History of the Yarra Flats


Follow this link for a 360 degree view from Banyule Hill


 A Historical Walking Tour of the Middle Yarra
 from the Burke Road Bridge to the Plenty River

 (researched and written by Gary Griffin, edited by Pauline Behan)



Bullock tracks followed roughly the route of Bulleen Road on the Heidelberg side of the river, then continued from about the current Heidelberg Road crossing of Darebin Creek to where Upper and Lower Heidelberg Road now branch.

Known aboriginal camp sites were at the Darebin Creek-Yarra junction and at the mouth of the Plenty River.

By 1851 most of the river flats were farmed and substantially cleared to the banks of the Yarra and it's billabongs.


Swimming beaches were scattered along the Yarra - usually on sandbanks. This was before chlorinated municipal pools. Itinerants camped here and there along the river. During the WW2 there was one such camp on a gravel bank just below the Banksia Street Bridge.  I recall the story of a neighbour who in the late 1940's had been partying in Balwyn. He missed all transport and set out to walk back to Heidelberg. across the flats to Burke Road Bridge in the pitch dark. He imagined he could hear lions roaring. He courageously pressed on and the next day on the bus discovered Worth's circus had camped just under the bridge.

The first bridge linking Burke Road, Kew, with the Yarra Boulevard was tested October 1924 when two steam rollers weighing 42 tons were sent across to test the finished structure.

It was opened by the Governor Lord Somers in July 1926 (Argus 20/07/1926) and was built at a cost of £17,000. In the early 1950's land on both sides in Balwyn and The Boulevard East Ivanhoe was underdeveloped. It has been sequentially upgraded.

Remains of the A K Stevens Boathouse which was built on the north side of the river just above the currentBurkeRoadBridgewere visible in the 1940's. A palm and other introduced trees now mark its site. Boating and canoeing were popular there for many years.

Follow the link to view a historic image from the 1950s of the Burke Road Bridge. Note how rural Eaglemont seems. 

When I was a child in the 30s the Yarra differed from today's stream in that floods were much more frequent. The Upper Yarra Dam and other water extraction points have now reduced the flow.

Follow the link to view a historic image from the Yarra floods during 1923 taken somewhere in Bulleen.

As a result of this the water table under the Yarra and Banyule Flats is now lower and the various billabongs fill less often and drain more quickly.

Probably as a result of the introduction of European carp, vegetation in both the billabongs and the river has changed. Red Gums, Willows and Tree Violet were common along the river. Willows were spread by the habit of fishermen breaking off a forked stick to support their rods. Many of these acted as cuttings for the basket and weeping willows. Other larger vegetation were Manna Gum, Lightwood, Sheokaes and Kunzea along the Koonung Creek as well as Pomaderis and Kangaroo Apple. When the river flooded we could take the canoe out and chase rabbits and tiger snakes on the islands of dry land.  As the billabongs dried we could wade in and stir up the mud. Fish would come to the surface and provide a feed. Eels were also found in such semi dry lagoons.

Until the late 1950's when chlorinated municipal pools became more common, the river provided opportunities for swimming. A large sandbank just upstream from Burke Road Bridge provided a popular pool. A rope swing was established just below the sandbank. Realignment of the river at the mouth of the Koonung Creek further upstream destroyed the sandbank and silted up the pool below the rope swing.  A photo near Sills Bend shows a rope swing, albeit made with an old fire-hose.   Such swing allowed us kids to swing out and "bomb" into the river immediately adjacent to passing canoes.


The walking tour starts at the bridge over Burke Road in Ivanhoe East and moves along the Main Yarra Trail eastwards - ending at the junction of the Plenty River with the Yarra River. 

01_Walking Tour Aerial View

On this aerial view of the Middle Yarra area, the walking trail starts at the yellow spot just north of the 17 marker and ends at the yellow spot in the upper right hand corner of the photo.

Setting off at Burke Road Bridge we walk upstream along the river (not on the formed path) until we reach a drain from the Moonrise Billabong, the site of Emanuel Phillips Fox's painting "Moonrise - Heidelberg". The Artists Trail sign is on the main footpath on the Boulevard side of the billabong.

To find out more about the Heidelberg School of artists you could browse the Wikipaedia site and the Australian Government site


03_Chinese Walls

Just below the billabong is a Mountain Bike rider's track through the drain and below this are some old stone structures known as the Chinese Walls.  I believe they form part of abutments from an old bridge possibly built by Chinese market gardeners who were active in the area.

Proceeding upstream between the billabong and the river, about 50 meters below the rejoining of the formal Track and the riverside track is a very large red gum known as the "Step Tree". The steps were useable until about 1950 but since then have grown over and only whorls in the bark now exist. It is possible the steps were cut by aboriginals. 

