Melbourne’s Living History

The young city juxtaposes vibrant Aboriginal culture with its fascinating industrial history By Tahnee Hopman

By Echelon.

Published on July 24, 2015 with No Comments


Not long after her resounding success in La Traviata (Paris, c. 1887), Helen Porter Mitchell decided that she felt most at home in the world’s greatest opera houses, but she never forgot her first home. She called herself Nellie Melba, choosing to always remember and love the city in which she was born: Melbourne. Nearly 130 years later, Dame Nellie Melba is hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of the late Victorian era.

It is common knowledge now that another famous figure – Batman – literally called Melbourne his own.Some DC Comics aficionados will be surprised to learn that the original Batman was a far cry from Christian Bale’s somewhat dark, brooding and formidable Batman, but a mild-mannered Australian grazier, entrepreneur and explorer, and Melbourne’s founding father. ‘Batmania’ as it was then known, was established when John Batman founded a small settlement on the banks of the Yarra River – noting in his journal on 8 June 1835 that “this will be the place for a village.”

melbourneNot all present-day visitors can be called on to acknowledge urban Melbourne’s beginnings as ‘real’ history, let alone acknowledge history as one of its many attractions.

A friendly guide at the city’s visitor centre was told in no uncertain terms by a decidedly British old lady, that “No, I will not be visiting any museums. You see, the UK is the place for that sort of thing. The Aborigines seem to have been fascinating, of course, but you can hardly call the 100-something years since Melbourne became Melbourne, real history.”

Melbournians beg to differ. After several decades of widely acknowledged cruelty and injustice meted to the Aborigines, their centuries-old culture is, at long last, celebrated and valued. Nearly 230 years since the Europeans invaded Australia, descendants of the Stolen Generations still face more than their fair share of challenges. Yet, a deep sense of regret of all transgressions, along with promises to make amends, has brought about positive change.

Safe to say, much has changed in Nellie Melba’s and John Batman’s city since the 19th century, but an urban walkabout in present-day Melbourne holds distinct reminders of its past – all beautifully preserved and restored where need be, but also merging comfortably with all that is cosmopolitan. In 1837, Robert Hoddle put forward his design for Melbourne’s city grid: a plan for the city that would cover Flinders Street to Queen Victoria Market and, in the other direction, Spencer Street to Spring Street.

The Hoddle Grid as it is now known has proven to be far-sighted and spans Melbourne’s Central Business District. High-rise buildings now form a good part of Melbourne’s skyline, but fail to completely detract from the sight of their many neighbouring heritage sites. The Eureka Tower — the Southern Hemisphere’s highest viewing platform — dominates the Southbank precinct (fun fact: the tower is named after the Eureka Stockade rebellion during the Victorian Gold Rush of 1854, and the glass on its top ten floors is gold-plated with a single red stripe in remembrance of the rebellion and violence that ensued).

One of the views from the Eureka Skydeck is Fitzroy Gardens, home to James Cook’s cottage – a charming two-storey building that far predates the Victorian Gold Rush and is Melbourne’s oldest building. The discoverer of Australia is said to have stayed in this cottage when he visited his parents in Great Ayrton (Yorkshire, England). In 1933, its last owner, a Mrs. Dixon, put the cottage up for sale, understanding its value as the only concrete historical link to Captain Cook’s origins. Many wealthy Americans made generous offers for the cottage; she refused them all in a display of traditional British disdain for that nation. She was, however, persuaded by the offer of prominent Melbournian Russell Grimwade to present it as a gift to the Victorian people since Australia was, after all, “still in the Empire”. Brick by brick, the cottage was moved from Great Ayrton to Melbourne, shipped in 253 crates complete with an ivy cutting that had grown on the original building. Today, the cottage is still covered in ivy.

melbourne8In a different direction and just as visible from Eureka’s 88th floor are the 92 glass panes that form Melbourne’s so-called Magic Cone – the largest glass structure of its type in the world – the iconic 490-tonne, 20-storey dome that covers the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre. While the dome itself is relatively new, what it encompasses is yet another of Melbourne’s well-preserved monuments, the Coop’s Shot Tower.

Once Melbourne’s tallest building, the shot tower was by no means a monument. At the height of its success in the 1890s, the Coop family had perfected the manufacture of shot – lead projectiles for firearms – into a lucrative art form, producing six tonnes a week. And this was not their only product. The Coops made all manner of lead products, from old-fashioned weights to nails and solder; they even designed and manufactured the stair grips for Melbourne’s trams and the lead pipe network that encased the city’s first electricity system.

