Melbourne – Built on Gold

Melbourne Town Hall

Little Puffles and Jay are on a tour of Melbourne Town Hall to learn about Melbourne’s history.

Melbourne Town Hall – Portraits of Melbourne Lord Mayors

Melbourne was founded in 1835, in the reign of King William IV. Unlike other Australian capital cities, Melbourne did not originate under official auspices. It owes its birth to the enterprise and foresight to some settlers from Tasmania, where the land available for pastoral purposes was becoming overstocked. The settlers formed the Port Phillip Association for the purpose of the pastoral exploration of Port Phillip. On May 10th, 1835, John Batman set sail in the 30-ton schooner Rebecca on behalf of the Association to explore Port Phillip for land. He entered Port Phillip Bay on May 29th and on June 6th, at Merri Creek, near what is now Northcote, Batman purchased 600,000 acres of land from eight Aboriginal chiefs. This area of land included the sites of both Melbourne and Geelong. The Government later cancelled this purchase and, as a result, had to compensate the Port Phillip Association.

On June 8th, 1835, Batman and his party rowed up the Yarra River and landed near the site of the former Customs House (now Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices). Batman recorded in his journal: “about six miles up, found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village.” Batman left three white men of his party and five Aborigines from NSW behind with instructions to build a hut and commence a garden, and returned to Launceston to report to his association.

John Pascoe Fawkner had made a similar decision to settle at Port Phillip and formed a syndicate in Launceston which purchased the 55-ton schooner Enterprize. On August 29th, 1835 the Enterprize sailed up the Yarra River and anchored at the site chosen earlier by Batman as “the place for a village”. Fawkner’s party (minus Fawkner who stayed behind because of sea sickness!) then went ashore, landed stores and livestock, and proceeded to erect the settlement’s first home. The Enterprize then returned to Launceston to collect Fawkner and his family who eventually arrived at the settlement on December 10th, 1835.

The Irish pioneer journalist Edward Finn, using the pen-name Garryowen, wrote in his Chronicle of early Melbourne in 1888 that there had been much dispute as to who actually founded Melbourne. Finn, however, arrived at the conclusion “that not Fawkner, but Fawkner’s party – five men, a woman and the woman’s cat – were the bona-fide founders of the present great metropolis”.

On March 4th, 1837, Governor Bourke arrived and instructed the Assistant Surveyor-General, Robert Hoddle, whom he had brought with him, to lay out the town. The first name suggested by the Colonial Secretary was Glenelg. However, Governor Bourke overruled this and named the settlement Melbourne as a compliment to the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, 1844 (oil on canvas) by John Partridge; National Portrait Gallery, London

Hoddle’s plan for Melbourne was approved by Governor Bourke, but the plan was based largely on the work of Hoddle’s predecessor, Robert Russell.

Part of Robert Hoddle’s survey of South Melbourne completed in 1837 showing proposed roads and allotments. The location of La Trobe’s house is shown but allotments are shown in the areas which later became Fitzroy Gardens and other public and church lands.

Garryowen’s Chronicles reported that there was a remarkable controversy between Governor Bourke and Surveyor Hoddle and an extract from Hoddle’s journal states –

When I marked out Melbourne in 1837, I proposed that all streets should be ninety-five feet wide. Sir Richard Bourke suggested the lanes as mews or approaches to the stablings and out-buildings of the main streets of buildings. I staked the main streets ninety-nine feet wide and after having done so, was ordered by the Governor to make them sixty-six feet wide; but upon my urging the Governor and convincing him that wide streets were advantageous on the score of health and convenience to the future city of Victoria, he consented to let me have my will. I therefore gave up my objection to the narrow lanes thirty-three feet wide, which have unfortunately become streets, and many expensive buildings have been erected thereon. Had a greater number of allotments been brought to public auction at first, houses in broad streets would have been erected thereon.

Swanston Street is Melbourne’s oldest street, laid out in 1837. It is also Melbourne’s spine, lending a backbone to the CBD. It was named after Captain Charles Swanston, a founding member of the Port Phillip Association.

This “muddy, rutted thoroughfare’’ vied with Elizabeth St for supremacy until Princes Bridge was built over the Yarra in the late 1840s.

An undated historic photo of the corner of Collins and Swanston streets, Melbourne

By the late 19th century, Swanston St pavements were flanked by significant buildings such as St Paul’s, Melbourne Public Library, Melbourne Museum and the National Gallery.

