A Melbourne based writer who is a travel junkie, dedicated foodie and emerging photographer.
Published July 17th 2021
We built this city on rock
If you've spent any time in Melbourne's CBD and inner suburbs, you may have noticed the prolific use of a dark, heavy-looking rock - commonly known as bluestone - in the construction of historic buildings, laneways and guttering. It's a feature that is unique to Melbourne. Think of some of Melbourne's earliest buildings, and they are likely to have been either built of bluestone, or on bluestone foundations.
Bluestone. Commonly seen along the laneways and gutters of inner Melbourne.
In fact, the reason Melbourne is located where it is, on the northern banks of the Yarra River, is because of bluestone. John Pascoe Fawkner's schooner Enterprize, captained by John Lancey, sailed up the Yarra in 1835. They picked the landing site, roughly under what is now known as Queens Bridge, because there was a small waterfall, or rapids, that stopped further progress up the river. The waterfall also separated the tidal movement from freshwater. The rocks that created that natural barrier were in fact a reef of bluestone. Robert Russell's historic sketch Melbourne From the Falls, dated 1837, depicts the landing place of the Enterprize, and shows the bluestone reef. At that time, people could walk across the outcrop from one side of the river to the other.
Melbourne From the Falls: an 1837 sketch by Robert Russell (archival image).
Today, the historic landing place bears the name 'Enterprize Wharf', and has been commemorated with a plaque.
Enterprize Wharf today
What is bluestone, and why is it so prolific in Melbourne?
What is commonly referred to as 'bluestone' is actually olivine basalt, and was formed by a massive Pleistocene lava flow which covered most of what is now south-western Victoria. The basalt plains of Victoria are the third-largest in the world, extending from the west of Melbourne to the South Australian border.
As it is an igneous rock, its colour and consistency can vary, depending on the rate at which it initially cooled. The term 'bluestone' was coined during the 1850s to distinguish the local stone, quarried in Footscray in Melbourne's inner west, from other more bland, greyish basalts.
Use of bluestone
Bluestone was identified as a useful commodity even before European settlement. There is archaeological evidence that Aboriginal people were using bluestone around 8000 years ago to build eel traps and stone houses in the Lake Condah region of western Victoria.
Melbourne's first quarries, which opened in the 1830s and 1840s, were located in (what is now) the Fitzroy Gardens, Carlton and Clifton Hill.
By 1841, just four years after Melbourne was named (after being referred to as 'Batmania' from 1835-37) and the city laid out, one British immigrant ship per week was landing in Port Phillip. Empty ships were returning and needed ballast for the journey. Bluestone became the ballast of choice, and most of the bluestone quarrying carried out at that time was for ballast. It has even been suggested that the ballasted bluestone sent back to Britain has ended up lining London's streets.
The earlier bluestone buildings tended to be churches and civic buildings. Construction of Melbourne's first cathedral, St James Cathedral, commenced in 1839. The church is built of rough, unfinished stonework. It bears the title of 'Melbourne's oldest church', even though it was relocated to its current location (corner of King and Batman Streets) in 1913-14, with some structural alterations.
St James Old Church
The Old Melbourne Gaol, construction of which also commenced in 1839, is another fine example of early bluestone construction. It is more refined in its finish than St James Cathedral, built of finely worked, masonry-chiselled regular rectangular bluestone blocks.
The main gate to the Old Melbourne Gaol. The Gaol is a fine example of bluestone construction.
Close up of details of construction of the Old Melbourne Gaol
By the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s, bluestone had become the preferred building material in Melbourne as it was stronger, more plentiful and easier to work with than most other available materials.
Quarries in Clifton Hill, worked by convicts from the Collingwood Stockade in Carlton North, produced stone for Pentridge Prison, built in 1851.
In the 1860s, the inner west suburb of Footscray had become known as 'Stoneopolis', and the vast majority of its residents were described in the directories as 'quarrymen'. There were more than a dozen quarries in the vicinity.
By the 1870s, quarrying in what is now the Braybrook Shire specialised in producing stones for use as road metal and railway line ballast, while Footscray offered blocks for buildings, roads and bridges. Many smaller quarries were operating at Yarraville and Upper Footscray. An 1877 map shows that Footscray Council had its own Borough Quarry, roughly where Michael McCoy Reserve is now located in Ballarat Road, while another large quarry was located at West Footscray approximately where Hansen Reserve is now located.
Hansen Reserve in Melbourne's inner west was previously the site of a large bluestone quarry
James Govan began one of Footscray's early quarries in 1870 behind his two-storey bluestone house on the corner of Summerhill Road and Essex Street. By 1917, the quarry covered the block bordered by Summerhill Road, and Essex, Market and Graham Streets. In 1918, Govan contracted to provide 6000 yards of spall (rough bluestone blocks) at a rate of 75 cubic yards per day to the Footscray Tramway Trust. Govan's house stands to this day.
