BEARBRASS - IMAGINING EARLY MELBOURNE


At our last meeting Allan Willingham described architecture in the Port Phillip District. He suggested that the people whose lives were intertwined with the early buildings made the history of the architecture much more interesting.

Robyn Annear uses her knowledge of the buildings and streets of Melbourne and a good imagination to weave stories about the early citizens of Port Phillip. Her first book "Bearbrass - Imagining Early Melbourne" was written following her involvement in an architectural dig in Melbourne. Intrigued by articles unearthed, she began to create stories around actual or imaginary people to create an impression of what it was like to live in those years after 1835.

One of the articles found on the dig was a bag of bottle stoppers. Stretching her imagination, Robyn concocted a story in which she changed the bag into one of the Guernsey type frocks which John Pascoe Fawkner provided for his field workers, and the stoppers she changed into the cat owned by Mary Gilbert, one of the first white women to live in the Port Phillip District. We are invited to imagine that Mary Gilbert's cat had died after a fight with a possum and was buried, wrapped in one of Fawkner's frocks.

In Robyn's latest book, "A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker's Melbourne" she comments on the changes to the Central Business District caused by the famous demolition firm between 1892 and 1992. She is particularly interested in the little cottages of Melbourne. Redmond Barry's cottage, demolished in 1924, was off Bourke Street, between Queen & William Streets. It was made of brick and stone and had a slate roof. Set back from the street, at the time of its demolition it was used as a storeroom for an architects firm and was hidden by advertising hoardings. Inside, there was to be found a whole wall of timber bookshelves used by Barry to house his books. A public concience was beginning and photos of the cottage were taken. Nearby was a huge mulberry tree and there were many little cobbled laneways in the vicinity.

Civil Engineer James Smith, son of David Smith of the same occupation was born in a cottage in Flinders Street. The property was long and the garden went through to Malthouse Street. After his father's death, James, an unassuming bachelor, moved into one of a pair of cottages at 23 and 25 Collins Place. Collins Place was the southern end of Exhibition Street, between Flinders Street and Collins Street and these little cottages fell under the wrecker's hammer in 1941. They were considered then to be perhaps the oldest buildings in Melbourne. During wartime there was not much in the way of building materials to be found and not much wrecking to be done.

But what of James? He served on a committee to seek a site for a Capital city. He was involved in setting building regulations which determined the heights of city buildings. He was involved in the ongoing discussions about where there should be a town square. In 1920, he advocated that it should be built over the railway yard. He must have considered the railway yards to be a blot on the landscape. Or did he not? What did he think of the Herald & Weekly Times building in Flinders Street? Did he love this new building or did he prefer the trees and the birds?

When Robyn walks through Melbourne, she doesn't see the ugly brown skyscrapers and she ignores the winds tha whip around these buildings. Instead she imagines an earlier time. She is amused by the incongruity of some buildings. St. James' Cathedral, when it stood on its original spot had as its neighbour McCracken's Brewery, which belched black smoke all over the church, and Melbourne's first Synagogue stood adjacent to St. Patrick's Hall. Robyn thinks it is important we understand that in another time people endured different conditions and survived. She would love her daughter to be interested in our history but accepts that the thirst for knowledge perhaps comes with age.

(The Above is a Report on the Address by Robyn Annear
at the General Meeting on 12 November 2005)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow ( PPPG Member No. 1057 )


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