Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Oldest Pictures of Melbourne

Melbourne was settled 180 years ago, but has changed enormously in this compressed space of time.

The city developed rapidly, powered by the discovery of gold in 1851, and had already remade itself several times by the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, the natural environment the of city has been changed enormously, and once standout features like Batman's Hill, the Yarra Falls and the Southbank swamps have now disappeared into history.

Fortunately, there are still paintings, sketches and even photos that capture our city in its formative years. The following is a short selection of these snapshots



Batman's house, on Batman's hill.

John Fawkner's house; both sketches by WFE Liardet.

In some ways, the founding of Melbourne is a tale of two men; John Batman and John Fawkner. And arguments continue to this day, as to who played the greater part in creating our city. Batman came to the area first, early in 1835, but after arranging a dubious 'purchase' of land from the local Indigenous population, he returned to his native Tasmania to organise a larger group of colonists. 

Meanwhile, Fawkner got wind of Batman's plan and, sensing a grand business opportunity, arrived in the area while his rival was absent. While not disputing Batman's claims, Fawkner built the first house and shop alongside the Yarra, and his influence was well established by the time Batman returned, later in 1835.

There was a tense standoff between the two men, and they remained lifelong rivals, but in the end they found a way to live alongside one another.

The above sketches show each of their houses; Batman's on a prime spot on a small hill at the eastern end of the settlement (Batman's Hill, now the site of Southern Cross railway station); Fawkner's a rather more rustic affair on the river's edge. The artist, William Liardet, was a British merchant seaman who had made his way to Sydney, and who had established a passenger service by sea, running between Melbourne and Sydney.


After two years of operating as an unauthorised outpost, by 1837 the colony in Melbourne had gained official recognition from the British Government. A Governor was installed, troops garrisoned and a surveyor, Robert Hoddle, sent to bring order to the settlement's development.

Hoddle would do so by applying his famous 'grid' to the town's layout; orderly streets running either parallel, or perpendicular, to each other, a feature of the city to this day. The effect of Hoddle's work can be clearly seen in the sketch above.

1838 - 1840

View from the South Bank of the Yarra, 1838.

Looking west across the settlement towards Batman's Hill, 1838.

Looking west from Batman's Hill, 1838.

The city from the south bank, 1840. Note the Yarra Falls, centre of image.

But Robert Hoddle was not the first Crown surveyor assigned to Melbourne. His predecessor was Robert Russell, a London born architect whose curiosity had drawn him to Sydney in 1833. He was assigned to Melbourne in 1836 and did preliminary surveying work, which Hoddle expanded on when he was appointed Surveyor General the following year.

Russell then returned to Sydney for a time, before settling in Melbourne in 1838, now as the Clerk of Public Works. He left the public service shortly afterward and returned to private practice as an architect, filling his spare time with his passion for watercolour painting, which provides a vivid snapshot of early Melbourne.


Looking north from the south bank, 1841. Picture by J.Adamson.

The south bank of the Yarra was prone to flooding, and the swampy ground there meant that the city developed, for the most part, to the north. The largely vacant land behind the southern banks was used by squatters, people with limited means who lived in tents, and by other inhabitants of the city for recreation and games. 

Looking up Collins Street, from east to west, 1841. Picture by W.Knight
Laid out by Hoddle as Melbourne's main thoroughfare, Collins Street ran from a small hill to the west (approximately where the former Treasury Building is now) to Batman's more pronounced hill in the east. The local Indigenous population still lived alongside the European settlers in 1841, as captured by W.Knight in his painting above, and would continue to do so until the post Gold Rush population explosion in the 1850's.


The discovery of gold in rural Victoria in 1851 bought a flood of fortune hunters to Melbourne, which the nascent city was entirely unequipped to deal with. The odd tent on the south bank of the Yarra would explode into a full blown shanty town - 'Canvas Town' - where the newly arrived, or down on their luck, lived in a ramshackle community numbering in the tens of thousands. The city proper, glimpsed across the river in the painting above, appears positively prosperous in comparison.



Spring Street, 1853.

Bourke Street, 1853.

