Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Bourke Street Honey Locust Tree

Standing on the corner of King and Bourke St in the CBD, dwarfed by the monolithic tower behind it, is a living piece of Melbourne's history. A Honey Locust tree that has been growing in the same spot for about 160 years. It is such a fixture in the city that the tower block it stands in front of was designed around it.

The Heritage listed Honey Locust; 607 Bourke Street

It is the only specimen of the Honey Locust, a common tree across south east Asia, in Victoria

But while it is known that the tree has been growing in this same spot since shortly after the city was founded, its specific history is elusive. Exactly how it got to be where it is, who planted it and when, is something of a mystery.

The corner where the tree now stands has an interesting history itself.

The first building on the site was erected in 1840. Made of wood, it served primarily as the office for the Crown Lands Department, while also being used occasionally as a courthouse and immigration office.

In 1841, the Lands Office was moved and the building reassigned to serve as Melbourne's first Supreme Court. British born Judge John Walpole Willis was sent to Melbourne from Sydney to hear the first cases. The judge's chambers were in a small brick building at the rear of the court.

Judge John Willis

Son of the physician who had treated King George III for mental illness, Judge Willis was a short tempered, eccentric man. He refused to hear any case where the participants sported facial hair, and would often threaten the unsuspecting beard-wearer with a contempt of court charge. His sentences were nortoriously severe. Unpopular with the local press, Judge Willis had several petitions filed against him, citing him as unfit to hold office, and was recalled to England in 1843.

The Supreme Court was moved shortly thereafter, to a more permanent building on Russell Street. The former courthouse was again used by a variety of government offices subsequent.

In 1850, the office of the Colonial Storekeeper took over the property. The Storekeeper was an important department in Melbourne at the time, as it was charged with supplying all other Government agencies with their requirements. Rations, tools, uniforms, weapons and a thousand other items were all sourced by the Storekeepers.

In 1857, the busy office had their run down wooden shack replaced with a sturdy, bluestone building:

This garden outside the Storekeeper's office probably included the Honey Locust tree. Although who originally planted the garden, and when, is unknown. But it is thought that the seeds for the tree were probably brought to Melbourne by Chinese workers, who started arriving in large numbers after the discovery of gold in 1851.

One of them may have planted the tree outside the Government offices on the site, after transacting some business there, or it may have been planted by a civil servant assigned to one of the Government agencies based there, to add an exotic touch to the garden. Author Annear, in her book about Melbourne's urban development, concluded that the Honey Locust was 'surely a remnant' of this time.

An early map of Melbourne, circa 1860, showing the
Colonial Store and Public Works office on the corner.

An enlarged version of the above map.

After the bluestone buildings were constructed, subsequent Governments continued to use them for a variety of purposes. The Colonial Store was replaced by the Industrial \and Reformatory Schools Department, then the Labour Bureau, then the State Relief Committee, all of them working from the same buildings erected in 1857.

The old Colonial Store in the 1960s.

In 1970, the state Public Works Department ordered the buildings demolished, to make way for a larger, modern building that could house more Government offices. Due to the age of the buildings, and their connection to early Melbourne's history, the National Trust declared them an important site worthy of preservation. But in 1970, the National Trust was a toothless organisation, without any legislation to support their determinations. The Government of the day was free to ignore its advice, which it did.

Melbourne University architecture students picketed the site, and a private citizen's group attempted to get a court injunction, but the Government proceeded with their plan. The demolition took only one week. Site foreman Mark Zita, of Whelan's Wreckers, said it was the oldest building he had seen in Melbourne, and 'sound enough to last another hundred years.'

The Government's haste in removing the old bluestone structures seems odd in hindsight, as the leveled land would then sit vacant for more than fifteen years. Finally, in 1987, a developer was found for the land and a new project commenced. The State Government had made one small concession to the calls for preservation of the site; they had ordered that the Honey Locust Tree be preserved:

Note the company involved.

The Honey Locust now has an entry on the National Trust's Register of Significant Trees, which will hopefully afford it better protection than the building it used to stand in front of received.

In the small garden where the Honey Locust stands, a little clump of greenery surrounded by a high metal fence, a small historical plaque has been erected. It commemorates only the State Relief office that used to stand on the site. Largely hidden by shrubbery, it seems an inadequate marker for a site with such a rich history.


  1. Jimmy, I'm gonna go have a look at this next time I'm in town. I've walked past that corner countless times and had no idea.

    Also, your map has the cemetery which eventually became the Queen Vic Market! And a flag staff where Flagstaff Gardens are!

  2. Me too, regarding the tree. You'd never think twice to look at it.

    And yeah, I really like an old map. Flagstaff Hill has an interesting history, so I'll be posting about that soon. Watch this space...