How local history scripts activism—Brookes Jetty
Text of talk by Bill Garner for the St Kilda Historical Society St Kilda Library 18 June 2017:
As a very young boy, on long car trips I would stand up on the back seat serenely looking out the back window. Those were the dangerous days before child restraints. I never looked in the direction we were going. I only saw what had passed by. Along the highway an endless line of electricity poles receded, wires rising and falling hypnotically like waves. I had a longtime to take it all in. In the front, my parents were nervously eyeballing the future as it rushed towards them.
I only saw Brookes Jetty when it had passed.
When it was demolished late in 2015, Parks Victoria’s manager of Port Phillip surely believed he had consigned the little jetty to the past. Job done. It would never bother him again. Even among those of us who fought to save it there was a deadening sense of finality.We had tried, and had failed. It was gone, and that was that. It was now in the past and the past is the home of the dead.
But it didn’t work out that way, because the destruction of the jetty had an unintended consequence: it released its history. And that history proved so powerful that it has propelled Brookes Jetty back into the present. And in the present, it is possible to do things.To change things. Even to rebuild a jetty.
What is this miraculous path back from the dead?
First, let me define some terms: what is scripting for activism?
I’m talking about the way activism shares with theatre and film a similar process of research,writing, and production. Both start with a hasty assemblage of information (always incomplete) then construct scenarios, write lines, distribute roles, and put on a show. Acting (as in performance) and activism are both rooted in the idea of action. I have always regarded acting as a form of action, and action (as in life) as a form of acting. Both attempt to shape the world to an imagined purpose. But we can’t act on the past: we can only act in the present.
Activism is associated with agitation, in both senses of the word: often taking the form of a disturbance, and exercised in a febrile, emotional manner. It involves real, not confected emotion. It is usually reactive; a protest against some wrong, a cry of pain, a gesture of revolt. It is also a creative activity, inventive, generated with an audience in mind. Almost any action can, in the right context and with the right intention, constitute activism. The most simple actions such as walking, talking and sitting down can become disruptive performances. Indeed, they are often the most powerful.
As the wise American historian Hayden White says, sometimes an emotional situation calls for action. The demolition of Brookes Jetty was such a situation. This activity White calls a form of creativity. He argues that even errors made in the course of this are themselves creatively productive. I will come back to that idea.
As activists we write scripts—although we don’t call them that. We call them ‘plans’. The plan gets us on the same page (an expression suggesting that scripting comes first). Political actions are first imagined as scenarios to be played out before a public audience. They have a shape, a location, a duration and above all, an intended outcome. Roles are assigned,speeches prepared and lines distributed, slogans manufactured, poetry and art employed. The events are recorded and published. To someone who has worked in the theatre or television the process is very familiar.
I spent years at planning meetings, script meetings, plotting(!) meetings, rehearsals, post-mortems. Even meetings have their scripts; these are called agendas. Meetings are themselves actions. Important actions. Without the meeting, there is nothing. Every revolution starts with a meeting and proceeds through endless meetings. Democracy is based on meetings. A meeting is simply a process of discussion and decision, of collectivising ideas, and agreeing on objectives. Although a meeting is never, one hopes, an end in itself, it can bring its own sense of accomplishment, even pleasure. It is surely a fair generalisation to suggest that a person who does not attend any meetings is probably not politically active,no matter how many online petitions they sign.
This meeting today is a political act, on all our parts. [If you want to do something more, you could come along to the mid-winter bash on the jetty on Saturday July 1, starting at 6pm.The last one ended after midnight. I can assure you it will be a test of your commitment.And most enjoyable for precisely that reason.]
Action requires confidence and we act more confidently when we know what we are talking about. Which is where history comes in.
Local history is a distinctive historical genre and its character links it to activism (in a similar way that indigenous, women’s, migrant, LGBTI histories do). But local history has a special quality: it is centred on place. That sense of place is more than physical. We find ourselves in our local history because it is our own history. We are present in our local history and that closes the gap between the past and the present. Unlike academic history, which tends to separate the past from the present, in local history the past simply flows into the present.
We identify with places and past events because these places and events inform our own identities. By way of the routines of our daily lives we attach to very particular landscapes, structures, spaces. We know them. They are, to appropriate outrageously, country. And they include our versions of sacred sites. Attack one of these sites and you attack who we are. Brookes Jetty, it turns out, was such a site. This came as a surprise to us as it did to Parks Victoria. Until it was attacked, no-one suspected it was so important, that some would even defy the law to try to save it.
