Tag Archives: Port Phillip

On this day in September 1841

From the Port Phillip Herald 24th September 1841


On Wednesday, one of the scenes which occur so frequently in this town and which tends to exemplify so strongly the dogma frequently advanced, that a great portion of the Emigrants landed on these shores are immoral, was to be witnessed in King street.  A female of rather prepossessing appearance, who arrived a short time since as an emigrant, was proceeding towards the Flag-staff enjoying the serenity of the morning in the company of a tall moustached being of the male gender.  Arm in arm the parties progressed along the streets now and then exchanging sundry symptoms of mutual affection.  Unfortunately however for the equanimity of all parties concerned, the scene was destined soon to be interrupted.  There was seen to advance from a contrary direction a two legged animal, one of that species expressively denominated “a man” but what kind of one our readers will soon learn.  A creature about four feet nothing, whose body was any thing but resembling that of our Melbourne Falstaff, whose frontispiece was a conglomeration of parts, more appropriate to the frame of larger beings.  With rapid but not extensive strides the little man sidled along, till a walk was changed to a run.  Fire flashed from his eyes and fury from his mouth, on a near approach to the loving couple, his feelings found vent in the following expressive words, “What! is it to be a witness of this, that I have come to Australia, to see my wife the leman of a false and ignorant puppy, oh! would that I was in England, I would have justice, but here these things are fashionable,  and I am to be a miserable being for the rest of my existence; oh! villian I will be revenged.”  A storm of words ensued, rapid as the gushing torrent, abuse fell from one party, and threats of vengeance from another, which at length was ended by the man wot wore the moustachios saying, “what! is it a diminutive creature like you that dares insult me in the street and endeavour to force from my society a lady; begone!”  Actions followed fast upon the words, the little man was seized, raised aloft, and hurled with impetuosity into one of those clean spots with which Melbourne abounds.  During the scene, the lady gave vent to her feelings in tears, but on the completion of the above mentioned feat of bravery, she seized the arm of her chere amie and hurried him affectionately from the spot, leaving her husband bruised, and injured both in body and mind, to console himself as he best might.

A couple of observations about this little vignette:

1. Although there are often descriptions of street scenes in the newspapers, there are very few describing women.  Where a woman appears at all, it is often a 2 or 3 line description of some accident and misadventure befalling her. In fact, this is the only lengthy article of its type that I have found,  where there is mention of public affection between a man and a woman, and where she seems to have some (albeit limited) agency in the episode.

2. It takes place in King Street, near Flagstaff Hill.  In the early 1840s, the centre of Melbourne was located more to the west than it is today, in the square roughly bounded by King, Lonsdale, Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, with a concentration around Market Steet and Collins Street.  By walking up King Street to the Flagstaff Hill, they were walking out of the city up to its highest point- the Flagstaff- where flags were displayed showing the ships that had come into harbour.

As Garryowen says, Flagstaff Hill

“was the pleasantest outside place in Melbourne for a Sunday or week-day evening stroll.  The reported incoming of an English ship would draw crowds there, and they stared with anxious, wistful gaze as the ship beat up the harbour, yearning for the home letters, of which she might be the bearer, of good or evil news, the harbinger. (p. 570)  … It was “where all the Melbourne ‘world and his wife’ used to take their outings on Sundays and holidays, and on every other day when they had the time or inclination to inhale the fresh country air (p. 9)

3. There’s moral judgements at work here.  Moustaches were viewed with some suspicion- certainly Judge Willis castigated the “dandified solicitor” Edward Sewell for wearing a moustache in his courtroom.  The public displays of affection would be frowned upon by respectable readers, and the description of the woman as “prepossessing” is ambiguous.  The language also slips between “female” and “lady”, suggesting uncertainty about her social status.

4. The article as a whole reflects the anxiety that Port Phillip inhabitants felt about emigrants.  While rejoicing in the fact that Port Phillip was not a convict settlement, the inhabitants – or at least the Port Phillip Herald- remonstrated when too many emigrant ships arrived at one time, particularly when their passengers embarked into an economic situation of unemployment and insolvency.  There were criticisms of the emigrants who hung around the emigrant tents for too long, disdainful of wages that they felt were too low- the 1840s version of “dole bludger”.  In particular, there was anxiety over unaccompanied female emigrants.  In general emigrants were encouraged to go ‘up country’ as soon as possible to work as farm labourers or domestic servants.  At the same time, though, the growth of the economy depended on the influx of new settlers and their demands for housing and consumer goods.  Come to think of it,  I think I hear echoes of the debate about Melbourne’s growth today…..

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.