Corner of Bourke and Spring, 1853. All photos by Walter Woodbury

Walter Woodbury was a British engineer and amateur photographer, who moved to Melbourne in the Gold Rush year of 1851. Working initially for the Water Department, Woodbury began developing his own photographic techniques, which he used to take the first photographs of the city of Melbourne. 

Early panorama of Melbourne, 1853.

A remarkable series of 13 images, several of which were captured from the top of a factory chimney, give us a first hand look at this era. Woodbury would turn to photography full time and move to Asia, where he also captured some of the first photographs taken in Indonesia and India.

1857 - 1858

The bustling Yarra captured in 1857.

Another view down Bourke Street, looking east, 1858.
The pioneering work of Walter Woodbury would soon give way to a plethora of photographers, capturing every aspect of life in Melbourne. This photographic record is one of the most useful tools we have, as we chart the rise and expansion of our city, and is a subject that we will return to.

The above gives two more examples of photographs, from the earliest years of the medium.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Melbourne's Pink Lake

Sitting directly below the Westgate Bridge, Westgate Park is a pleasant stretch of undulating grassland wedged between Port Melbourne and Fisherman's Bend, a short walk form the city.

The site has an interesting history.

In the 1930s it was owned by the Federal Government, and was home to the Department of Aircraft Production. The extensive facilities were used to design and build new aircraft designs, which were then tested on the site's own runway.

An aerial photo of the Westgate runway.

But the development of jet aircraft after World War II meant the runway became inadequate, and the department was moved to a larger property near Lara.

The vacant site was then used for a variety of public and private activities, including; motor racing, sand mining and waste disposal. The nature of these activities had a negative impact on the land, which became environmentally degraded.

The park under construction.
In the 1980s, the State Government decided to clean up the site, and set aside 54 hectares as a public park. It was opened in 1984, and dedicated as part of Victoria's 150th anniversary celebrations.

And the park is a welcome addition to a largely industrial part of the city. It sports a number of gentle walks, is home to a variety of bird life and even has a pedestrian punt, that crosses the Yarra on the weekends.

It also has three man made lakes, one of which turns bright pink in the summer time.

The striking colour is caused by a simple, but still quite rare, chemical reaction.

This is the park's salt water lake (the other major one is filled with fresh water) and the higher temperatures in summer cause some of the lake's water to evaporate, increasing the salt concentration. This then reacts with a single cell alga that exists in the lake, which produces the red pigment.

This interaction is only found in a small number of lakes around the world.



Friday, January 2, 2015

Apollo Bay: Then and Now

Apollo Bay is not part of Melbourne, but we love going there.

According to a recent article in The Age the sleepy coastal town's population swells from the usual 1000 residents, to more than 15 000 in December and January, as Melbournians flee the city for their summer break. For these two months it is the largest town in the state's south west.

Apollo Bay has been a local tourist destination for a long time, popular since at least the end of the Second World War. But the towns origins are more modest.

The first European settlers in the area were whalers and sealers, arriving in the early 19th century. One of these, Captain Loutit, named the bay after his own ship, the Apollo. By the 1850s, the dense forest that surrounded the bay had attracted another form of commerce, and sawmilling quickly became the areas main industry.

A post office was erected in 1873, and a school in 1880. Nearly all access to the bay was via the sea, until a coastal track was completed in 1927.

Word of Apollo Bay's natural beauty had spread to Melbourne by this time and, with the road through, holiday makers began arriving in the 1930s. With an affluent middle class established in the wake of World War II, the Bays popularity increased steadily, to its present day peak.

The following is a brief pictorial history, of one of favourite destinations...

A sketch of the bay from 1858, by C.Maplestone.

A sketch from above the bay, 1870s. Artist unknown.

A makeshift sawmill tram, 1870s.

Looking back towards the fledgling town, circa 1900.

A view of the town's enormous jetty, from 1908. The jetty was used to allow
large cargo ships to dock and collect saw logs. It fell into disuse and disrepair
after the logging trade ended, and was demolished in the 1950s.

Circa 1925.

The Great Ocean Road opened up the area from the late 1920s

A tourism poster from 1947.

Views of the town, and beach, from the 1940s, as the area became popular.

Scenes from the present day.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Headlines

It's New years Day, 2015.

My morning paper has an image on it from the celebrations in the city last night, much as it does every year. A quick glance around the web reveals many other media outlets, local and overseas, have followed suit.

