You might have seen on the back page of today’s Age a little article about the re-enactment of a photograph. You can see the article here (scroll down about half way). Apparently 50 years ago, as part of the 125th anniversary of Batman’s proclamation, Robert Waddell stood with his mother Beryl at the corner of Flinders and Willliams Streets to have their photograph taken beside the Batman memorial plaque that was embedded in the footpath, outside what is now the Immigration Museum. And here they are, fifty years later, standing on the same spot beside a piece of empty footpath.
As Bain Attwood tells us in his book Possession, this memorial has had a contested history right from the start. In 1923, after the Old Melbourne Cemetery had been removed from what is now a Victoria Market carpark, it was felt by some city worthies that Batman deserved a new memorial close to where he was said to have disembarked and declared “This will be the place for a village”. As a result R. A. Crouch proposed that a memorial be erected on the corner of Williams and Flinders Streets that read
This is the place for a village- John Batman 1835.
However, the Secretary of the Historical Society of Victoria, A. W. Grieg was wary of the wording because his own research had questioned whether Batman himself had visited Melbourne on this occasion. A compromise, from which Grieg later distanced himself, was reached, and the amended wording read
John Batman landed near this spot June 1835. “This will be the place for a village”.
You can see a photograph of the artisans working on the plaque here and a report and photograph of the hatted gentlemen watching the slab being placed in the footpath at the official ceremony in March 1925 here and here.
The plaque became a popular rallying spot, not only for commemorations of Batman’s putative landing (the last of which probably occured in 1973) , but also for Aboriginal protest. The Aborigines Advancement League began its protest rally against the loss of Lake Tyers from the memorial in 1963, and in 1970 The Day of the Mourning also commenced its march from the same spot.
Right from the start there had been disquiet about the accuracy of the claims on the plaque: whether Batman had even been there at that time; whether the portentous words were ever uttered; whether “this” was the spot even under consideration. Along with a heightened discomfort about the treaty and Aboriginal possession, there was the increased prominence given to John Fawkner as the alternative “founder of Melbourne”. In 1995 a corrective marker was placed beside the plaque that read:
There is some doubt as to whether Batman was actually with the party that rowed up the Yarra in June 1835 or that they landed near this site. The map that was drawn up by surveyor John Hedger Wedge on Batman’s return to Launceston indicates the land south of the Yarra River and down to its mouth as being reserved for a “Township and Other Public Purpose”.
This rather wordy correction was stolen in 1998 and not replaced. But by 1998 the memorial stone itself went as well, gazumped somewhat by Enterprize Park directly opposite. Ah well, we can always remember the memorial. Perhaps a plaque for a plaque?
Bain Attwood Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History , Melbourne, Miegunyah Press, 2009.
Shane Carmody ‘John Batman’s Place in the Village‘ La Trobe Journal No 80, Spring 2007