Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams

The Docklands area in Melbourne’s wharf district has always been a source of curiosity and interest for me since moving to Melbourne over two years ago. However life and it’s everyday responsibilities can get in the way, and it wasn’t in till a couple months ago when I moved into the area, that I finally got round to exploring the vicinity I’d felt a strange pull towards. It was actually one of those aforementioned everyday responsibilities, namedly work, that first introduced me to the story of Elsie Williams.
Scrolling through online news between calls, I came across her story in an article about a new book by David Sornig, Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, in which he devotes a whole chapter to Elsie’s tragic story.

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Going for a Sunday stroll in Docklands today, you wouldn’t even recognise the area from it’s poverty filled past. These days it’s an affluent suburb, sporting modern high rise apartments with neon lighting, chic restaurants and cycling lanes, but go back less than a century ago and you would find yourself in a typical wharf area of the time, shipping containers, alcoholism, and a collection of shanty houses set amongst a rubbish tip known as the Dudley Flats.

The tragic death, at the age of 42, of Dudley flats resident Elsie Williams, was a sad one indeed. Described in David Sornig’s book, Elsie was discovered by local children lying on a rubbish heap, naked and covered in burns and rat bites, moaning ‘her man had punched her into the fire.’ When the children returned after trying to get help, Elise was gone, her dead body found a couple days later in a nearby rubbish pile.

Elsie’s life had been a chequered and colorful one. After Elsie’s mother passed away, her West Indian father had immigrated his young family to Australia. A talented singer, Elise drifted into casual prostitution, alcoholism and a life of crime after her first husband abandoned her, which back then, if she didnt have a well off family to help her, could ruin a woman’s life. Elise had a reputation for violence and was well known to the Melbourne police, with a habit of pulling out a razor blade on those who crossed her.

One the obvious questions about the sad and lonely death of Elsie is, could her life have been saved? If she had been taken to a hospital, then surely her burns and hypothermia could have been treated and possibly not turned fatal. No doubt the apathy of the poverty stricken Dudley Flats, contributed greatly to Elsie’s demise. The children that day did their best to help her, but sadly it would have been limited what they could have done.

Exploring the former Dudley Flats area, now a collection of fields, overgrown creek banks, cycle tracks and overhead motorway ramps on the perimeter of a large shopping complex, it struck me how different my current life is to the former residents of the Dudley Flats. I have a reliable job, enough food to eat, warm clothes, and I live in an apartment. In these respects, life is a lot easier for myself and the current residents of Docklands, compared to the people who lived here during and just after the depression era.

As I stood looking out at the Moonee Ponds Creek I wondered if many years ago another woman might have stood looking out at the blue water, wondering what opportunities might lay ahead for her, if only we can somehow find the key to discover what we want out of life and the means to do it by. I guess in that respect we all are trapped, if we don’t make the most of what life has to offer us.

Sources of information.

Sornig, David. (2018) Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats & the West Melbourne Swamp. Melbourne. Scribe Publications.