Chris Manchee who has worked for the City of Melbourne for twenty years, became known as a history guru because he had heard of John Batman! He gives guided tours of the Flagstaff Gardens for the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.
Many Melbournians have no knowledge of the significance of the Flagstaff Gardens in our history. Tourists are taken to the nearby Queen Victoria Market but bypass the Gardens which even so are well patronised.
A pleasant place to walk, jog, to do Tai Chi, or relax, the Gardens are often use by city firms for "corporate challenges." At the end of Ramadan, Muslim people meet in the Gardens in the evening to eat after fasting and to pray facing Mecca.
The Gardens have facilities for two sporting groups. The oldest is the Melbourne Bowling Club. Established in 1866, and probably the last bowling club in the City, it has been in the Flagstaff Gardens since 1879 and has a brand new Clubhouse. There are also tennis courts. However these are more often used for netball, handball or volleyball.
The children's playground has had many changes over the years. Developed in 1919, it was the first children's playground to be constructed in a public park in Melbourne. Open in daylight hours it was separated into a boy's playground and a girl's playground.
The Gardens have few historical monuments. The Pioneer Monument was erected in 1871 in memory of the early Pioneers who were buried in what was then called Burial Hill. In 1836, John Pascoe Fawkner suggested this site on the outskirts of the city and six people were buried there before the Old Melbourne Cemetery was opened. The first burial was for Willie, the child of James Goodman, and he was buried on 13 May 1836.
It is hard to appreciate the isolation of the Port Phillip District at this time. Mail took several months to come from Britain and even from Tasmania it took a few days. Thus news that a ship had arrived in Port Phillip Bay was extraordinarily exciting.
When a ship entered Port Phillip Bay and approached Williamstown, it hoisted its flags so it could be recognised. It also relayed its port of departure using Marryat's code of signal flags to the operator at the bluestone signals station at Port Gellibrand. As the citizens of Melbourne wanted this information relayed quickly it was decided to build another signal station.
Batman's Hill and a site in William Street near today's Supreme Court were deemed too low and Burial Hill was eventually chosen. It was high (39.6 metres) and had a direct line of sight to Port Gellibrand (Hobson's Bay). A signal mast was erected in September 1840 however it was not tall enough and the telescope provided to see the flags was not powerful enough.
A higher flagstaff was erected in 1841. Next to it was an octagonal hut used to house the telescopes and flags. It had a pitched roof and a window in each wall. At the base of the flagstaff was a cannon and a single shot was fired if an important ship arrived.
Daily lists of arrivals and departures were written on foolscap and fastened to a display board. Charles La Trobe, on horseback, was a frequent visitor. So that ships could set their chronometers, every day at noon a ball was dropped from the flagstaff. The introduction of the first electric telegraph in 1854 meant that the flagstaff was redundant. The name of the hill had changed from Burial Hill to Flagstaff Hill.
In 1852, George Balthazar Neumayer, magnetician, oceanographer and meteorologist arrived in Sydney looking for research possibilities in the southern hemisphere. In Victoria, he lectured on navigation to former seamen living on the goldfields and he worked at an observatory in Hobart. On a trip back to Germany, encouraged by King Maximilian of Bavaria and the scientist von Humboldt he acquired a variety of new instruments which would help navigation on the seas. In 1858 he established the Flagstaff Observatory in Melbourne using the signal station buildings and he was assisted by William John Wills who was later to die on the Burke and Wills Expedition. Single handed, Neumayer completed a thorough magnetic survey of Victoria, ultimately becoming a life member of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Due to iron in new buildings around his observatory Neumayer was not able to take measurements accurately and the observatory was shifted to Kings Domain.
By this time NW Melbourne had developed and thousands of people lived in narrow streets in tiny houses. They petitioned the Victorian Assistant Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, Clement Hodgkinson, for Flagstaff Hill to be reserved as a garden. Ferdinand von Mueller was asked to design the gardens and planted Moreton Bay Figs and Bunya Pines still growing today. In the 1880s John Guilfoyle reworked the gardens, thinning out trees and introducing European natives, shrubs and flowers. Despite a fence with self-closing gates, the first seedlings were eaten by a herd of goats.
Today the fence has gone, a children's wading pool has been filled in, a 1930s shelter for homeless men has gone and a brick house built in 1921 is to be converted into a community centre. The gardens remain a vital area for all the residents of Melbourne many of whom live in small apartments.
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