Swanston Street, 1872. Image from the Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection, State Library of Victoria

On October 22nd, 1841, the settlement of Melbourne was divided into four wards for the purpose of electing commissioners for the management of the Melbourne markets. The first markets were established on the present site of St Paul’s Cathedral (hay and corn), the Western Market site – now the National Mutual Centre – (fruit and general produce) and the north-east corner of Elizabeth Street and Victoria Street opposite the present Queen Victoria Market site (cattle). A fish market was later established on the present site of the Flinders Street railway station.

The first elections for the Town Council were held in December 1842. The four wards each elected 3 councillors who met on December 3rd at the Royal Hotel in Collins Street to take the oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and make declarations of their acceptance of office. On December 9th, the 12 councillors met again to elect a mayor and aldermen. In a close election, Henry Condell was elected the first Mayor of Melbourne.

Henry Condell, first mayor of Melbourne

The motto Vires acquirit eundo (we gather strength as we go) was suggested to the Mayor of Melbourne by the first Judge of the district (Judge Willis), a well-known Latin scholar, who, recalling the passage in Virgil’s fourth book of the Aenoid – Fame, malum quo allud veloclus ollum, Mobilitate viget, viresque acquirit eundo (In her freedom of movement lies her power and she gathers strength with her going) – thought it would be appropriate for the new Town Council. The tree words Vires acquirit eundo were adopted by the Council as the motto for the Town.

The Town of Melbourne was raised to the status of a City on June 25th, 1847 by Queen Victoria.

The discovery of gold in Victoria in the early 1850s had a remarkable effect on the growth of Melbourne. The Melbourne Morning Herald in October, 1851, stated that – The whole city is gold mad; the city is getting more and more deserted every day. But this trend to leave the city was only temporary, for in a week or two the gold seekers were drifting back, some successful, some disappointed. But the news of the discovery of gold had spread all around the world and during the years 1852, 1853 and 1854 the number of people arriving in Victoria by sea averaged 90,000 a year. From 1855 to 1858 the average was still 60,000.

In 1851 Victoria was separated from NSW and Melbourne became the capital of the colony.

Melbourne in the early 1850s was chaotic. Roads were full of holes, disease was rife, robbery was common and the cost of living had skyrocketed. At the same time, successful diggers were able to afford whatever they wanted. They came to Melbourne with vast amounts of money – rolls of banknotes and bags of gold.

In less than a decade, the gold rushes transformed Melbourne from a rambling colonial service town to a metropolis with the confidence of a modern city. But in the early years of the gold rushes, Melbourne had trouble keeping up with its newfound wealth.

Until 1854, there was no drainage system in Melbourne. The streets were open sewers and, sometimes, raging torrents. Clement Hodgkinson noted in an official report on the Sewerage of and Supply of Water to Melbourne: … in the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke Streets, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies. Charles Browning Hall commented that the greatest gold and the greatest filth (were) not ten feet apart.

In 1853, William Kelly observed:

Swanston Street on the one hand, and Elizabeth Street on the other, were complete rivers running in volumes … In the deep and wide sloping channels especially, the current was so impetuous that it made one giddy to gaze at it as it roared past, empty cases, coffee tins, old hats, sardine boxes, discarded clothes, tattered mats, butchers’ offal, and all the varieties of household filth and warehouse abomination hoarded since the previous flood, careering on its bosom.

The huge and rapid influx of people stretched facilities to breaking point. Many people could not find accommodation, and resorted to living in a crowded tent city. Squalor, poverty and disease spread quickly. To make matters worse, there were few tradesmen to build new facilities – everyone had left for the diggings.

The pressure eased within a few years as major public works and building developments caught up with new demands. Key infrastructure organisations were established in 1853, including the Melbourne and Hobsons Bay Railway Company, the City of Melbourne Gas and Coke Company, the Central Roads Board, the Melbourne and Mount Alexander Railway Company and the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company. Commissioners were appointed to improve Melbourne’s drainage and work began on a permanent water supply at Yan Yean. In 1854 the Government decided to install electric telegraphs – the first linking Melbourne to Williamstown. Within two years, a telegraph line was laid between Melbourne and Adelaide.

Many of these public infrastructure works were funded by loans, the most famous of which was the Gabrielli loan. In July 1853, Antonio Gabriella, a 29-year-old travelling financial agent, offered the Melbourne Corporation a loan of £500,000 for their public works program. Gabrielli claimed to be connected with the house of Rothschild, the international gold brokers, and Sir Samuel Moreton Peto, a British railway magnate, but this claim was never verified.

He offered the loan at an interest rate of six per cent plus his commission, to be repaid over 21 years. After much discussion the loan was approved, guaranteed by the Victoria Parliament. Gabrielli claimed the funds would be raised in London and Melbourne, but most of the investors proved to be local. It became clear later that the councils could have raised the money themselves, without paying Gabrielli’s commission of £56,000.

