/Elsie died on a rubbish tip, covered in rat bites. Her story reveals a suburbs gritty history

Elsie died on a rubbish tip, covered in rat bites. Her story reveals a suburbs gritty history

Updated

April 09, 2019 08:58:14

One of the last people to hear the voice of Elsie Williams was a 10-year-old girl.

Phyllis McIlvenie found the former singer lying on a smouldering rubbish tip in West Melbourne, covered in burns and rat bites, pleading for help.

She still remembers the scene clearly, even though it’s been 76 years.

“[Elsie] was crying softly. She was very softly spoken. She said: ‘My man punched me into the fire’,” she says.

Phyllis knew the woman they called “Black Elsie” as one of the most violent residents of a nearby shanty town, Dudley Flats.

Phyllis, along with her group of friends, ran to get some food and drink for the gravely ill woman, but by the time they returned she was gone.

Two days later police were called to another part of the tip to recover the naked body of the 42-year-old.

A remarkable singer who slipped into a grim cycle

I uncovered Elsie Williams’s story while researching the history of the West Melbourne swamplands on which Dudley Flats was built in the 1930s.

Today that area is buried under Melbourne’s Docklands redevelopment and nearby container port.

Williams was one of the few Afro-Caribbean women in Melbourne during the early 20th century.

Her talent and spirit were framed by routine institutional racism.

I’m always looking for the chink in time, the “sliding doors” moment, where someone — even Williams herself — might have made another decision and changed the course of her life.

One of the reasons her story is a tragedy is that there are so many of these moments.

Williams was born in 1901 in Bendigo, central Victoria.

Her Melbourne-born mother, who was of Antiguan descent, died when Williams was only six.

Just months later, the razing of the family home in a fire precipitated her West-Indian-born father’s decision to move his six children to Melbourne.

Williams spent the rest of her childhood living in working-class Coburg.

She gained a solid convent education, developed the sharp intellect for which she became well-known, and fostered an ambition to make something of her remarkable singing voice.

During the 1920s she followed that talent across the country, singing slave spirituals with the popular Fisk Jubilee Singers, and finding a place in the choruses of Melbourne’s musical theatre stages in productions ranging from Cairo to the ground-breaking Show Boat.

But through the same years, Williams was losing her hold on a stable life.

She married a British-Guianese seaman in Sydney in 1919, but when he abandoned her she had little option but to rely on tenuous factory jobs and sex work around Sydney’s seedy inner suburbs to make ends meet.

Back in Melbourne, she slipped into a cycle of alcoholism, petty crime and periods of poor mental health.

She also gained a reputation for lashing out with a razor blade at those who crossed her.

These dynamics, together with the punitive vagrancy laws of the time and the biases of police and judges, saw her face some 70 charges between 1922 and 1942.

By the time of her death, in November 1942, she’d spent half her adult life in prison.

‘You don’t go down to Dudley Flats’

Dudley Flats, the shanty town Williams lived in, took root in the unregulated paddocks between the city’s docks and the nearby rubbish tips at the beginning of the 1930s economic depression.

Its residents put up tents, built shacks from materials they found on the tips, or simply lived in 44-gallon drums.

Through the 1930s, the shanty town developed a forbidding reputation.

Peter Somerville, who today operates riverboat tours that run close to the Dudley Flats site, was a child in the late 1930s.

He recalls the warnings that came with the place.

He was told: “You don’t go down to Dudley Flats because you’re likely to be kidnapped. A family will pinch you.”

While the warnings of kidnapping were exaggerated, they were common enough and were based on the near-lawlessness of the area.

Many of the Flats’ inhabitants were, like Williams, heavy drinkers with volatile personalities.

The area’s reputation for squalor and danger was so powerful, even some police officers were afraid to patrol it.

But not all the residents were so hard-bitten.

Jack Peacock, who was known as the “King of Dudley Flats”, began living rough when his wife died and he ended up being one of the shanty town’s earliest residents.

He was teetotal and had an eye for the business of tip scavenging.

Peacock’s grandson, Lindsay Peacock, knew of his grandfather only by reputation.

“One of the stories my father told me was that he always carried a bank book wherever he went that had at least a minimum of 10 pounds in it so as the police couldn’t lock him up for vagrancy,” he says.

Out of sight, out of mind

You can’t tell the story of the Flats’ inhabitants without also understanding the history of the site itself.

I think that history accounts for why the most marginalised people in Melbourne during the Depression chose it as the site for the shanty town.

European settlement of the area, beginning in 1835, radically disrupted its human and physical geography.

For thousands of years, the area was an intact part of the Yarra River delta, a low-lying wetland that was dominated by a shimmering blue saltwater tidal lake and the original meandering course of the river.

The lake, whose vivid colour was remarked on by Melbourne’s early European residents, was surrounded by a carpet of flora and was abundant with birdlife.

It was a food source for local Indigenous clans.

But the convergence of waterways into the wetland also made it the perfect natural drain for the young city’s raw sewage waste.

It was this simple gravitational pull that set the wetland’s eventual ruin in train.

By the 1840s, it had already become the site for many of the noxious trades associated with the nearby stock-and-slaughter yards, and over the next century its original character was almost utterly obliterated.

The Yarra River was rerouted into a shipping canal, the lake was drained of its waters by the dredging of docks and canals and vast rubbish tips took its place.

To me, it was this shameful degradation that made it the perfect location, out of sight and out of mind, for the dumping of Melbourne’s material and human waste.

It’s why Dudley Flats became the site where the dislocated people of mid-20th century Melbourne, people like Elsie Williams, ended up living and dying.

David Sornig is a writer and researcher. His book Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp was written with the support of a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship.

Topics:

history,

community-and-society,

crime,

race-relations,

geography,

west-melbourne-3003,

docklands-3008,

melbourne-3000,

vic

First posted

April 09, 2019 07:00:38