Category Archives: Melbourne history

‘The Place for a Village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne’ by Gary Presland

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2009, 233p plus appendices

“This will be the place for a village!” John Batman wrote in his journal after he sailed up the Yarra River in June 1835 (whenever he wrote it – you never know with John Batman). But what was it that made him decided that THIS would be the place, instead of THAT? Gary Presland argues that it was the geology of Melbourne, and its effect on river courses and soil quality that led him to that decision.  In this book Presland adopts the rather old-fashioned practice of natural history, an omnibus 19th century term that encompassed geology, meteorology, botany and zoology, to recapture the lost landscapes of Melbourne.  Just as the adage goes about everything old becoming new again, natural history closely approximates environmental history, a ‘big’ history,  and one which is prominent at the moment.

By looking for a “lost landscape” Presland goes back even further than the 40,000+ years of indigenous activity in Melbourne.  As books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth make clear, indigenous people both responded to but also manipulated the environment so that early settlers did not see a virgin landscape, even though they may have perceived it that way at the time.  Both indigenous people and the white settlers who supplanted them have had to operate within features that were laid down millions of years ago through the geological formations that have shaped Melbourne’s topography.  But, in order to draw in other features like climate, weather, flora and fauna, he has selected 1800 as his nominal Year Zero, as he integrates  written and painted historical information and remnant vegetation data to reconstruct Melbourne’s lost landscape. By choosing a date close to European arrival (1802 for the Port Phillip bay area), he captures the conditions that both indigenous and European people had to contend with.

This book is essentially a reconstruction. The shape and nature of the original landscape of Melbourne, as well as the wide range of natural resources they contained, were a fundamental part of the Aboriginal world. They formed not only the physical context where people lived, but also supplied the very means by which Aboriginal society flourished. The arrival of Europeans placed different demands on those resources but also imposed different influences. The same nature that had sustained a rich Aboriginal society, determined the location of European settlement, even if later it needed to be massively altered to better accommodate the ongoing demands of that settlement. p.14,  15

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, which is by far the longest, reconstructs Melbourne’s natural history in five chapters: Ch 1: The Shape of Melbourne’s Landscapes, Ch,2: The nature of Melbourne’s climate; Ch. 3 Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands; Ch.4 Pre-European vegetation of Melbourne; Ch. 5 Pre-European Animal Life of Melbourne.

Chapter One contains two geological maps of Melbourne, and I found myself turning to them often throughout the book. Presland gives a thorough, if somewhat technical, account of the geological formation of Melbourne over millions of years. He then moves across Melbourne’s landscape by geological formation, but also roughly from east to west: The Nillumbik terrain, the older volcanics, the Brighton coastal plain, the lava plain and the areas of Quaternary deposit.  You do need to know your Melbourne suburbs for this chapter to make sense.

Chapter Two looks particularly at rainfall patterns across Melbourne and the disparity between the east and west, factors which of course have implications for vegetation and fauna distributions. The chapter also contains historical information about the collection of weather data.

Chapter Three, Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands was my favourite chapter in the book.  Again, Presland moves from east to west in his analysis, and again assumes a degree of familiarity with Melbourne, but I found it fascinating to read of streams and waterways (some even without names) that have either dried out or been subsumed completely under drains and roadways.  It was this chapter that made me feel closest to a “lost” landscape- as if it was still here, but invisible.

Chapters Four and Five that deal with vegetation and animal life I found less engaging. They tended to read like a long list. Chapter Four follows the geological features of Chapter one, while Chapter Five is divided into categories like mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes etc.

In Part Two of the book, Presland calls “The Influence of Nature on Culture”. For me, this was the hub of the book, and I was a little disappointed that it was only thirty-one pages in length. He starts this section by talking about why and how he came to undertake this book. He then moves on to consider the Aboriginal connection to the Port Phillip area, then returns to the question I asked at the start – Why THIS place for a village? He highlights the significance of the Falls, and European efforts in shaping the Yarra. He then moves to briefly consider future development.  The book closes with a methodology chapter and lists of indicative vegetation in different types of woodland, and fish in the Yarra River.

