The Heritage of Smell: Former Kraft Vegemite Factory, Fishermans Bend

Last week the National Trust wrote to the City of Melbourne in strong support of Planning Scheme Amendment C394, which proposes to implement the Fishermans Bend In-Depth Heritage Review. With the transformation of Fishermans Bend expected to accelerate in the coming years, this work is vital to lay the foundation for planning in the precinct, based on a clear understanding of the precinct’s heritage values, and with appropriate planning controls in place.

The study proposes that three sites be included under Heritage Overlay, which include Former Kraft Factory 1 Vegemite Way, Port Melbourne. In our submission, we suggested a brief addition to the Statement of Significance, addressing the intangible cultural heritage values that are attached to ‘Former Kraft Vegemite Factory’. That is, to recognise the distinctive smell of Vegemite that emanates from the factory, familiar to generations of Melbournians and drivers passing by on the Westgate Freeway.

The flavor of Vegemite is already deeply embedded in Australian culture, reflected in its branding, “tastes like Australia”. Its manufacture has also been an important part of the history of Fishermans Bend. We experience our surroundings with all of our senses, and while ephemeral, distinctive sensory experiences such as smells can create powerful and memorable connections. In the case of the Vegemite factory, its distinctive odour announces the building’s purpose, just as the signage recognised in the proposed Statement of Significance “proclaims it is ‘the home of Vegemite’”.

“Olfactory heritage” is an emerging field, and is defined by the University College London as “an aspect of cultural heritage concerning smells that are meaningful to a community due to their connections with significant places, practices, objects or traditions, and can therefore be considered part of the cultural legacy for future generations.”

Smells are imponderable – and certainly not easy to transmit or safeguard – but are nonetheless capable of nurturing the connections between people and place. In thinking of smells attributing meaning to places, there are many examples internationally of foods being recognised for their cultural importance through the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage listing mechanism. Although not always explicitly described, the smells involved in these practices are certainly part of the cultural expression.

There are also numerous examples internationally of efforts to recognise and protect significant experiential aspects of places and cultural landscapes, such as sounds and smells. For example, on 29 January 2021, the French government passed a law aiming to define and protect the sensory heritage of the French countryside, from the sound of roosters and cicadas, to the smell of manure, in response to conflicts around local amenity arising from gentrification.

In Victoria, accepting that Heritage Overlay controls do not protect existing uses, there is no mechanism to protect culturally significant smells indefinitely. However, should the manufacture of Vegemite at the site be discontinued, we believe the factory’s distinctive smell will remain a recognised aspect of its history, and can readily be interpreted, justifying its ongoing inclusion in the Statement of Significance.  We look forward to providing our ongoing support for the current Planning Scheme Amendment, and the protection of the Former Kraft Factory at 1 Vegemite Way.

Feature image: Kraft Cheese delivery van, Lyle Fowler,  c1953, State Library of Victoria; Administration building, Kraft Foods Ltd, Wolfgang Sievers, c1955-1963, State Library of Victoria.

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    The smell of the Vegemite factory in Fisherman’s Bend evokes for me the nearby smells of the Unilever factory where offal was an essential ingredient in the manufacture of soap, and more particularly, the cloying, choking, rubber smell one experienced when driving past the (now gone) Dunlop Tyre factory in Normanby Road, South Melbourne.

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