Category Archives: Glimpses of Willis

Opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 12 April

I see that the The Honorable Marilyn Warren AC, Chief Justice of Victoria  is to speak at the RHSV on the 28th April about the opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 170 years ago this month.  Look at the header on this blog- this is Liardet’s rendering of the occasion, many years later.  Here’s the uncropped picture:

By all accounts, the first Supreme Court occupied a rather unprepossessing temporary building that was blazing hot in summer and cold in winter.  Here’s what Garryowen (Edmund Finn) had to say about it:

At the south-west corner of King and Bourke Streets there was, in early days, erected a plain-looking, store-like, brick-walled, shingle-covered building, and therein the small business of the Crown Lands Department (controlled by Commissioners) was disposed of.  The entrance at one end faced Bourke Street, and nothing could be less pretentious, less comfortable, or uglier.  In the beginning of 1841, when it was known that a branch of the Supreme Court was to be established in the district, the ruling powers were at their wits’ end as to how, and where, an apartment could be procured for the temporary accommodation of the Resident Judge and his judicial following.  After a good deal of casting about, it was finally resolved to convert this place into a legal “make-shift” and the Crown Lands Commissioners, with their troopers and bailiffs, were hurried off to a wattle-and-daub shed, a rearward appurtenance of the Superintendent’s establishment on Batman’s Hill.  So the barn underwent a partial process of fitting up; and the single-roomed cottage referred to in a previous chapter as a Clerk of Works’ Office behind, was transformed into “Chambers”.  p. 179 This “rookery” then became the Supreme Court, and here it was that the willful and wayward Judge Willis “ruled the roost”. (p. 179)

It certainly had none of the grandeur and visual power of the later, purpose-designed courthouse erected where the Old City Court building now stands in Russell Street.  Instead, it was rather gently derided by the Port Phillip inhabitants:

THE COURT HOUSE:- Some steps should be taken to render this place tenantable.  In winter, parties compelled to attend undergo the operation of freezing, which is materially aided by the chilling draught of air which circulates freely in the building, obtaining ingress and egress through the roof, windows and door.  In the summer, the N.W. Sirocco will scorch the auditory, while the gentlemen of the press will require neither pounce (1) nor blotting paper to absorb the moisture of their hieroglyphics.  Lath and plaster might go a great way to remove this cause of complaint; while the expense would be trifling, the convenience would be great, and prevent many of “the ills which flesh is heir to”. During the present cold weather a machine has been erected on the platform of the Bench, out of sight, bearing a strong resemblance to the tin establishment of an itinerant vendor of roasted potatoes; but whatever heat emanates therefrom must be appropriated to the peculiar cherishment of His Honor’s legs- “Reform it altogether.” Port Phillip Herald, 22 June 1841

You’re hard pressed to find any hint of that first, small Supreme Court building now.

South -west corner King and Bourke Streets, Melbourne, site of the first Supreme Court

Here’s the Port Phillip Gazette report of the occasion of the opening of the court:


The first sitting of this tribunal took place   at the temporary Court House in King street on Monday the 12th instant. As might have been expected on such a momentous occasion, there was a large attendance of the inhabitants drawn together by the importance and the novelty of the scene. After the reading of the Act for the   prevention of ” vice and immorality” the proclamation of the authority of the Court, and the commission of His Honor Judge Willis, and  after he had submitted to the ceremony of  being sworn in, in a full and clear voice the learned judge delivered himself of the following   opening address, which for the legal acumen displayed in its production, and the good feeling manifested in its tone and delivery cannot be too highly spoken of.-

And then he launched into his opening address which you can read through Trove (Sydney Herald, 26th April 1841). Knowing as we do that Judge Willis was to dismissed just over two years later on pretty much the grounds he identifies here,  the speech is steeped in irony for us as readers.  No doubt people at the time heard it differently.

All very stirring, uplifting stuff.  But even at this earliest stage of Willis’ time in Melbourne, the Port Phillip Herald raised a sceptical eyebrow and reserved its judgment about the speeches  for the time being:

The Port Phillip Bar.- Upon the induction of the bar on Monday last, the supply of wig and gown was most promising-white neck- cloths were at a premium-and there was that cheerful diversity of nose and whisker surrounding the table, for which the English bar is so eminently celebrated. Touching the Demosthenian or Ciceronian orations delivered on the   occasion, we say nothing, but pause until time shall have mellowed down those fiery exhibitions usually accompanying maiden efforts.


[1] Pounce, apparently, was a powder used to prevent ink from spreading and blot up excess ink.

The Wharf

The vast majority of people in Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time arrived there by boat.  It was possible to travel overland, but at this stage it was easier and quicker to come by boat.  Steamships plied between Melbourne and Geelong, Queenscliff and Williamstown,  and the shipping columns of the newspapers record the to-ing and fro-ing between Launceston, Hobart, Corner Inlet, Western Port, Portland Bay, Port Fairy and Sydney as well as London.

An underwater bar at the mouth of the Yarra prevented large ships from sailing up to the centre of settlement eight miles away.  Ships had to anchor in Hobsons Bay and goods and passengers came ashore at Port Melbourne.  But how then to get from Port Melbourne to Melbourne itself?  You could transfer onto a lighter or steamship to take you up the Yarra (at an exorbitant price), or you could take a carriage from the enterprising Mr Liardet’s hotel.  No wonder the Sandridge line was first significant railway in Australia, opened by the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company in 1853 at the height of the gold rush. But during Judge Willis’ time the wharf on the Yarra was a bustling spot.

