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Melbourne: built on gold

Too much too soon

Melbourne in the early 1850s was chaotic. Roads were full of holes, disease was rife, robbery was common and the cost of living had skyrocketed. At the same time, successful diggers were able to afford whatever they wanted. They came to Melbourne with vast amounts of money - rolls of banknotes and bags of gold.

In less than a decade, the gold rushes transformed Melbourne from a rambling colonial service town to a metropolis with the confidence of a modern city. But in the early years of the gold rushes, Melbourne had trouble keeping up with its newfound wealth.

Great Bourke Street, looking East from Queen Street by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Green, putrid and semi-liquid mass

Until 1854, there was no drainage system in Melbourne. The streets were open sewers and, sometimes, raging torrents. Clement Hodgkinson noted in an official report on the Sewerage of and Supply of Water to Melbourne: "... in the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke Streets, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies". Charles Browning Hall commented that "the greatest gold and the greatest filth (were) not ten feet apart".

In 1853, William Kelly observed:

"Swanston Street on the one hand, and Elizabeth Street on the other, were complete rivers running in volumes ... In the deep and wide sloping channels especially, the current was so impetuous that it made one giddy to gaze at it as it roared past, empty cases, coffee tins, old hats, sardine boxes, discarded clothes, tattered mats, butchers' offal, and all the varieties of household filth and warehouse abomination hoarded since the previous flood, careering on its bosom."

The huge and rapid influx of people stretched facilities to breaking point. Many people could not find accommodation, and resorted to living in a crowded tent city. Squalor, poverty and disease spread quickly. To make matters worse, there were few tradesmen to build new facilities - everyone had left for the diggings.

Bourke Street (East, 1863)
Courtesy Of The La Trobe Collection
State Library Of Victoria

Public infrastructure

The pressure eased within a few years as major public works and building developments caught up with new demands. Key infrastructure organisations were established in 1853, including the Melbourne and Hobsons Bay Railway Company, the City of Melbourne Gas and Coke Company, the Central Roads Board, the Melbourne and Mount Alexander Railway Company and the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company. Commissioners were appointed to improve Melbourne’s drainage and work began on a permanent water supply at Yan Yean. In 1854 the Government decided to install electric telegraphs - the first linking Melbourne to Williamstown. Within two years, a telegraph line was laid between Melbourne and Adelaide.

Doing the Block. Gt. Collins St. by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Many of these public infrastructure works were funded by loans, the most famous of which was the Gabrielli loan. In July 1853, Antonio Gabriella, a 29-year-old travelling financial agent, offered the Melbourne Corporation a loan of 500,000 for their public works program. Gabrielli claimed to be connected with the house of Rothschild, the international gold brokers, and Sir Samuel Moreton Peto, a British railway magnate, but this claim was never verified.

He offered the loan at an interest rate of six per cent plus his commission, to be repaid over 21 years. After much discussion the loan was approved, guaranteed by the Victoria Parliament. Gabrielli claimed the funds would be raised in London and Melbourne, but most of the investors proved to be local. It became clear later that the councils could have raised the money themselves, without paying Gabrielli's commission of 56,000.

The building boom

From 1853 to 1854 the number of buildings in Melbourne doubled. Talented young British architects like John James Clark, Peter Kerr and William Wilkinson Wardell were drawn to Melbourne by the building boom, and created grand public buildings with an elegance of design equal to those in major European cities.

Parliament House
Diggers were calling for greater democracy, and others for a home for political debate. In response, the Victorian Legislative Council drafted Victoria’s first constitution and commenced building Victoria’s Parliament House. In 1853 a Parliament House design competition failed to produce anything the Legislative Assembly deemed acceptable, so Colonial Engineer Charles Pasley produced the designs himself. He handed the responsibility to two architects in his office - Peter Kerr and John George Knight. Kerr considerably expanded and improved on Pasley’s basic designs. He produced more than 600 detailed sketches and designs, while his colleague Knight managed the actual site construction. Parliament House was home to the Commonwealth Parliament from 1901 to 1927.

Public library
Governor La Trobe set aside 13,000 of Parliamentary funds to build a free public library in 1853. Joseph Reed, who went on to design the Town Hall and the Exhibition Buildings, won a competition offering 150 and 75 for the two best architectural designs submitted for a library building. Reed’s design was to be constructed in stages in order to meet the demands of an expected expansion in the library’s collections; it originally included a mermaid fountain in the forecourt, but this did not eventuate.

Old Customs House
The first Customs House was a round white tent pitched on the banks of the Yarra River. The second was a "shabby, leaky, comfortless weatherboard cabin". During the peak years of the gold rushes, customs officials in this building processed up to 3000 immigrants a week. The current Customs House, designed by John James Clark, was completed in 1873. The Australian Customs Service vacated the building 1967 and it became home to the Federal Parliamentary Opposition. Following its refurbishment in 1997 and 1998, the Old Customs House re-opened as the Immigration Museum in November 1998

Treasury Buildings (1863) by Francois Cogne
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The Old Treasury
The Old Treasury is widely regarded as the finest 19th century building in Australia. It was designed by 19-year-old architect JJ Clark and is a reflection of the vision Melburnians of the 1850s had for their future city. As well as being built to store the colony's gold, the Old Treasury provided offices for the leaders of the young colony. The Governor, the Premier, the Treasurer and the Auditor General all had offices within the magnificent Old Treasury.

Royal Amphitheatre
Controversial entertainer Lola Montez performed her seductive "spider dance" at the Royal Amphitheatre in 1856. The Royal Amphitheatre later became known as the Princess and the building, designed by William Pitt in the second empire style, was completed in 1886. In 1888 Federici, a singer playing Mephistopheles in Gounod’s "Faust", collapsed and died under the stage. Legend says his ghost still haunts the theatre.

Collins Street. (From Queen Street.) by Francois Cogne
Courtesy Of The La Trobe Collection
State Library Of Victoria

ANZ Gothic bank
William Wardell created what experts claim to be the finest Gothic revival building in Australia to house the new English, Scottish and Australian bank. General manager George Verdon lived in a private suite above his new bank. The magnificent banking chamber boasts iron columns and gilded heraldic decoration.

Some of Melbourne's grand buildings were never fully completed because of an economic downturn in the 1860s. Parliament House never received its dome, and the classical Greek temple-style facade for Customs House was never completed.


Text adapted from Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold and the Golden Mile Heritage Walk booklet.


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