James Govan's house still stands in Footscray. The bluestone in the house was quarried from the property on which it is standing. Right image shows the side wall of Govan's house.
Bluestone played a key role in the construction of many significant buildings constructed in the 19th and early 20th century, which, while not built of bluestone, had bluestone foundations, sourced from Footscray quarries. Examples include Parliament House (1855), the old Treasury Building (1858), Melbourne Town Hall (1867), St Paul's Cathedral (1880-1931), the General Post Office (1861), and Flinders Street Station (1905).
Many significant Melbourne buildings have bluestone foundations
During the second half of the 19th century, quarrying spread west and north, with quarries opening in Williamstown, Footscray and Brunswick and, towards the end of the century, in Coburg and Preston. In the 1920s there was a vast quarry located near the old Footscray Borough Quarry, roughly on the site of the sports grounds below what is now the Victoria University Footscray Park campus.
Bluestone buildings are far more prevalent in central Melbourne and its western suburbs than in the east. This is because transport costs were prohibitive, and the main brickworks were to the north and east of the city.
How was bluestone quarried?
Early bluestone quarrying was dirty, dangerous and labour intensive. In a process similar to that employed in Egypt thousands of years earlier, quarrymen cut and split the rock by hammering wedges in the joints. These 'plug and feather' wedges were inserted either into natural cracks in the stone, or specially drilled holes. Stones intended for building were then roughly squared using the 12 inch long (35cm), square faced 'napping hammer' and transported by dray directly to the building site.
Look carefully at the blocks in Melbourne's laneways, and you'll often see evidence of drill holes from those early quarrying processes.
Drill holes in bluestone blocks are evidence of early quarrying methods
You might also see marks scratched into the stones. This is a sign of convict labour, the labourers using the marks to identify the stones they'd cut.
Symbols like this cut into old bluestone blocks may indicate convict labour
The rough blocks of bluestone were squared and 'dressed' by the stonemasons, using chisel, mallet, boning-rod and mason's square. Specialist polishing companies emerged, however, the bigger quarries did their own stone-dressing.
By the 1850s, quarrymen were using explosives. They would drill holes with long steel bars, and the 'powder monkey' would place the explosives in the holes and light the fuse. The role of powder monkey was the most dangerous, and traditionally the highest paid, in the quarry. The explosive originally used was black powder, replaced in the late 19th century by dynamite, and later, gelignite.
Interestingly, a 'dressed' block of Footscray bluestone won a gold medal at the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908. The experts said: 'A finer sample of rock it would be difficult to find.'
What happened to the quarries when quarrying ceased?
After the quarries fell into disuse, they were simply left to fill with water and rubbish. Aerial photographs from 1945 show abandoned quarry sites pock-marking the inner western suburbs.
Many of the sites of former quarries have since been transformed into parks and reserves, often having previously operated as tips or toxic waste dumps. If you find a single small reserve located in a residential or industrial landscape in the inner west of Melbourne, it may suggest that a small quarry once existed on the site.
Yarraville Botanical Gardens are on a quarry hole, as are Highpoint, Altona Gate and Sunshine Plaza Shopping Centres. Newport Lakes was also formerly a quarry.
A former quarry site on which apartments were built had devastating consequences for residents in the 1970s. Located on Williamstown Road, at the intersection with Anderson Street, Yarraville, several apartments cracked and partially collapsed. They were ultimately demolished. The 'Yarraville Sinking Village' is taught as a case study of what can go wrong with building developments. Residents eventually won $28,000 compensation each. Today, you'll find Sinking Village Reserve at this location.
Are there still bluestone quarries operating in Victoria today?
Yes. There are quarries in south-western Victoria, supplying bluestone for civil and domestic projects. The production process is very different now, with diamond wire and multi-blade saws enabling a fine, smooth finish.
I have read widely in preparing this article, but would particularly like to acknowledge the works of Gary Vines, including Quarry and Stone (1993); and Professor Stephanie Trigg, including Bluestone and the City: Writing an Emotional History (2017).
Except where indicated, the images in this article were taken by the writer.
A fascinating, informative and detailed article Fiona, well worthy of a gold medal. I will now look closely at all the bluestones in my garden for any historic markings and wonder whom may have trod them before me.
Our garden in full of bluestone we have introduced. We absolutely love it! Having chipped and edged (dressed) some of it ourselves, we can appreciate how hard the convicts etc would have done it all those years ago.
Great article. Thank you for a very interesting read!