From 1853 to 1854 the number of buildings in Melbourne doubled. Talented young British architects like John James Clark, Peter Kerr and William Wilkinson Wardell were drawn to Melbourne by the building boom, and created grand public buildings with an elegance of design equal to those in major European cities.

Melbourne Parliament House
March 1954: Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on the steps of Parliament House during their visit to Melbourne

In 1853 a Parliament House design competition failed to produce anything the Legislative Assembly deemed acceptable, so Colonial Engineer Charles Pasley produced the designs himself. He handed the responsibility to two architects in his office – Peter Kerr and John George Knight. Kerr considerably expanded and improved on Pasley’s basic designs. He produced more than 600 detailed sketches and designs, while his colleague Knight managed the actual site construction. Building commenced on Parliament House early in 1856 and was sufficiently completed for it to be officially opened on November 25th, 1856. Parliament House was home to the Commonwealth Parliament from 1901 to 1927.

Melbourne State Library

Governor La Trobe set aside £13,000 of Parliamentary funds to build a free public library in 1853. Joseph Reed, who went on to design the Town Hall and the Exhibition Buildings, won a competition offering £150 and £75 for the two best architectural designs submitted for a library building. Reed’s design was to be constructed in stages in order to meet the demands of an expected expansion in the library’s collections; it originally included a mermaid fountain in the forecourt, but this did not eventuate.

The original grand vision for the State Library complex.
Immigration Museum

Three customs buildings have occupied the current site of the Old Customs House (now the Immigration Museum), culminating in the existing grand structure. Archaeological digs have revealed the foundations of the earlier buildings, and a detailed restoration project has returned the Customs House to its former glory.

The first Customs House was a round white tent pitched on the banks of the Yarra River. A structure described as a ‘shabby, leaky, comfortless, weatherboard cabin’ was shipped in pieces from Sydney and erected here during the 1830s. As trade increased, a two-storey bluestone Customs House was completed in 1841. Designed by the Government architect in Sydney, it was Melbourne’s first stone building. However, by the 1850s critics called it one of the ‘ugliest and most inconvenient of all our public buildings’.

With the vast increase in revenue brought by the gold rush, the Victorian Government commissioned immigrant architect Peter Kerr to design a new Customs House. Although the building was occupied by Customs in 1858, a shortage of funds prevented its completion. The building was finally completed in 1876, to a modified design by Kerr and two other government architects. The Australian Customs Service vacated the building 1967 and it became home to the Federal Parliamentary Opposition. Following its refurbishment in 1997 and 1998, the Old Customs House re-opened as the Immigration Museum in November 1998.

Old Treasury Building Melbourne

The Old Treasury Building is regarded as one of the finest 19th century buildings in Australia. The building occupies a unique position in the history of Melbourne. Its origins lie in the 1850s Victorian gold rush, which brought great wealth to Melbourne, and its construction between 1858 and 1862 expressed the rapid development of the city.

The Old Treasury was designed by nineteen-year-old architect JJ Clark, and is a reflection of the vision that Melburnians of the 1850s gold rush era had for their future city. His design for the Treasury Building was in the Renaissance Revival style, derived from the ‘Italian palazzo’ form popular in the 19th century. The exterior of the building is finished in Bacchus Marsh sandstone, its bluestone foundations were mined from Footscray, and the floor above the barrel-vaulted basement is a metre thick.

The Old Treasury was built to store the colony’s gold, but also provided offices for the leaders of the young colony, including the Governor, the Premier (at the time called Chief Secretary), the Treasurer and the Auditor General. When the Treasurer and his officers moved to the State government offices at 2 Treasury Place in 1878, the building was renamed the ‘Old Treasury’.

Princess Theatre, Melbourne

The first theatre on this site opened in 1854 when entrepreneur Tom Moore constructed a large, barn-like structure called Astley’s Amphitheatre. The venue featured a central ring for equestrian entertainment and a stage at one end for dramatic performances. It was named in honour of the Astley Royal Amphitheatre, also known as Astley’s Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge, London. Controversial entertainer Lola Montez performed her seductive “spider dance” at the Amphitheatre in 1856.

Astley’s Amphitheatre was remodelled and renamed the Princess’s Theatre and Opera House in 1857. This original Princess Theatre was demolished in 1885 and the New Princess Theatre, as it was known, opened in 1886 with the Australian premier of The Mikado. At the time of opening the New Princess Theatre was greatly admired for its luxurious interior, electric lighting and opening roof for ventilation. This ingenious, roll back roof required an eight metre wide circular opening in the ceiling to slide open and two sliding sections of gabled roof to move apart.