I am not a theorist and our campaign is in no way theory driven, but sometimes a bit of theory is useful to help understand what you are doing. In this case it suggests that when we look at Brookes Jetty we should see it not as an isolated structure, but as an element in a landscape. I will spend a moment looking at the evolving idea of landscape.
In recent decades landscape has received a lot of attention, both from geographers and those interested in heritage. The tendency of scholars to ‘problematize’ (a terrible word) what to non-scholars seem simple matters, has meant that the concept of landscape was swept up by postmodernism (which I read in the TLS this week is now dead).
Theory exploded the accepted understanding of landscape as a site of purely aesthetic appreciation. Its meanings multiplied. It became politicised. Landscape was not just a pretty picture, but an expression of power and values. Cultural geographers advanced ideas of landscape organised around questions of authority. They asked in whose interest a landscape was constructed. Landscape itself (whatever that is) is less interesting to this way of thinking than who controls it. We now locate landscape in the political world, and to urban landscapes, as much as in the natural world. This is useful with respect to Brookes Jetty, because it directs our attention beyond the structure itself to its contexts. These contexts include its history, its control by administrative entities and its democratic relationship to the community.
Changes in the understanding of heritage are also significant. Heritage was originally codified by the World Heritage Organisation of UNESCO as concerning the protection of monuments, stand-alone structures such as Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal. That easily targeted project has now largely dissolved into protecting cultural landscapes. These areas are much harder to put boundaries around than monuments, but importantly allow for the continuing role of surrounding communities as a component of their heritage value. We can scale this down from world heritage to local heritage. With respect to Brookes Jetty, its heritage value (rather than its heritage status, which is problematic) derives not just from the remnant structure, but from the cultural landscape of which it is part.
In Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that a landscape is never ‘finished; but is constantly in production. No element is entirely stabilised.’ Its management is part of a continual process of social regulation. The St Kilda foreshore has been regulated and re-regulated several times from the beginning of the 20th century. This involves the application of the socially dominant morality of the moment. Brookes Jetty has always been subjected these changes of social regulation. For example, in 1915 there was a by-law forbidding bathing from it, and plain clothes police made regular raids to catch men engaged in this obscenity. A century ago, that was an expression of the prevailing morality. Today, the prevailing orthodoxy is the risk-averse safety-above-all-else morality that informs regulation, and is so popular with authorities. It was deployed to justify the demolition of the jetty.
My first point, then, is that the history of Brookes Jetty needs to be read as a history of a complex, changing, cultural landscape. The entities that demolished the jetty still control that landscape. Those instrumentalities are Parks Victoria, the City of Port Phillip, Melbourne Water, and the State Government. But now there is another player, us—an active, organised community.
The campaigners bring to the Brookes Jetty issue a powerful social and political element:high feeling. This comes into play through our immediate individual responses to the demolition, our memories, and, by way of local history research, our realisation that our own attachment reflects the attachment of earlier generations. There is a history of shared meaning. We walked on the same planks. We looked back at the shore. We watched the sunset. Local history tells us we were not the first to do so. The more we learn about the history of such sites of familiarity, the stronger our sense of attachment becomes. This is both romantic and real: a subject both for poetic musings and for our sense of identity.
Attachment to place is one of the oldest forms of identity. In his biography 12 Edmonstone Street, David Malouf, showed how the first place we identify with as a child is our home, but our second is with the landscape in which the house sits.
When Parks Victoria attacked our jetty they attacked our landscape, and with that our sense of identity. This came as a surprise. Prior to the threat to demolish it, few of us had thought much about Brookes Jetty. We were familiar with it, very familiar. We liked it. But we took it for granted. it was simply there. The violent intrusion of Parks Victoria into our homeland released a torrent of emotions. We discovered within ourselves an unsuspected depth of feeling for the wonky structure. We spoke of this to one another, and found we shared similar feelings, first of love, then of anger. The initial protest meeting was a surprisingly emotional event. There were tears. I certainly choked up. We shared a sense of being personally and communally ravaged.
Then we tried to save what was left of it.