This book was based on his PhD, which comes as no surprise although he has subverted the usual PhD structure (introduction, methodology, data, analysis). I’m not sure that this reorganization is completely successful. Although it does keep the most technical information at the back of the book, away from a general reader, the narrative itself is fairly technical and abstracting, despite its adoption of “we” language.  Chapters Four and Five are too “list-y”, with little overarching argument.  I wished that Presland had stepped onto the stage himself earlier, instead of waiting until Part II and page 197 to do so.  I found myself wondering what a writer like Tom Griffiths would do with this material.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this book, most particularly Chapters One and Three. The book was published by Museum Victoria and it is replete with beautiful coloured plates right throughout the text. It’s always satisfying to read a book that shifts you in your perception somewhat, and Chapters One and Three did that for me.  The blurb on the back says that “Gary Presland will literally change your view of Melbourne”, and I think that’s true.

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

 

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Museo Italiano, Carlton

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In January we had a day off from caring for Dad. It was a stinking hot day (41 degrees) and coming out of the air-conditioned comfort of Cinema Nova, we weren’t quite ready to head home yet but didn’t want to relinquish our undercover car park. What could we do? Then I remembered the Museo Italiana at the CoAsIt building in Faraday Street, which I’d promised myself I’d visit one day.  Was it open? Yes! open Tuesday to Saturday.  Was it air-conditioned? Yes! Beautifully!

It’s a good little museum, documenting the Italian migrant experience right back to convict days and the gold rush, but focussing on post-war migration.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Carlton was known as the Italian part of Melbourne, a small remnant of which remains in Lygon Street today.  The displays are professionally mounted, and there’s good use of music and video.

And if you need any further encouragement- it’s free!

Exhibition: ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1850-1960’

I know that I always write about exhibitions just as they’re closing the door and turning off the lights, but with this one, there’s still a month to go see it. It’s at the Royal Historical Society in a’Beckett Street (close to Flagstaff Gardens) and it’s called ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1950-1960’

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It’s a tie-in with the book that RHSV released just prior to Christmas ‘Remembering Melbourne’, which draws on images from RHSV’s own collection and the collections of twenty suburban historical societies to capture ‘Lost Melbourne’.  As their website says,

Remembering the ‘Burbs showcases the images supplied by these historical societies.
The images of suburban housing, work, industry, commerce, community service and
recreation – collectively trace the development of Melbourne’s suburbs between 1850 and 1960 as its population expanded from the city’s confines.

The exhibition has a snapshot of each of these twenty suburbs. Walking around, you can do a historic perambulation of suburban Melbourne, all in the same room!

Well worth a look if you’re in Melbourne in April.  It closes on the 28th April – see! plenty of time!

My November Brunswick (again)

For someone who has rarely been to Brunswick, I found myself back there again for the third time in November. This time we were there for the ‘Marking Time‘ art project, produced by Jessie Stanley, artist-in-residence as part of the MoreArts program of the Moreland City Council. Based in Moreland Railway Station waiting room, the project runs between October 23 and December 19 and involves a number of site-specific works and events (see the project’s Facebook page for more information). Today was a Timewalk – the first of two- that went from Jewell Station to Gilpin Park.

It would probably be more correct to think of this walk as a performance rather than a historical walk as such (partial as I am to historic walks). Ms Stanley read from a carefully and quite beautifully written script, starting off with a contemplation on the nature of ‘place’ and ending, some 45 minutes later and about 1/2 kilometre away, with an enacted description of deep time.  She asked that we undertake the walk in silence, focussing on the bricks that surrounded us, with any interaction only at the end.  I’m not really sure that this stricture was necessary, although I suppose that it enabled her to control the event as an integrated performance.  Her presentation concentrated on the brickworks of the area in particular, and not a generalized history of Brunswick that might have been given, for example, by a member of Brunswick Community History Group.  Instead, her focus was on the brickworks, most particularly Hoffman’s Brickworks, and the dominance of clay and bricks on the economic and social fabric of Phillipstown (the earlier name for Brunswick).  Certainly, walking around the post2000 redevelopment of the former Hoffman’s Brickworks site, you get a sense of the dominance of the chimneys and sirens of a large brick factory.

The walk ended at Gilpin Park, built on the site of one of the former quarries that provided the clay for the brickworks.  It was here that she returned to her reflections on deep time, and the wafer-thin segment of white settler time in what we know now as Brunswick.  Somehow the newness of the park with its adolescent-aged gum tree plantings captured this well.

