Note: This trip was taken prior to the current Melbourne lockdown.
Melbourne is known for its café culture, its trendy shopping, and its liveability. But I wasn’t there to go dress-shopping along Chapel Street, or indulge at a boutique restaurant. I was there for a historical novel writing conference, and decided to spend my free time delving in to the historical side of Melbourne.
I knew little about the city’s history. I sat on the Skybus as it wound its way from the airport to my accommodation, and smiled to myself when I saw a street sign for Batman Avenue, the theme to the TV show playing in my head. After my day of exploring historical Melbourne, I would know that the street was not a shout-out to the caped crusader, but a nod to one of the founders of the Melbourne area.
The Old Treasury
I started my morning at the Old Treasury. It turned out to be the perfect place to begin delving in to Melbourne’s history. The lady who greeted me at the door not only explained the layout of the museum and the best way to navigate my way through it, but when finding out that I wasn’t a local, also gave me a potted history of the founding of Melbourne. With a crash course in Melbourne’s history, I stepped in to the museum.
The Old Treasury is the sort of place I love. Built in the nineteenth century, it has elegant and architecturally interesting rooms filled with history and memorabilia. First you moved through displays focused on the growth of Melbourne from a small town to a world-renowned city, then in to rooms which featured police documentation, including the arrest record of Ned Kelly.
Down in the vaults of the Treasury, where gold bullion used to be stored, were digital projections explaining life during the days of the goldrush. I had visited the Adelaide Treasury the week before, and had loved the underground tunnels that formed our gold vaults. It was interesting to compare our tunnels with the series of vaults in Melbourne (South Australians and Victorians love to one-up each other).
At the time I was there they had an exhibition on bushrangers. Bushrangers seem to have an elevated status in Australian folklore, and none more well-known than the Kelly Gang. They had Dan Kelly’s suit of homemade armour displayed in the exhibition, and it’s just so surreal to see something in real life like that.
The Fitzroy Gardens are right alongside the Old Treasury building, and wandering through them I came across the odd curiosity of Cook’s Cottage. Captain Cook is given the credit for discovering Australia, leading to the British choosing to send their unwanted convicts to the new colony of Botany Bay, which is now in the Sydney area. What then, was his house doing in Melbourne, a place I had never associated with Captain Cook?
The house, it seems, was built by Captain Cook’s father after Cook had begun his naval career. It was then uprooted from Yorkshire in the 1930s and reconstructed brick by brick in the middle of Fitzroy Gardens. It was amusing to see it, though I enjoyed wandering through the nearby Conservatory with all of its beautiful flowers more – it allowed my brain some space to settle down after all of the information it had absorbed at the Old Treasury.
The Royal Exhibition Building
From Fitzroy Gardens, I wandered over to the Royal Exhibition Building, a strikingly unexpected pavilion which housed the first Australian parliament after Federation in 1901, and hosts a museum and a large number of events throughout the year. I was there at the wrong time to take one of the tours, but it was enough for me to see it from the outside.
The State Library of Victoria
I did not expect the State Library to be such an imposing building from the outside. I went there because I had read that they had Ned Kelly’s armour on display, and I wanted to stand in front of an iconic piece of Australian folk history.
The armour was located upstairs on the fifth level of the library, and even if you’re not interested in the armour, it’s worth going up there just to look down upon the light-filled Reading Room.
Ned Kelly is undoubtedly Australia’s most famous bushranger. Together with his brother Dan and friends Joe Byrne Steve Hart, the ‘Kelly Gang’ spent several years eluding police until they made a final last stand in a shootout in the town of Glenrowan, where they outfitted themselves in makeshift armour to protect themselves from the gunfire.
After seeing Dan Kelly’s suit of armour at the Treasury, I stood in front of the case that held the remnants of Ned Kelly’s armour and took it in. There was that feeling of wonder, being so close to something that seems the stuff of legend. It’s hard to explain that feeling you get when something you’ve learned about at school, seen portrayed in documentaries, movies and TV shows, seen parodied in cartoons, is there in front of you. Seeing the marks that the bullets made as they collided against the metal, seeing the thickness of the metal and imagining how heavy it would have been to wear, made the story of Ned Kelly that much more real to me.
I barely scraped the surface of what I could have seen during my day exploring Melbourne. Where should I go the next time I visit?