In The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal says the rage to preserve is in part “a reaction to anxieties generated by modernist amnesia. We preserve because the pace of change and development has attenuated a legacy integral to our identity and well-being.”Relics, says Lowenthal (and by now that was what our jetty had become), however depleted by time and use, remain bridges between then and now. They “memorialise communal links over time, and provide metaphors that illumine the processes of history and memory.” And“The surviving past’s most essential and pervasive benefit is to render the present familiar.”
He explains this paradox by saying that it is habit and the memory of past experience that give the present its meaning: environmental features are recognized as features because we share a history with them. And he also says that while written history demarcates past from present “…artefacts are simultaneously past and present; their historical roles coincide with their modern roles, commingling and sometimes confusing them…”
Let apply this thinking apply to Brookes Jetty.
The first sensation was shock. We felt it before we understood it. Shock paralyses.Ignorance kills capacity to respond. We knew nothing. When you don’t understand what is5happening and you have no knowledge about it, it is difficult to act effectively. You are on the back foot.
Parks Victoria commanded the narrative. They belatedly put up a notice that told the story according to Parks Victoria. It was a tale of danger, damage and death.
- The jetty was unsafe for public use because of severe storm damage
- As they had declared it a no boating zone it “no longer served its original purpose”
- The water was so shallow it was not safe for jumping or diving
- There was no disabled access.
- And, if, you wanted a jetty experience there was the pier just 600 metres away because, hey, all piers and jetties are the same. Nothing special about this one.
Our first task was to test these claims
There was a frenzy of information gathering about water depths, the condition of the piles,the safety record, who made the decision, Council’s attitude etc. We needed to construct an alternative narrative. Fast. (There was a two week window, caused by bad weather,before the demolition could be completed.) All this shaped an initial response. But it became clear that we needed to delve further into the past. What was the original purpose of the jetty? When was it built? By whom? And why was it so narrow?
The starting point was oral history. Oral history is often weak on facts, but it is strong on meaning and feeling. People remembered the jetty had once had a lower platform. They remembered that it had not been repaired after earlier storm damage. But, more importantly, they remembered what it had meant to them and their families. Bill Toy turned up. He remembered the 1940s and told us about the jetty’s relationship to the famous boatshed that had been situated next to it, about which we knew nothing.
It was the boatshed that gave the jetty its name. Built to serve a fishing business, it developed as a clubhouse for an extraordinary range of social activities. The St Kilda Sailing and Angling Club began there in 1905. In 1910, it became the St Kilda Dinghy Club, one of the most famous sailing clubs in Australia, pioneering 14 foot racing. From 1907 large crowds gathered on the jetty to watch the boats race. The boatshed housed the first lifesaving boat at St Kilda and in 1919 the Dinghy Club took over the assets and management of the failing St Kilda Life Saving Club.
A social committee ran weekly dances, picture nights, club balls, Ladies Days, smoke nights,pie nights and billiards tournaments. The Club fielded the Pirates ice hockey team as well asa football team. And when the Royal St Kilda Yacht Club decided that its rules would notallow women to enter its premises after dark, the Victorian Ladies Yacht Club responded by moving its meetings to the Dinghy Club at the other end of the beach. The jetty end was the progressive end, the community end, the people’s end of the beach. It still is.
Even after the Dinghy Club was itself absorbed into the RMYS, and the boatshed was in decay, Brenda Richards recalled the friendly ‘Bashes’ that took place at the jetty on Friday evenings, when people would wander down with a guitar and a bottle (and, in my mind,bongo drums!) and just hang out. It’s a practice we have reinstituted.
Eventually, we made contact with nearly ninety-year-old Ken Brooke, grandson of FredBrooke, who remembered the jetty from the 1930s. His colourful memories confirmed the liveliness of the precinct when he was a boy. Even the drain, which was still open all the way down Shakespeare Grove, was a playground.
I can’t emphasise how important such remembering was to our campaign: it put flesh on the information dredged from the archive. These stories were living links to the human ancestry of the jetty, of which we had become the descendants.
Using Facebook we accumulated scores of posts that filled out a picture of an eccentric structure that had been part of people’s lives for generations. Weddings and funerals. Love and loss. Solace and sitting. By this process of sharing memories and research, we came to understand that while the demolition cut us off from our individual pasts, it had also cut us of from our communal past. “Public amenity” is inadequate as a term for the layers ofhuman experience for which the jetty literally provided a platform. These memories were powerful, as they demonstrated so poignantly an accumulation of social value.
