Too thick to drink and too thin to plough

By Cheryl Griffin

In the early 1970s, when I was a student at La Trobe University, I joined a folk club briefly where I was introduced to a number of modern versions of the traditional Australian folk songs that I’d always loved. 

I don’t remember too many of them now, but the song about the “Muddy Old Yarra”, too thick to drink and too thin to plough, comes to mind every time I get off the tram at Flinders Street Station and walk across Princes Bridge to the Arts Precinct. 

The Yarra, an essential player in the development of Melbourne’s character, has always symbolised a perceived north-south divide, once based on class (the wealthy lived to the south, the working class to the north) but now the divide is a bit harder to pinpoint. There’s still that sense of affluence to the south and perhaps it’s a bit showier, some might even suggest brash these days. The north’s definitely lost its working-class edge, replaced now by a different sort of edge. Home to artists and a much younger and more aware demographic, I read recently that the north likes to think of itself as Berlin. I’ll leave that with you. All I can tell you is that in 22 years since I moved back into the northern suburbs there have been many changes, not all of them welcome (large scale apartment developments at the forefront), but I love the energy that surrounds me every time I take my tram into the CBD from my tiny corner of the “north”.  

As you look at this image of the Yarra, you could be forgiven for thinking that the photographer was actually in Paris, and that this was the River Seine. Or maybe he’s in London and it’s the embankment along the Thames. It’s doubtful that you’d believe that just 71 years earlier the first European settlers had arrived from Tasmania and a mere 55 years earlier there had been only a wooden trestle bridge crossing the river at this spot. 

For thousands of years before that the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation knew this as Birrarung, “the river of mists”. There is much to explore along the river just east of Princes Bridge. If you want to get a feel for the indigenous history of the area, for example, walk along Birrarung Marr (“Riverbank on the river of mists”) and roam among the park’s open-air indigenous art works. 

For now, though, take a closer look at this photograph taken looking downstream on the northern bank. The master of the vessel, pipe in hand, cap slightly askew, leans casually on the top of his vessel and looks straight at the photographer. Seated on a deck chair on the bank is a woman – his wife, perhaps? She’s looking at him, leaning slightly forward. She appears to be wearing a light coat, perhaps a raincoat. There is a puddle on the ground just in front of her. My guess is it’s either spring or autumn and Melbourne is experiencing its typical four-seasons-in-a-day.

The woman’s feet are just about touching the ropes of the Beaumaris, the vessel moored behind the featured boat. Beyond that a curious dog looks out, front paws on the edge of the embankment. Under the arch of the Princes Bridge (it’s the northern arch that you see here) you can see more boats and ferries and Flinders Street Station. Almost central under the arch is Signal Box A (now a youth arts centre) which was where the switching engineers presided over the railyard. It was important for them to have a clear view of this yard and the line crossing the Sandridge Railway Bridge to Port Melbourne. Beyond that is the distinctive silhouette of the Corporation Markets (also known as the Fish Market), built further along the river in the early 1890s at the Spencer St end of Flinders St.

And looking down on the photographer and his subjects are a line of a dozen or so pedestrians, who have stopped on their journey across the bridge to observe something on the river bank, presumably the photographer at work – still a rarity in those pre-smartphone days. 

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