Thursday, July 4, 2013

The View From Flagstaff Hill


Flagstaff Gardens is one of the few green spaces left in the Melbourne CBD. At the edge of the city's legal precinct, and bounded on all sides by major roads, it forms a small natural oasis and provides a pleasant lunching spot for hordes of office workers each day.



The gardens slope quite steeply to a hill in the northern third of the park, which has a few benches (always full in good weather), a stone memorial and a flag pole. The flagpole is significant, as it serves as a tangible link to an earlier time, when the gardens had a different name and served a quite different function in the life of the city.

When Melbourne was founded, the original township was a small cluster of wooden buildings, largely attached to the riverbank. One of the most urgent requirements for the new city was a cemetery. Melbourne's first was to be located on a quiet spot outside of the city itself, a short distance from the fledgling community. The site chosen was a small hill on vacant land to the north west, which was given the unimaginative name 'Burial Hill.' The first burial took place in the new cemetery in 1836:




But Melbourne's rapid expansion meant that Burial Hill was soon enveloped by new housing and commerical development, and the site was then thought to be inappropriately chosen. From 1837, a new burial site further east was used, where the Queen Victoria Markets now stands, which then gave way to the attractive Melbourne General Cemetery which is still in place in Carlton. 

The handful of pioneers that had been interred on Burial Hill were initially left where they were, with the plots surrounded by a wooden picket fence and marked by two wattle trees. But in 1871 it was decided to give them a more suitable home and the bodies were moved to Fawkner Cemetery. A stone monolith now marks the spot where these pioneering Melbournians had once been buried.


The Burial Hill memorial. The inscription reads: 'Erected in 1871,
to the memory of, some of the earliest of the pioneers of
this colony, whose remains were interred, near this spot.'

Now that the hill was no longer to be used as a cemetery, it wasn't long before the Government found another use for it.

As a small town in a largely undeveloped continent, Melbourne was very reliant on merchant shipping in its early years. Cargo ships bought goods, loved ones and news from the outside world and so were eagerly anticipated. It was decided therefore to set up a signal station, to alert the town as to the arrival of new ships as they sailed into the bay. As the highest point within easy distance of the city, Burial Hill was a logical choice to serve this function.

In 1840, the Government erected a large flagpole and signal station on the hilltop. There was a clear line of sight from the hill down into the bay at the time, and different signals were hoisted to indicate to the city who and what had arrived. In 1841 a cannon was added and a shot was then fired when new ships sailed into port. Due to the size of the flagpole - visible from anywhere in Melbourne - the hill was given a new name; Flagstaff Hill.


A sketch of the signal station on Flagstaff hill from the 1840's.



The view from Flagstaff Hill, circa 1850.

Flagstaff Hill was also a popular local nature spot. The park was well known not just for its views, but also for it lush carpet of grass. On weekends and sunny days, it was crowded with Melbournians taking a stroll, or stretched out on the lawns having a picnic, while regimental bands played on a rotunda. A large metal ball was dropped from the flagpole viewing platform each day at noon, to mark the time.

On 1 July 1851, Victoria was formally made an independent colony, separate from New South Wales. This was the culmination of a long lobbying campaign from Victoria's community leaders and was the cause for much celebration in Melbourne. The city's rejoicing found focus around Flagstaff Hill, where the Independence Proclamation was read in public for the first time, by the Lord Mayor. The celebration lasted several days.




The arrival of the telegraph in Australia ended the usefulness of Flagstaff Hill as a signal station, and its operations were curtailed in 1857. Although the signal flags had, by this time, become such a part of the city's life that funds were raised to keep the signal station operating privately. But by the time enough money had been secured, the Government had already removed the flagpole and decommissioned the site.

In the 1850's, part of Flagstaff Hill had been quarried, the gravel that was extracted being used on Melbourne's streets. With these diggings leaving a large crater in one section of the park, and the removal of the signal station ending the hill's primary function, Flagstaff Hill experienced a period of neglect. In 1862, residents of the surrounding suburbs complained about the park's shabby condition and petitioned the State Government for restoration works.This task was assigned to Clement Hodgkinson, Deputy Surveyor General, who would also oversee the design of the Treasury and Exhibition Gardens.

Hodgkinson had the quarry landfilled and then oversaw a systematic program of plantings, that restored the park to something akin to its former appearance.


The view from Flagstaff Hill, 1866. The building in the middle of
the picture still stands on the same spot today and is one of
Melbourne's oldest buildings.

The park was formally renamed Flagstaff Gardens and was preserved by an act of Parliament in 1873. A memorial plaque on the hilltop gives very concise history of the spot.




While Melbourne has grown up around Flagstaff Gardens, the park has remained essentially unchaged since this time. Although one thing has changed; you can no longer see the bay from the hilltop:



The view from Flagstaff Hill; today.


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