More than five decades have passed since scientists discovered the toxicity of the arsenic in lead products, plastic became easier and cheaper to manufacture, and the Coops went out of business. Yet, standing beneath the tower and capturing the now-famous picture of the shot tower beneath the Magic Cone – reportedly one of the mostinstagrammed pictures of Melbourne – watching the shoppers doing their rounds and the commuters hurrying to catch the next train at the hub of the underground railway, it is easy to appreciate the city’s penchant for living cheek-by-jowl with its history.

Opposite the tower is the Melbourne Central Fob Watch, which once had a twelve-and-a-half metre, two-tonne chain that was removed during the shopping centre’s refurbishment. Every hour, on the hour, a marionette display drops down from the bottom of the watch with Australian galahs, cockatoos and two minstrels performing Waltzing Matilda under the watchful gaze of some koalas. Standing between the tower and clock, it is easy to imagine one of the Coops or their workers whistling the quaint old tune while loading pig iron into a bucket on the second floor and climbing the 300-odd stairs to the top of the tower to begin the painstaking process of producing some 25 million shot pellets every hour.

An end-to-end, roughly 2.3km walk through the grid passing Exhibition, Russell, Swanston, Elizabeth, Queen, William and King Streets affords more glimpses of the close terms on which the Melbournians live with their history. Promenading – which is how they referred to strolling in the old days – down the streets of the grid, it isn’t difficult to imagine a time when wearing a hatpin signified not only being able to afford one, but also, apparently, the ability to wield it in defence when necessary. It is easy to picture old Melbournians making way for the carriages that passed by, discussing the latest exploits of young Ned Kelly or, some years later, Lady Hopetoun opening her tea room to elegant ladies of the day. Incidentally, the tea room still stands and has lost none of its oldworld charm.

australia-melbourne-captain-cooks-cottageThe enticing Hopetoun storefront itself is nestled on what is now widely recognised as Melbourne’s premier street. The mile-long street is an interesting affirmation of all that has ever been said of Melbourne and its status as Australia’s cultural hub. Its ‘Paris (eastern) end’, close to the Parliament Building and the Old Treasury Building, is so-called for the remnants of its 19th century architecture, products of the city’s growth from a fledgling settlement into a modern commercial and financial centre. The ‘financial end’ is home to some imposing facades: the Gothic architecture of Melbourne’s ‘cathedrals of commerce’. These include William Pitt’s Venetian Gothic-style Old Stock Exchange (1888), William Wardell’s Gothic Bank (1883), which features some of Melbourne’s finest interiors, and A.C. Goode House designed by Wright, Reed & Beaver (1891). Almost a stone’s throw away lie the 21st century’s equivalents of concrete and glass and some of Melbourne’s tallest buildings. The Rialto Towers, 101 Collins Street, 120 Collins Street and the ANZ World Headquarters all keep company with equally big names in fashion: Prada, Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, Dior, Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Gucci, Hermès, Montblanc and Christian Louboutin, to name a few. Further down the street is one of Melbourne’s best-loved spectators, the statue of Larry La Trobe, who never fails to grab the attention of passers-by. Larry has no family connection to Charles La Trobe, Victoria’s first Lieutenant-Governor. In fact, this well-known figure of a somewhat comical, cute dingo-type dog is meant, according to its creator Pamela Irving, to generate a sense of quintessential Australian larrikinism in the viewer. (Larrikin: an Australian-English term meaning ‘a mischievous young person, an uncultivated, rowdy but goodhearted person’, or ‘a person who acts with apparent disregard for social or political conventions’ – Oxford Modern Australian Dictionary)

Australians may good-naturedly call themselves a bunch of larrikins, but this fun-loving people never fails to remember the sacrifices its people have made, one of the most prominent remembrance days being Anzac Day. Each autumn – the 25th of April to be exact – the country remembers the fateful morning in 1915 when the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in a bid to knock Turkey out of the war. The campaign became a stalemate and lasted eight months, at the end of which over 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed.This year marked Anzac Day’s 100th Anniversary, and 25 April saw candlelight vigils, prayer services and parades throughout Australia. More than 250,000 individually woven poppies donated from around the world blanketed the steps of Melbourne’s Federation Square that day, reminiscent of the poppies that grow in Flanders fields, described in John McCrae’s 1915 poem.

melbourne6Exploring Melbourne and delving into its history takes considerably longer than the British tourist at the Visitor Centre could imagine. It is a city that juxtaposes and embraces the rich, vibrant culture of the Aborigines and the fascinating political and industrial history and intricate stone edifices of the 19th century. And no doubt some fascinating stories, told and untold, lie between such contrasts. Promenading through the city and losing oneself in Melbourne’s museums, libraries and churches will certainly prove travel writers correct in hailing Melbourne as Australia’s cultural centre, but very few of the resultant narratives will succeed in doing more than scratch the surface.



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