But Parks Victoria also had a powerful emotional card to play. Their ace was safety. Parks,the Council and the Lifesaving Club, all pushed the line that the jetty was so dangerous that it needed to be demolished for reasons of public safety. Safety (similarly to security in national politics) has become the go-to rationalisation for any unpopular government action. Death always carries weight. Port Phillip councillors simply rolled over when Parks raised the spectre of head and spinal injuries. Without being challenged, the Parks manager responsible for the demolition, Graeme Davis, declared that when it came to public safety,there would be no consultation with the community. Safety concerns conferred an absolute right to act. This is Peter Dutton style logic. We know what is best, so shut up.
How were we to deal with this?
The answer was historical research. Was the claim true? Was Brookes Jetty more dangerous than all the other jetties around the bay that were not being demolished? GrahamChappell’s research indicated it was not. Common sense says that all jetties are dangerous because they all proceed from shallow to deeper water. Brookes Jetty was nothing special.And that raised claims about Parks Victoria’s claims about water depths, which John Perkins researched and challenged. As for the unfortunate death of a young man (Dale Russ) in2008, after diving from the jetty at night, a tragedy solemnly invoked by Parks and Council,the state coroner, we discovered by going to the report, had specifically found the jetty itself was not to blame.
Further, newspaper searches for the whole of the 20th century showed that the jetty was itself a lifesaving device, having facilitated the rescue of at least ten people from drowning. Yes, it was potentially dangerous, if you were foolish, but people had been living with that danger for a long time. Warnings were first published about the dangers of diving from the jetty in 1912. But in 2015 the jetty had to be demolished in order to save us from own foolishness.
If safety were the issue, then the whole of St Kilda beach should be closed to swimmers, as more people have drowned in front of the lifesaving club than ever died from diving off the jetty. No, this was not primarily about safety; it was about saving money. We turned the safety argument right around. We provided evidence that demolishing the jetty had only made things more dangerous, with young people now jumping off the drain into even shallower water.
We were building our case using historical research. What we found was giving us grounds to challenge the narrative of the authorities. It was giving us confidence. The more we knew the stronger we became.
We still didn’t know much about the history the jetty itself. Indeed, we didn’t even know-how Brooks should be spelled. Newspaper reports varied from Brookes with an ‘e’ and Brooks without an ‘e’, to the archaic Brookes’s.
We were especially bugged by the question of when the jetty was built. We thought we had the answer when Peter Johnson of the St Kilda Historical Society came up with a document that showed that in 1884 Fred Brooke had applied for a permit to build a boatshed at the site. We assumed, because of its name, that the jetty was also built by Fred, probably around that time. We included that “fact” in the first version of The Story of Brookes Jetty, which we defiantly attached to the railing on the drain. It seemed plausible, but we were guessing. We were wrong.
A bigger error was a mistake of the imagination, of the way we thought about the jetty. We thought of it as the wooden structure that had been demolished: the bit built out from the end of the concrete drain. In our minds that was the jetty. And that was what Parks Victoria,and the Council, and everyone else thought was the jetty. So, when that structure was demolished, everyone accepted that the jetty was gone.
We had another fixed idea: that the jetty had been built as a jetty. You can see how easy it was to make that mistake. What else could it have been built as?
There was, in our minds, a clear distinction between the jetty and the drain. After the demolition, we would talk of meeting ‘down at the drain’ not down at the jetty, because the jetty was gone and the drain was all that was there. At the same time, referring to the site of the jetty as the drain was uncomfortable. It diminished our memorialising. And curiously,meeting down at the drain for the bashes had a residual sense of meeting on the jetty. Our terminology wavered. What we didn’t realise was that our ambivalence reflected an underlying reality.
Once again, it was Peter Johnson who found in the Public Records Office an 1897 plan of the major drain that entered the water next to Brookes boatshed (which we now knew was spelt with an ‘e’). The wooden-sided drain was open all the way down Shakespeare Grove.Where it extended into the water for some distance, it formed a breakwater but was still open on top. Peter explained that the plan led him to believe the jetty was built in two sections: the first section was created somewhere between 1909 and 1911 when planking was laid over the section of the drain where it extended into the water, thus creating a de facto jetty. The second section was the later extension from the end of that. This seems to have been added in stages after 1910.
