How to read the MMBW 40ft to the inch detail plans

How to read Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works detail plans, including the abbreviations, hatchings and symbols used on the plans.

About the 40ft to the inch MMBW plans

Metropolitan Sewerage Scheme
Metropolitan sewerage scheme,

Why were the plans produced?

The MMBW plans were produced by the Survey Division of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW). They enabled the design and development of sewer reticulation across the Melbourne CBD and the suburbs. The MMBW created around six series of plans.

What do the plans show?

The plans show historical streetscape, architecture and environmental information. Each series took many years to complete, with surveying and drafting work sometimes stretching over decades. Surveying usually started in the city centre and gradually worked outwards. So, in the first series the centre of Melbourne is captured in the plans as it was in the mid-1890s. In the same way, plans of outlying suburbs reflect how they were in the mid-1900s, when they were surveyed.

Each plan was given an identifying four digit number, and the detailed area was determined by the pattern of the streets in the immediate vicinity. Most plans, which are 130cm x 79cm, show approximately one or two 'blocks' and approximately six streets. Details included on the plans show every tenement, reduced levels on every house and a description of whether the construction was of stone, brick, iron or timber (only noted on a minority of the plans). Also noted are fences, drainage, pattern, cuttings, embankments, street channels, drainage pits, underground drains and bridges. Cadastral (ownership and boundary) information shows lodge plans, lots, easements, lot numbers, street names, prominent features, parks, municipal boundaries, invert levels of pits and drains, and spot heights.

What are the plans used for now?

The MMBW plans are consulted for a variety of purposes and are heavily used. Architects, students, environmental consultants, archaeologists, builders, home renovators, gardeners and family historians make up the largest user groups. All are trying to gain a historical understanding of the precincts, buildings, garden layouts, past land uses and environmental features that existed in the metropolitan area over the last century.

Metropolitan sewerage scheme, 1894 (IAN01/05/94/5-6)

Why was the MMBW created?

The discovery of extensive gold deposits in 1851 led to remarkably rapid population growth in the newly independent colony of Victoria (as many as 95,000 new immigrants arrived in that first year). The surge in wealth and people established Melbourne as a major centre of trade, culture and finance. By 1890 it was one of the youngest cities in the world, yet had a population of 250,000.

Unfortunately the city’s rapid growth was not accompanied by the provision of adequate household and human waste disposal systems. The city was crisscrossed with stinking, overflowing, open-air drains which channelled household, human and industrial sewerage into cesspools. These accumulated on the lowest-lying land – ultimately seeping into rivers and creeks.

Medical knowledge was sufficient by the 1890s to link diseases such as typhoid with insanitary conditions such as contaminated drinking water, defective drainage and improper disposal of human waste. Melbourne’s rate of incidence of typhoid was growing rapidly, whilst the rate in other comparable cities such as Sydney (which was partially sewered) and Adelaide (which was fully sewered) was dropping. The Sanitary Commission finally acknowledged that it was the city’s lack of an underground sewerage system that was responsible for the high levels of disease.

In December 1890 legislation enabled the formation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW). From 1 July 1891 this autonomous body was given responsibility for the management of Melbourne’s water supply, as well as the mammoth task of engineering, building and maintaining a functional and cost-effective underground sewerage system.

Over time, the MMBW became involved in road development, urban planning and parks planning. It was abolished for political reasons in 1992.

A full history of the MMBW can be found in Vital connections: Melbourne and its Board of Works, 1891–1991 by Tony Dingle and Carolyn Rasmussen, published in 1991.

State Library Victoria