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.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to research and write these articles. Truly fascinating!

  2. I think the collins st references in 1841 are reversed? Treasury is in the east and Batman Hill in the west.

    Also the view down Bourke st looking east is actually from the east (spring st) looking west towards spencer st. Tho Old White Hart hotel in the foreground left is now part of the Windsor hotel.