05_Old Swimming Pool

About 50 m upstream from the "Step Tree" the river is pushed into a race along the eastern bank. The site of a canoe slalom course now; it was variously a ford, landing area for boats as well as a swimming pool. I recall a rope swing on the site and a side cut track to get cattle down to the bottom.

Another 50m upstream brings us to a hedge marking the boundary of the Charterisville and Leighton selections. The hawthorns are about 100 years old. This boundary extended to the current East Ivanhoe roundabout. Some of the common hedge plants in use on the flats until about 1970 included box thorn and hawthorn and another common boundary hedge was gorse. Until mid 1940's some dilapidated cottages and a dome could be located on the property just above the Boulevard.  Graffiti on one cottage door read "Smike" - Streeton's nickname.

In the 1860s Heidelbergwas not considered a suburb of Melbourne, but rather a resort where the wealthy bought estates on which they built fine houses. Among these landed gentry was D. C. Macarthur, who crossed fromTasmania to open the first branch in Melbourne of the Bank of Australasia, and who later bought the property known as the Charterisville Estate.


The foot of McCubbin Street is the site from which Streeton painted his "Still Glides the Stream" - shown on Map A as a yellow spot. This picture shows cattle wading in water in the foreground of the picture while the river bend now extends much further east to the VenetoClub. Reference to Map A shows that the earliest survey, Darkes, had the river shown in the same place as the picture. It seems probable that the river course changed.

On the track leading to the Boulevard just below this point is a seat in an excavation. This is the site of a silage pit excavated by Ron Watts about 1944. Prior to Ron Watts the property was the property of Murray Smith who ran a run down dairy on the site. Ron, the son of E. A. Watts - a major property developer, ran an Aberdeen Angus stud on the site. It is now a base for horse agistment.

Harold Smith ran the next dairy along near the Mosman Drive junction and Flemings' the next at the north east end of Glenard Drive.  Flemings' farm ran to Banksia Street and included a magnificent billabong teeming with fish, platypus and water birds of all descriptions. It - together with the Mordialloc Creek - were considered premier bird watching sites in the 1930's.

10_Ringwood 1945 Aerial Photo

1946 aerial photo of the Yarra Flats above shows the area as it was then. Open the link to be able to get a broader picture and to be able to zoom in and explore !

The billabongs can be seen in the photo showing the gasometers at the corner of the Boulevard and Banksia Street. The Yarra Flats access road now runs along the southern boundary of the billabong. 
The Glenard Estate - above the Boulevard - was very underdeveloped and roads were unmade. This estate was designed by Walter Burley Griffin for Peter Keam, who then owned Glenard Farm

Mrs Osborne's refreshment rooms are shown on the north side of Banksia Street. The site is now only identifiable by some introduced trees.

Moving upstream the Banksia Street Bridge was first constructed from bluestone and wood in 1860. Prior to the first bridge construction the crossing used a punt and subsequently a footbridge. The road was little used in the 1940's and coots and other water birds would often scuttle across Banksia Street, then much narrower, to the wetlands where The Greenery nursery is now established.

On the site now occupied by Courtney & Patterson was the Heidelberg Gasworks and opposite on the Boulevard were two large gasometers.


Moving upstream behindSt John's Church of England we come to the Heidelberg Football Ground and behind it Sills Bend and the site of his Orchard.  Pear trees remain, and although in poor shape they bore barely edible pears in 2011. At the end of Sills Bend is a sandbank opposite a steep bank to Banksia Park. This again was the site of a popular swimming pool. Walking upstream one can see a rope swing (old fire hose) reminiscent of those frequently seen along the Yarra in 1940.

Walking out to the road we pass the site of the Old Banyule Gatehouse.


Moving up intoBuckingham Drivewe see Banyule House which dominates the Banyule flats.

The Warringal Conservation Society planted trees surrounding the Banyule football grounds.


19_Wetlands from Native gardens_DSC_6224

The Banyule Flats Wetlands are now a very popular bird-watching site.

Further upstream is the mouth of the Plenty River. This area is the site of an old aboriginal midden.



A report by Geoff Lacey based on his book titled "THE YARRA: Still glides the Stream" in "Earthsong" provides a good overview of the Yarra Flats.

A report by Cam Beardsell June, 2000 Vegetation Communities of the City of Banyule provides a good overview of the Indigenous species that occur (or are likely to have occurred) in Banyule.

The Bureau of meteorology site comment on the 1934 Yarra floods.

A report in 1934 on the record flooding tells of the rescue of four Chinese market gardeners at Heidelberg. My father remembered them tying their shed roof to a tree on the Boulevard in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent it washing away.


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