Merri Creek is one of five major north south flowing tributaries of the Yarra River, flowing perennially from its source in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range to its junction with the Yarra River in present day Collingwood, just east of Dights Falls. The creek is approximately 60 kilometres in length, the lower 20 of those run through suburban Melbourne. The creek forms the Western Border of the City of Darebin from Heidelberg Rd in the south to Mahoneys Rd in the north.
The Merri Creek provided Aboriginal people with many of the essentials of their day-to-day lives including water, timber and bark for building shelters, plant life for food and medicinal purposes and animals for food. At the time of white settlement, the Merri Creek belonged to a clan of Woiwurrung speaking Wurundjeri-willam led by a clan head named Billibellary.
The Merri Merri Creek, as it was known originally, was surveyed in April 1839 bu Thomas Henry Nutt. Nutt was one of two surveyors appointed to assist Robert Hoddle survey Victoria. The name Merri is believed to mean "stony".
Between 1841 and 1851, the junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River became a site of concerted effort to promote European customs, education and religion on the local Aboriginal population. From 1843 the site was the headquarters of the Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate for the Western Port district. The site had had a school from July of 1842, when the Western Port Protectorate schoolmaster, Noble Keenan, had begun conducting European style classes there for Aboriginal children whose families often camped around the area. After Keenan departed in February of 1843, William Thomas took over the teaching, most likely using the vacated Native Police Corps building, which was that agency’s home from June 1842 to September 1843.
White settlers did not grasp the structure of Aboriginal clan society. A clan like the Wurrundjeri-willam collectively owned land extending from Mt Baw Baw to the Maribyrnong River, but was divided into three smaller subgroups of one or more families. It was these smaller groups that were seen as whole entities by white settlers but in fact the groups would meet regularly and would sometimes come together at one location when it was providing a particularly abundant source of food. The Merri Creek’s junction with the Yarra River was a significant meeting point for the Wurrundjeri-willam; a place where the smaller groups within the clan would come together for ceremonial occasions and for economic transactions. The site was also a traditional meeting point for more distant tribes when marriages were being arranged and a burial ground for clan-heads and fallen warriors.
An example of the type of ceremony performed at Merri Creek was observed by J.H. McCabe, who wrote a letter to the Port Phillip Gazette in February of 1843, in which he described what he thought was a corroboree on the banks of the Merri Creek, but was in fact an attempt to remove the diseases that were wiping out Aboriginal tribes throughout the new colonies. The ritual involved 40-50 naked men, many painted red and all adorned with twigs or cockatoo feathers, dancing in a circle around a group of singers.
Although the area has been greatly altered by grazing and urban development, there are reminders of Aboriginal life on the Merri Creek still in existence today. These include 20 Red Gum trees whose trunks are scarred by the removal of bark slabs used to make bowls and shields. There are also 44 sites identified by archaeologists as having been campsites. Evidence of Aboriginal stone tools at the sites has helped to identify the locations.
Clark, Ian D. & Heydon, Toby (2004). A bend in the Yarra: A history of the Merri Creek Protectorate Station and Merri Creek Aboriginal School 1841-1851. Canberra (A.C.T.): Aboriginal Studies Press.
Ellender, Isabel & hristiansen, Peter. (2001) People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, East Brunswick : Merri Creek Management Committee.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.