The Princess Theatre is of architectural significance as one of the finest examples of an 1880s boom era theatre in Melbourne and one of the most important works of the architect William Pitt. Of the number of theatres he designed, it is one of only a few remaining

The theatre is considered an exemplar of the French Second Empire style, complete with multiple mansard domed roofs topped by cast iron crowns; the delightful leadlight windowed ‘winter garden’ foyer at the first floor was added in c1901 and the auditorium was rebuilt in 1922 in the ‘Adam’ style by theatre specialist Henry White. Facing an uncertain future in the 1980s, it was extensively restored in 1989 by Allom Lovell & Associates, and is now the Flagship of Melbourne’s ‘theatreland’. The Princess backs onto the rear of the former Palace Theatre, giving rise to the urban rumour that chorus girls would appear in one show, then run across the back lane to appear in another!

In 1888 Federici, a singer playing Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, collapsed and died under the stage. Legend says his ghost still haunts the theatre.

Some of Melbourne’s grand buildings were never fully completed because of an economic downturn in the 1860s. Parliament House never received its dome, and the classical Greek temple-style facade for Customs House was never completed.

Melbourne Town Hall

Construction of the existing Melbourne Town Hall began in 1867 on the site of the first Town Hall at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets. Architects Reed and Barnes won a competition for the design of the new Town Hall, and the firm was responsible for the portico which was added to the Swanston Street facade in 1887. An Administration Building was constructed to the north of the town hall in Swanston Street in 1908, and various alterations were made after a fire in 1925.

Reserved by the government in 1837, the site at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets was issued as a Crown Grant to the Corporation of Melbourne in June 1849 as a site for a town hall. Designed by the City Surveyor, James Blackburn, the first Town Hall was subsequently completed c1854. By the early 1860s it was already of insufficient size and the foundation stone of its successor was laid by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1867.

Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne Town Hall before the portico was added in 1888 and the auditorium enlarged in 1928.

The new Town Hall included a public hall, administrative offices, Lord Mayor’s rooms and council chambers. Built in a French Renaissance style with slate mansard roofs, this freestone building consists of a rusticated bluestone plinth, a two storey section of giant order Corinthian columns and pilasters, an attic storey and a corner clock tower. The main Swanston Street facade is divided into five parts, with a central and two end pavilions. The central portico, added to this facade some twenty years after the initial construction to provide a grand entrance and balcony, is of a pedimented, temple form, with materials and details used to match the existing building.

A fire in 1925 effected the first changes made to the Town Hall building. The main hall, together with the organ, was destroyed and as a result a new hall, designed by Stephenson and Meldrum, was built.

Melbourne Town Hall – Main Hall and Grand Organ

As Melbourne’s main concert venue the main hall saw the debut of Nellie Melba in 1884. As venue for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performances, it showcased many famous visiting musicians. The Beatles were given a civic reception in 1964 and rock music groups appeared regularly throughout the 1960s, although the exuberance of the fans sometimes caused consternation to the council.

In 1954, people were enraptured by Queen Elizabeth’s visit. They brought crates into Melbourne’s CBD to stand on, in the hope of a glimpse of Her Majesty. Hawkers sold cardboard periscopes and flags.

Melbourne City Council bought a new silver tea service for the monarch. But when Her Majesty arrived at Town Hall, she declared she’d had tea earlier at Parliament House, and instead requested an orange juice. She never used the tea set,

Melbourne Town Hall – Sliver tea service for Queen Elizabeth II
Melbourne Town Hall

During the 1954 visit, the Queen presented the Melbourne Lord Mayor with a book about Burke and Wills that had been owned by Queen Victoria.

Burke and Wills Statue, City Square, corner of Collins & Swanston Streets
Designed by Charles Summers and costing £14,000, it was unveiled on 21 April 1865, four years after the explorers returned to the Dig Tree.
Melbourne Town Hall – Flags of countries of sister cities – Japan (Osaka), China (Tianjin), Greece (Thessaloniki), United States (Boston, Massachusetts), Russia (Saint Petersburg), Italy (Milan)

One of the most impressive rooms inside Melbourne Town Hall is the Council Chamber, where the Council still meets. The room showcases ornate ceilings, intricately carved wood panelling and light filled stain glass windows. Overall, the room is categorized as combination of Italian and English Renaissance style.

Melbourne Town Hall – Council Chamber
Melbourne Town Hall – Council Chamber

Decision: Tour the other historic buildings on the next visit to Melbourne!

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