This is a picture of Darwin High School’s Gymnasium. Handsome solid base of concrete with a light-weight steel roof over. But not too remarkable you’re thinking.
Here’s an image of the interior. Equally handsome and serviceable you’d agree, but again, what’s the big deal? Well quite a lot really.
The ‘Tank’ as the gym is known, is a good example of why the Australian Architecture Association likes to ‘take a look’, a closer look that will reveal a lot more than you may see on the surface. Because few buildings have as explicit a relationship to a history of place as Darwin’s Tank, which is the only remaining vestige of the Vestey’s Meatworks that were constructed from 1914-1917.
Vestey’s Meatworks was an abattoir and freezing complex established by the Vestey Brothers, a British food produce conglomerate (now Vestey Group). Commenced just before the First World War, it was built over 99 allotments in Fannie Bay. The facilities, the abutting a railway depot, had supplementary land for stockyards and residences for workers that surrounded it, comprising its own new suburb, called Parap.
Here is a model of the fully developed facilities as they stood in 1917.
The single men’s residence was the first to be constructed; a large four storey dormitory block designed to house 300 men. Over a hundred huts for married couples were also provided. The freezing works were constructed from 1915, the saw tooth roof of the major structure cutting through Darwin’s comparatively low-lying skyline. Standing over the site were two chimneys over seventy metres tall.
The Meatworks is in many ways emblematic of the overreaching aspirations of the Territory’s pastoral industry in the early decades of the twentieth century. The plans to establish the freezing and abattoir facilities in Darwin were settled between Vestey’s and the NT Government in 1914. This was following the Vestey Brother’s purchase of a number of cattle stations in the Northern Territory, principally at Wave Hill, west of Katherine.
In response, the NT Government extended Darwin’s train line to Katherine to assist Vesteys in supplying adequate animals for slaughter. The scheme was at the core of the NT Government’s program to establish a robust beef export economy. In total, the Meatworks had a floor area of over ten acres. The development was of an incredible scale for a small but steadily growing Darwin.
The Tank was among the last structures to be erected on the site in 1917, but the first reinforced concrete structure of its kind in Australia and, at this time, the largest in the southern hemisphere. The Tank was required as a result of precarious access to water in the Northern Territory. To service the vast Meatworks, the twin tanks were built to hold almost 19 million litres of water, which required the construction of 6 bores on site. The Tank is the two big green areas in the photo below.
The lack of water necessitated innovation in the form of an offshore desalination plant, one of Australia’s first, that supplemented the bores. But success was not to be. In 1920, after just three active seasons, the Meatworks were closed. They opened briefly in 1925 to operate as a boiling down works but operations did not continue. Vesteys were one of many in the industrial sector to be hamstrung by the economic stagnation of the postwar period.
The Meatworks were also at the centre of the struggle of the union movement in the Northern Territory, and the contentious place of the Vestey Group. The construction process from 1914-1917 was consistently halted due to the Group’s failure to pay appropriate NT rates for labourers, as well as industrial disputes on the neighbouring railway and wharfs.
Following construction, the Meatworks remained a site of union contestation, with disputes at Vesteys contributing to the 1918 Darwin Rebellion. The closure of the Meatworks in March 1920 was mostly attributed to this labour tension and the quality of produce, much of which was provided by Vestey’s cattle stations.
The Vestey name is also connected to colonialist and capitalistic exploitation in the Territory, particularly their treatment of indigenous labourers on Wave Hill Station which became well-known with the 1966 walk off led by Vincent Lingiari, an incident somewhat righted by Gough Whitlam in 1975, and commemorated in the Paul Kelly song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.
But back to the closure of the Meatworks in 1920. The tanks remained to supplement Darwin’s water usage for the next 62 years and this stable water storage was an international security concern during WWII. The Curtin Government feared the water tanks would bring a successful Japanese infiltration into Darwin and it was wired with explosives for detonation should Darwin be taken - which was almost a reality during the 1942 Darwin bombings.
The mothballed Meatworks was not demolished until 1957, six years of life and 37 of death. The only remaining structure on the site by 1963 was the Tank, and the site was developed for Darwin High School. Following an earthquake that brought into question the integrity of the structure, the Tank was emptied in 1982.
As the High School was developed the Tank was repurposed as a gym and hall. Above the old reinforced concrete buttressed walls of the front half, a steel trussed curved gable roof was built to sit lightly over clerestory glazing. Behind this, an open courtyard serves as a breakout space, with large incisions in the robust concrete walls which open out to the rest of the school.
The Tank holds Darwin’s history of colonial expansion, industry, pastoralism, domestic and international conflict. It now houses community and education. All this from a Meatworks facility that ran for just three seasons. The free flow of people and program through its walls mark the evolution of Darwin since its construction over a century ago.
The model shown here is in Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). It was made by Chris Renehan of Moonbeam Design, AAA’s chief advisor in the top end.
Research by Jackson Birrell, written by Tone Wheeler for the Australian Architecture Association. See: http://www.architecture.org.au