the film were created by the Owen Brothers. Harrie and Will Owen often took commercial projects and provided animated segments for educational and training films to finance their amateur productions. Their work can be seen in clip two, which illustrates the land filtration process by which sewage is treated at Werribee Farm. Their animated advertisements for the Department of Information during the Second World War include First Victory Home Loan: Squander Bug (1945), Road to Tokyo (c1941) and Australians Keep the Wheels of Industry Turning (c1943).

You can see more videos about Melbourne’s water supply on Melbourne Water’s videos page and YouTube channel.