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There is a second  walk, covering different places but similar themes,  on Saturday 10th December, starting from Clifton Park at 11.00 a.m.  It is free, but you need to book through post@jessiestanley.com  (0419 441 195)

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Celebrating 1916 in Brunswick in 2016

Even though it’s only fifteen kilometres from home, apart from a brief house-sitting stint in Brunswick about twenty years ago, attending my doctor’s surgery and the occasional visit to a Turkish restaurant, I have very rarely been to Brunswick. Yet in the last three days I’ve been there twice, both times for events organized by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee 1916-17.

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On Saturday night we attended the Metanoia Theatre at the Brunswick Mechanics’ Institute to see ‘1916’, written by local playwright Neil Cole as part of the centenary of the successful ‘no’ campaign during the two referenda over conscription during WWI.  Of course, a play written with an intent to inform and based on real events (as this play was) faces constraints in characterization and plot that a play written purely for entertainment does not. That given, the performance rocketed along for sixty minutes, tracing the activities and perspectives of three women in the months leading up to the referendum in October 1916. Adela Pankhurst, the estranged daughter from the famous English Pankhurst suffragette family arrived in Melbourne, where she appeared in anti-conscription rallies alongside local suffragist and peace activist Vida Goldstein,  the first woman to stand (albeit unsuccessfully) for Parliament. However, fellow suffragist Milly Woods (the playwright’s grandmother) broke with her former colleague Vida  out of a desire to support ‘our boys’ in the war, when her own family members enlisted and were sent to the front. The interplay between these three women demonstrated the rupture of relationships between activists who had fought for women’s votes as just one manifestation of the general fracturing of public opinion during the referendum. The play consisted of multiple scenes, depicted chronologically, which were supported by visual images on a slide show, and separated by songs of the time, very ably sung by girls from the Brunswick Secondary College.  The lead singer of the chorus, in particular, had a beautiful voice and the three main female characters were well drawn, especially, I thought, the older woman Milly Woods.

Then on Monday, over to Brunswick we went again for a history walk conducted by Michael Hamel-Green, seeing places connected with  local Brunswick anti-conscription activists John Curtin, his mentor Frank Anstey and local schoolmistress and activist Julia Guerin.  Brunswick and Coburg were hotbeds of anti-conscription activities, largely because of the strong dominance of Irish Catholics in this working-class neighbourhood.

We started off in St Ambrose Hall, the hall that was attached to the Catholic primary school next door. One of the few 19th century church halls surviving in Moreland, anti-conscription meetings were held here even though the Town Hall was just next door.  The council worthies tended to be pro-conscription, as were most of the major institutions of the day (schools, churches, local newspapers etc) and so meetings were held in the more amenable surroundings of the Catholic church hall.

John Curtin, the future WWII Prime Minister shifted to Brunswick with his family as a young boy in approximately 1899. For a short while he attended St Ambrose Primary School, until leaving school at age 14, as was common at that time for working-class lads.  When Archbishop Daniel Mannix opened a wing of the school on 28 January 1917 (maybe the one with the 1916 foundation stone?) he made his famous ‘trade speech’ where he characterized WWI as “like most wars- just an ordinary trade war”.

The Brunswick Mechanics Institute, constructed in 1868, was used as the recruiting centre for the war during 1914-18. (It was here that we saw the play 1916 on Saturday night). I’m a little surprised that it was used for recruiting, rather than the town hall across the road, although often the committees of Mechanics Institutes tended to be stalwart and ‘respectable’ men of the district and perhaps they were happy to lend their premises to the enlistment effort.

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Then into the Town Hall itself and its stunning vestibule covered on all four sides by the names of the 3575 Brunswick men who enlisted.  Those who died were commemorated in a special panel, but it is notable that all enlistees were named, including those who enlisted but did not embark, in alphabetical order, irrespective of rank.

We visited two of the many homes that the Curtin family rented in Brunswick. They lived in the house below for five years between 1903-8 (the longest that they stayed in any one home). By then Curtin was working in a regular job as an estimates clerk with the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne and his weekly wage of 35 shillings ensured that they could now confidently meet the rent each week- something they had not been able to do previously.  They lived in the cottage on the left hand side, with the arched window.  The four-dwelling terrace has these rather ecclesiastic windows on three of the houses, but the fourth window next door to the Curtin residence has been replaced by a rather unprepossessing aluminium window.  There is no plaque outside this house.  There is now a park beside the house (which has been renumbered since Curtin lived there). The MMBW map shows that during Curtin’s time this was a clay hole, which would have provided clay for the brick factories in the surrounding area.