A snap of the fireworks, or people watching the fireworks, has almost become a New Years Day news tradition.

But what about earlier years? A look back at newspapers from earlier times can tell us a lot about what was happening on New Years Day, back in the day.

The following are three front pages from Melbourne's now defunct The Argus newspaper, three decades apart,


The 1950s are often viewed as a staid decade, and this front page seems to capture some of that mood. About three quarters of it is taken up with Australia's Davis Cup tennis win over the United States, driven by two precocious 19 year old's destined to become stars of the game; Ken Rosewall (the 'Giant Killer' of the headline)  and Lew Hoad.

New Years Day celebrations are almost entirely absent from the cover, save for the plain sentence right at the top of the page; 'A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL OUR READERS.'

The next largest story does have a New Years theme though, with the announcement of the Queens Honour's List. Eight Australians were knighted, which is about a decades supply in contemporary times, and the Prime Minister's wife (referred to as Mrs R.G.Menzies, rather than by her own christian name) was made a Dame.

In other news, Victoria's bookies indicated that they would start using an armoured car service to collect their take at the end of each race day. Previously, many had simply left their cash in a strong box in the city, but one of these had been cracked and emptied by thieves the previous week, with many thousands of pounds lost.

The Argus, December 29, 1953

Also worth noting is the ad (bottom right) for Gilbey's Gin, which includes a reference to a unit of measure, exotically named the 'Nobbler':

A 'nobbler' was a local term, used exclusively to describe a quantity of gin. It was effectively a nip, and 12 nobblers made up one quart. I was not able to locate the origin of the term, but a different local use for 'nobbler' at the time was to describe a person who illegally fixed horse races, usually by drugging a horse. So, a possible explanation could be that it drew a comparison between a drugged horse, and someone who had knocked back a few too many nips.


Going back ten years, 1944 finds a different world with the last full year of World War II about to start. No surprise then, that the front page of the paper is almost entirely taken up with the latest from the war's far flung theatres; the Red Army's dramatic advance towards the Polish border, and a landing of American Marines in New Guinea. Both pointers towards the Allies eventual victory. On a more sinister note, the Argus' correspondent in London comments on the growing size and might of the Red Army, useful for the Allies at this time, considerably less so when the Russians decided not to retreat again at war's end.

The only non-war related story is at bottom left, and again makes mention of the Honours List (although this time, the King's Honours List). Local boy Richard (later Baron) Casey had been made a Companion of Honour (CH), for his works in the civil service, also recognised when he was appointed Commonwealth Governor of Bengal the previous year. A reminder that this was still three years before India achieved independence.

To the right of the cover is an advertising panel, largely given over to promoting 'Vaxos No. 2 Oral Medicine'. Vaxos is described as a tonic, used to cure the bacteria that cause lumbago, neuritis and sciatica... none of which are caused by bacterial infection. Below this is a small ad for a play:

Peter Cheyney was a former British policemen who had found success writing pulpy crime fiction novels. This Man is Dangeous was his first book and featured his most famous creation, Private Investigator Lemmy Caution.  A number of Cheyney's novels were turned into plays and, later, films, perhaps most famously Alphaville, very loosely adapted by Jean-Luc Goddard,


Another ten year step back finds not only a different world, but a different newspaper. With the dense, narrowly columned sheet depicted above far removed from the big headlines and half page pictures of the 50s. Even the concept of 'news' is different, with what we might think of as important -local and international events, politics, sports - relegated to one column, on the far right. The other 6/7 of the page is given over to something more like what we would later know as classified ads; with births, deaths, marriages, even a lost and found section:

It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a world where you could report a lost bag or pencil to the local paper, with any expectation of its return.

Also of interest is a small section listing 'Airway Services', which contains only two entries, both flights to Tasmania:

'Safety assured by 3 engines and 2 pilots' Hart Aircraft Services proclaimed, in a statement you think may have come back to haunt them.

Of the New Year there is nothing, save for one small private notice, at the centre top:

Placed by Frederick Sidney Jermaine-Lulham, a local dentist and leading Freemason, the message has an unfamiliar presentation, but content that would not look out of place on facebook today. 

And all at 9 pence a line.