Protection for the industrial heritage of Fishermans Bend
To read the submission made by RHSV to the City of Melbourne in July 2021 click here
The RHSV has been advocating for the protection of important industrial heritage sites in Fishermans Bend. Located on the south bank of the Yarra River near its mouth, Fishermans Bend has a unique place in Australia’s industrial history. It was where Australia developed its own aircraft industry during the Second World War, and where Australia’s own car, the Holden, was designed and produced. The area played a significant role in Australia’s extraordinary mobilisation for war in the 1940s and the take-off of industry after the war, in particular of the automotive industry. These were developments that supported nearly four decades of increasing prosperity and equality in this country in the late twentieth century.
The City of Melbourne recently completed a review of heritage buildings and structures in Fishermans Bend. The recommendations that resulted provided a unique opportunity to preserve some of the most important parts of Victoria’s industrial history so that future generations could understand how Australia developed so rapidly in the mid-twentieth century.
An insightful report prepared by consultants Helen Lardner Conservation and Design, recommends increased protection for three locally significant sites, and nomination of three other sites of particular importance for listing on the Victorian Heritage Register. The three sites recommended to be protected by Heritage Overlays are:
- The Former Kraft Vegemite Factory. Its inclusion would be hard to oppose given the cultural significance of Vegemite to Australian identity.
- A 1935 Electricity Substation in Salmon Street. The protection of this unprepossessing site is justified by its role in the development of manufacturing in Fishermans Bend.
- Shed 21, Berth 21 South Wharf. This was constructed in 1956 as part of an ambitious plan to increase port capacity. This site bears witness to Australian capacity for technical innovation through its unique transverse bridge crane system, which tripled its capacity to unload steel.
Beaufort bombers being produced at the Government Aircraft Factory in Fishermans Bend during the Second World War. (Photo: State Library Victoria)
The three sites of particular significance recommended for listing on the Victorian Heritage Register are the former Government Aircraft Factory, the West Gate Bridge and the former General Motors Holden site. The first of these, the former Government Aircraft Factory in Lorimer Street, is an important part of Victoria’s industrial and wartime heritage. Australia, a small nation with a limited industrial base, designed and built its own fighter aircraft, the Wirraway and the Boomerang, and produced large numbers of Beaufort and Beaufighter aircraft. This alone is justification for listing on the Victorian Heritage Register. The second site proposed for listing is the West Gate Bridge, well-known as a symbol of Melbourne’s twentieth century development and ongoing identity.
The third site, the General Motors Holden complex in Salmon Street, Fishermans Bend, is of particular importance. First opened in 1936 by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, it was where the first Australian-made, mass-produced car, the Holden, was designed and produced. For many years, General Motors Holden was the only automotive facility in Australia where a car could be completely designed and manufactured. The production of the Holden car effectively symbolised Australia’s mid-century emergence as a prosperous, industrial nation. The review commissioned by the City of Melbourne recommended that the site be listing on the Victorian Heritage Register.
However, in 2018 the site was purchased by the University of Melbourne with plans to develop it as a new engineering and architecture campus. The design of the new campus will involve towers 140 meters high in an area with an 80 meter recommended height limit.
An artist’s impression of the new campus to be built by the University of Melbourne on the former GMH site in Fishermans Bend.
The RHSV sought to have the site listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, but before the nomination of the site could be considered, the Minister for Planning short-circuited the process. In September 2021 he determined that the site was of cultural heritage significance, but that only certain buildings within it were to be included in the Victorian Heritage Register. These were the main Administration Building, the Parts Building, Plant Three and the Social Centre. Also to be listed were two ‘History of Transport’ murals painted on boards that were attached to the walls on either side of the stage in the Social Centre. The RHSV then sought to have the remaining parts of the site that were not covered by the Victorian Heritage Register listing protected by a Heritage Overlay. Unfortunately this was unsuccessful and the heritage buildings on the site will remain as remnants of the former GMH factory in an otherwise modern high-rise University campus complex
But while the GMH site will not be protected as was hoped, the rest of the Fishermans Bend area will probably be protected by Heritage Overlays as recommended by the consultants’ report, and the former Government Aircraft Factory and West Gate Bridge listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.