Not far away is another of the rental properties occupied by the Curtin family (below).  John Curtin lived here with his family between 1913-1915 and it was at this house that he was arrested for refusing to attend the call-up on October 9, just prior to the referendum. At this stage he was working for the Timber Workers Union.  There is a plaque here in the footpath, the only one in Brunswick marking his presence.

Finally, and rather poignantly, we ended up outside the Union Hotel, one of Curtin’s favourite watering holes, close to home and a favourite of the Irish brickworkers.

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The walk over, I headed to Jewell Railway Station to catch a train into town. Ah! here’s one of the artworks created along the Upfield railway line out to Fawkner cemetery.  I read about these.

Inside the abandoned ticket window at the unmanned station there’s another little art installation.  It’s of a chemist shop window, but when you look more closely, they’re rather subversive products on sale

And so, as the train bore me the remarkably few stations into the CBD, I bade farewell to Brunswick for now, and its referendum commemorations.  Although, from the sound of the activities that the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign have planned for next year, I think I may be back….

Exhibition: Moving Tongues 5-30 October 2016

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Once again, here I am talking about an exhibition that’s about to close in a few days so if I pique your interest, you’re going to have to hurry up to catch it.  It’s called ‘Moving Tongues:Language and Migration in 1890s Melbourne’ and it’s on at the City Library branch in Flinders Lane, close to Ross House, until 30 October.

The first image that you encounter is that shown  in the poster above: the rectilinear street-grid imposed onto British settler colonies with little regard to topography or earlier use, conveying the impression of a single, replicable British culture.  However, this display argues that a multiplicity of languages and cultures existed within that grid, and it draws from the proceedings of Melbourne courtrooms in the 1890s to illustrate the point.

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And so we meet Charles Hodge, the long-standing interpreter in Chinese cases and the ‘Chinese oath’ that was accepted by Victorian courts for many years which involved the lighting of a flame and the recitation of a pledge to tell the truth. We read of the ultimately tragic case of young Norwegian servant Louisa Fritz who accused her employer Theodore Ulstein of rape.  We read of the presence of Syrians and “British Hindoos” and see their sleeping arrangements in the terraced shops of Little Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets, and the alliances formed with indigenous people, especially at the Cummeragunga mission.  We see the November 1898 Parliamentary hearing called by the Victorian government, in order to hear opinions of the Immigration Restriction Act that was one of the first legislative acts of the newly federated Parliament of Australia.

The print-based display is supplemented by a small number of artefacts and replicas of courtroom documents, poetry  based on the Melbourne Poetry Map and artwork.  One large art piece by John Young is based on selections from the diary of Jong Ah Sing, who was incarcerated in lunatic asylums for 33 years. He wrote his diary in an attempt to prove his sanity.

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It’s a small, modestly presented display that conveys a broader linguistic and aural view of Melbourne than that presented in the Sentimental Bloke and other depictions of the underside of Marvellous Melbourne.  But hurry up- it closes on 30 October.  The City Library is open Mon-Thurs 8.00am – 7.45, Friday 8.00 to 5.45, Saturday 10.00 to 4.45 and Sunday 12 noon to 4.45.

Splish splash! Water Stories at PROV

The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) website has some thoughtfully curated online exhibitions.  They’ve been designed with school curricula in mind, but they’re interesting in their own right.  I’ve been enjoying one on Water in Melbourne called Water Stories. It starts with the Yarra River,( as all good narratives of Melbourne must!) then extends into the various water supply, navigation and sewerage schemes that were developed in the wake of the prosperity of the Gold Rush. Some were far-sighted (Yan Yean, for example in 1856) and others were more reactive, driven by the determination to shrug off the epithet of ‘Smellbourne’ that critics attached to Melbourne. The display then shifts to the major parks and gardens that were planned to beautify the city, several by La Trobe back in the 1850s, which are treasured by Melburnians today.

Click the link below:

https://embed.culturalspot.org/embed/exhibit/water-stories/lAIyzP8Lo1pmKw?hl=en-GB