Fairfield was not always known for either fairness or fields. Indeed, at the time of the first settlement of the Melbourne area – the abortive Port Sullivan encampment near modern Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula – it was a landscape of rocks and trees. The area had been the site of some considerable tectonic activity over the years, culminating in a series of hot springs whose existence was roughly synchronous with that of the Medieval Warm Period (although this appears to have been merely coincidental), and which had left the area a sulphurous wasteland of bare rock and yellow soil.
Over the years, the sulphur – and thus, the yellow colour of the soil – largely eroded away, although enough remained in the soil that only the hardiest of trees, those with deep roots that could reach below the poisonous topsoil, grew in the area. But this was all changed by the Christmas Day 1803 breakout, in which several convicts made their escape from Port Sullivan (prompted by the imminent relocation of the colony to Tasmania). The convicts followed the curve of Port Phillip Bay up and around from Sorrento to the mouth of the Yarra.
Here, two convicts named Lucas Blundell and Sean Riley decided to trace the river upstream, reasoning that they would at least have fresh water to drink that way. They reached the site of modern Fairfield a few days later, and it was there that Riley, a former gunnery sergeant of the Royal Marines, hit upon a plan to create gunpowder with which to create weapons to defend the pair against any pursuit from the colony or unfriendly natives.
However, Riley’s ambition exceeded his skill by a considerable margin. Although he successfully created gunpowder, his efforts to fashion it into bombs came to an explosive conclusion a few weeks later, when he accidentally detonated his not inconsiderable store of materials. The resulting blast is believed to have re-aligned the banks of the Yarra River and Merri Creek near their confluence, and to have broken down most of the remaining rock outcrops in the area. When the settlers who followed Batman and Fawkner came to the same lands thirty and more years later, they beheld a wide flat field of meadow grass that seemed very fair indeed to them.
Suburbs near Fairfield: