Daily Archives: August 1, 2008

Hey, I used to work there!!

I see from an article in the Age that the Fitzroy artist Alexander Knox has created a light installation on the old Royal Mail building, on the corner of Bourke and Swanston Street.

Wow! That looks better! By light of day it really is a rather unprepossessing modernist building. Whenever I see that AC/DC film clip of the band travelling down Swanston Street on a flatbed truck, I notice ‘my’ building and try to imagine that it was ever viewed as anything except ugly.

What was there before? Apparently, the Royal Mail Hotel, built in 1848 and named because its owner E. B. Green had the contract for carrying mail by stagecoach throughout Victoria. Its second licencee was William Johnston Sudgen, previously Melbourne’s Chief Constable – nice little career shift there.

According to Robyn Annear’s A City Lost & Found, construction works to modify the building during the 1930s uncovered a wall containing bricks bearing thumbprints- generally considered to be a mark of convict manufacture. The brick-clay was examined by a visiting Tasmanian, who asserted that it was of Port Arthur origin, and the bricks were declared to be among Melbourne’s oldest.

(I am ashamed to confess that I have wasted nearly half an hour investigating when convicts were withdrawn from Port Phillip- a wild-goose chase prompted by my failure to finish reading the paragraph in Robyn Annear’s book! Stopping mid-sentence at the words “convict manufacture”, it struck me that 1848 was very late to have convicts still working in Melbourne. Half an hour later: I was right. Convict transportation from UK to New South Wales was suspended in 1840, and on 28 Oct 1843 Governor Gipps instructed LaTrobe to send the remaining convict gangs in Port Phillip up to Sydney. But they were still here 0n 13 December 1844 because Gipps again proposed withdrawing all the convicts, in exchange for the receipt of a cargo of Exiles- prisoners who had served 1-2 years in Pentonville prison before being issued with conditional pardons to take up as settlers (not prisoners) in New South Wales. A.G.L. Shaw writes that 1727 Pentonville exiles had landed in Port Phillip between 1844 and 1849 until popular protest against them culminated in the turning away of ships containing exiles and redirecting them to Sydney. So- Port Phillip convicts didn’t make the bricks in 1848. As, of course, Robyn Annear went on to say, had I read further.)

According to the excellent Walking Melbourne site, the old Royal Mail hotel was sold to the British company Hammerson Property and Investments Trust for 455,000 pounds. In October 1960 the hotel was demolished and this wonderful structure erected in its place.

I worked on both the fourth and third floors from about 2003-6. At first I was on the third floor in an office without windows located just behind the blue billboard at the bottom of the picture at the top of the page. At the time, there was a television screen mounted on the building, and I used to fantasize, in moments of extreme boredom, of sticking my head through the wall and emerging in the middle of the screen to survey the people below. I later moved onto the fourth floor to the rear of the building where my window overlooked the rooftops of the rather unsavoury cafe/restaurants fronting Swanston Street. However, it did give me a new appreciation for the copulatory habits of pigeons who inhabited the ‘pigeon brothel’ there.

On the other hand, working there did give a wonderful view of Melbourne. The Melbourne Cup march would go straight past, and political marches would stream by. Unfortunately the AFL Grand Final march turned up Collins Street instead, so I couldn’t watch that one. There’s a great little ‘structure’ of a pig with wings mounted on a pole on the corner which you can only see if you look up, but was directly in our line of sight. When the building across the road (that in my childhood had a rather evil Santa beckoning children onto the Foy’s rooftop garden each Christmas) was owned by Nike, we would watch spellbound as huge advertising posters were erected obscuring the building completely. However, the metal-man busker with his synthesizer loses his appeal after listening to him all day, and dog-lover though I am, a bait would be too good for the cattle dogs who bark twice at the end of each line of ‘How much is that doggie in the window?” sung ad nauseum for hours by the Slim-Dusty lookalike on the corner opposite.

So, good on you Alexander Knox. It looks beautiful, and I can’t wait to see it.