Coles Wharf was constructed between William and Queen Street by George Ward Cole (who later married into the McCrae family)in 1841 along the banks of the Yarra by building on sunken ships’ hulls ( . At the time, the Yarra was bisected by falls roughly at the bottom of Queen Street. Above the Falls was fresh water- crucial to the small village, and below the Falls was saltwater. The maintenance of the falls to separate freshwater from saltwater was of vital importance initially, even though the presence of this chain of rocks across the river prevented ships from traveling further upstream. Much time and attention was to maintaining the Falls but by 1880 they were finally removed as part of river engineering works.

Here’s a description of Coles Wharf from The Times 22nd August 1853 that is perhaps a little less glowing than Liardet’s picture above.

There are two landing-places, and the steamers stop at the worst, called Cole’s Wharf. An enormous amount of traffic has certainly been thrown suddenly upon this spot; but, considering the revenue derived from it by the proprietors, something might have been done to redeem it from being, as it is, a disgrace and scandal to the city. Goods are tumbled on to the bank, and the drays back up to them to be loaded through pools of black mud, in which they stand nearly axle-deep. Boxes, cases, and bags (no matter what their contents) may roll into the slush, and stay there soaking till called for. Expensive as horseflesh is, half the power of the animals is wasted in getting out of these pits and the deep ruts of the roadway, which a few loads of stones would fill and level. There is no shed to protect goods liable to be damaged by rain. Reckless indifference to everything but collecting the enormously high freights up the river, and the still higher rate of carriage to the city, seems to be the rule. Combined, these charges have frequently amounted to more, for a distance of six or seven miles, than the freight of the goods from England. The other landing-place, the Queen’s Wharf, is a little higher up the river, and here the accommodation is much superior, a proof that improving is not so impossible as represented.

I stood where the wharf was today. It’s hard to picture it. The smell of chip oil is too strong as it wafts from Flinders Street Station and the roar of the traffic is a constant background noise. I’m sure that the air must have been saltier and tinged with wood smoke from the paddle steamer. Perhaps it sounded like Echuca, with the steam whistles, the shouts while loading and unloading goods and the sound of horses’ hooves in the streets behind. The sky would have seemed bigger with no high-rise towers, and the green of the bush would have crept up to the river banks in places, or formed a backdrop against the horizon. But today, like then, there is a stiff breeze that blows across from the water.

Mechanics Institution

Melbourne Mechanics Institution, Collins St near Swanston St.

Next to the Melbourne Town Hall in Collins Street is the original site of the Mechanics Institution. This is one where a little bit of imagination is required.  The Melbourne Mechanics Institution was established in 1839 with the police magistrate and later sub-treasurer William Lonsdale as its first President and the Superintendent of Port Phillip, Charles La Trobe as its first Patron.  Willis himself does not seem to have had anything to do with it, which is a little surprising.  In a nascent civic community, as early Port Phillip was, this is precisely the sort of organization in which a resident Judge could express his philanthropy and civic presence.  As it was, many of the men who were to become his vocal opponents were involved, and perhaps this explains his distance?

The building now on the site is the much-loved Atheneum theatre and library.

Edmund Finn (writing as Garryowen) describes the original building:

The edifice, early in 1843, was occupied by the members.  It was a substantial two-story brick building, some feet from and above the street level.  It was reached by several steps, and during the winter season the footway and street approaches were in a terrible state of mud and puddle.  Yet in those primitive times the progress of the erection was regarded with much interest, and not only the people, but the newspapers actually felt a pride in it as one of the coming constructive wonders of the Antipodes.  One of the later thus gushingly referred to it: “The Hall of Arts is nearly complete, and will be ready for occupation in the course of a few days; the size, arrangements, and architectural proportions of the building will make it, when finished, the noblest edifice in the Province.”  On the ground-floor were the Library and Reading-room, and for years the Town Clerk had his official quarters in another portion of the building.  The meeting place for the Town Council was upstairs in the large room.  This larger apartment or “hall” as it used to be grandiloquently styled, was one of the most historical places in Early Melbourne, for here were held some of the most important gatherings in Port Phillip- social, charitable, and political.

You can see a picture of the original Mechanics Institution  here.

There’s plenty more information on the website of the Melbourne Athenaeum Archives– well worth a look!

A pilgrimage around Willis’ Melbourne

Richard Holmes, one of my favourite biographers, once wrote:

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer- in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals.  Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality… (Footsteps of a Romantic Biographer p. 67)

He describes a sort of ‘haunting’

an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present.  And in this experience of haunting I first encountered- without then realizing it- what I now think of as the essential process of biography.” P. 66

As I walk around the streets of Melbourne, I find myself trying to reimagine the town that Willis would have seen.   Probably more so than in other cities, much of it was engulfed by the gold rush and its associated prosperity that followed some seven years after Willis left to return home to England.  Nonetheless, it’s a haunting that often accompanies me as I walk around my home town, and I’d like to share it with you.

Because so much has disappeared, I’m having to interpret “Willis’ Melbourne” very, very broadly and creatively.  Basically, if there is any connection with Willis and the years 1841-3 at all- an acquaintanceship in earlier years, an event in Willis’ time that occurred there, an earlier building that once stood there- then I’ll accept it as a glimpse of Willis.  It’s my own particular and rather idiosyncratic haunting.