A number of photos show people crowded on a wooden jetty that reaches all the way back to the beach, confirming that the jetty was extended straight out from the original drain outlet. I have posted some photos and plans on our Facebook page, if you wish to look at them.
Peter thinks that the original work was largely paid for by the Department of Works with contributions from the Foreshore Committee, St Kilda Council and Dinghy Club. The combined responsibility is a precedent for the restoration.
In about 1933, the open drain down Shakespeare Grove was covered over and replaced by concrete, but clearly not the section that constituted the jetty, which remained wooden until at least 1945 (as can be seen in a photo). We don’t yet know when the concrete outlet we see today was constructed. But, given that we have been told that the concrete of the drain is now coming to the end of its lifespan of about 40 years, the boxed outlet may not have been concreted until as late as the 1970s.
Historically, the jetty and the drain are one composite structure. It was first built as a drain,and became a jetty when planking was laid on top. This was then extended. You see the consequence? If the outlet from the drain is the jetty, and the drain is still there, then the jetty—or at least a substantial part of it—is still there.
The work of a local historian has brought the jetty back to life.
It has taken the rest of us some time to digest this information, so attached were we (and to some degree are still) to the idea of the jetty as only the wooden extension and the concrete stump as something quite different.
But we now know this: Parks Victoria failed in consigning Brookes Jetty to the past; they only got rid of part of it. Furthermore, the remaining part of the jetty did not and does not come under their control but under the control of Melbourne Water. Melbourne Water is the proud inheritor of all the structures and the history of its predecessor, the Melbourne &Metropolitan Board of Works, which probably commissioned the original works. The jetty was not, as Parks claimed, built to facilitate the “port function” it conveniently declared obsolete, but as a promenade on top of the drain. The idiosyncratic narrowness of the wooden section was simply a consequence of its origin.
This discovery has significant implications for future action. Melbourne Water has a long history of making its utilitarian structures as attractive as possible: think of all the beautification of reservoirs such as the Maroondah Dam. It also has a Cultural Heritage Strategy. It is proud of its drains, including the Shakespeare Grove outlet, and has supported the attachment by our group of a more robust sign telling the story of Brookes Jetty and its destruction. We are now looking to Melbourne Water as a possible partner in a coalition to restore the jetty. At the moment, that is just another scenario, but we’re working on the script.
I confess that knowing its history has softened my attitude towards the drain. I’ve begun to feel quite fond of it. On the other hand, for tactical reasons, it is important to insist on its ugliness. As in so many areas of life, we must embrace the contradiction.
The ennobled drain leads us through the “obelisks”— the gateway pillars at the entrance to Brookes Jetty designed by Walter Burley Griffin—up Shakespeare Grove, past Luna Park and the Vineyard (which I learned recently was once a boat builder’s yard) to Acland Street. An old plan suggests there was a line of trees along what is now the car park. It was once a pathway linking the hinterland to the beach, ending at Brookes Jetty. That connection could be re-established. The jetty is also adjacent to the Triangle and the Marina, proximities to commercial interests that suggest that, sooner or later, there will be commercial interest in replacing the unattractive drain with a more attractive structure: a jetty.
The history of the jetty is a guide to what that future can be like. In the several plans for the foreshore, from 1910 to the 2002 Urban Design Framework, the jetty always features as a defining element. It is part of the imagining of the foreshore. Although Parks Victoria, and more worryingly, the former Port Phillip Council were blind to this at the time of demolition, the UDF is a legally binding vision that must be reinvigorated.
History imbues Brookes Jetty with a larger meaning. Through diligent historical research we have gained control of the narrative. This is real power, community power. With it we are slowly but surely taking possession of a damaged public space and plotting a course of restoration.
Local history is not a static thing; it is a dynamic process. It has the power to shift our gaze,enlarge our perspective, and insist on action. Sometimes, after things have passed by, you see them more clearly. There’s a ghost that lies over the water beyond the drain. Its haunting is growing louder.
Postscript: In March 2022 a viewing platform was added to the Shakespeare Grove Main Drain, where Brookes Jetty had once stood. The story of the Bring Back Brookes Jetty campaign 2015-2021, is told here by Bill Garner.