'In 1835 in John Batman's controversial 'treaty', he acquired 200,000 hectares of land from the local Aborigines, in exchange for blankets, tomahawks and knives. Batman proclaimed the land beside the Yarra River as 'the perfect place for a village'
Finding myself with a surplus amount of time to kill Thursday morning last I decided to visit the Old Treasury building on Spring Street. A building within a stone's throw of my apartment that had forever been on my Melbourne 'to-do list'. Like a penniless tourist type moth I was drawn to the flame of the grand old building, having heard it contained a free museum, among other things.
It's easy to see how this building is regarded as one of Australia's finest 19th Century buildings. From the outside it casts an impressive grand colonial shadow over the top of Collins Street. As you enter through the sliding doors (which seem at odds with their historic surrounds) you're greeted by the friendly and enthusiastic staff who give you a brief history of the building and the exhibits within.
Upon entering the grand main room you can't help but let your mind wander. Surrounded by historic old paintings and pictures along with rows and rows of tomes you feel immersed in history, of having stepped back in time. As I sat down in one of the ornate leathery chairs I imagined what kind of meetings and discussions were held here among some of Melbourne's brightest and finest of the time. The main room also serves to tell the fascinating story of the life and times of the building's architect JJ Clark. A prodigious young Liverpudlian immigrant man who helped to shape some of Melbourne and Australia's finest buildings of the time, many of which still stand today.
Each room upstairs tells its own story of Melbourne, Victoria and Australia's rich and storied past, of the events and people who shaped it. Displays that tell of Victoria's gold rush heyday, the Eureka Stockade, of the Victorian s Suffragettes Society founded by Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe, stories of Melbourne's female convicts, whose crimes when seen in black and white are almost laughable compared to crimes committed today.
A whole room is dedicated solely to Australia's most infamous character and outlaw Ned Kelly and his family. A ten minute snippet of the world's first full-length feature film 'The Story of the Kelly Gang' (1906) directed by Charles Tait, plays on loop on a TV in the room. A film which was extremely controversial upon its original release, being banned in parts of Victoria. Controversial Australian Films
A handwritten letter by Kelly in which he describes himself and how he's viewed: 'everyone looks on me like a black snake', makes for fascinating reading. This letter coupled with photos, records of his health and character, and prison records describing his various crimes and subsequent hanging help shed some fascinating light on the now almost mythical and much commented upon figure. The equally storied life and times of Underbelly Razor's new star Squizzy Taylor also feature on another display.
The downstairs/ basement is easily the star of the show, if only for its architecture alone. Cavernous, white, imposing corridor tunnels lead you from one vault to another. As you get to walk through the actual house of the family that lived in the treasury building, the Maynards, (the human angle of the building ). While the father of the family carried out his role of superintendent upstairs, the mother cared for the family downstairs. The added recordings of Mrs Maynard using the sewing machine, the kids playing and arguing are a nice if slightly eerie touch. Again, your mind wanders as you look out the very window that Mrs. Maynard did all those years ago, as she cast a motherly eye over her children as they played in the courtyard.
The eights vaults downstairs that were once used to store gold bullion mined during the gold rush are now used as interactive displays which reenact stories of the gold rush. Eight vaults in all tell various stories, like that of the gold buyers in 1853, who made their riches off the backs of the hard-working miners, of the gold escorts from Ballarat to Melbourne, the ten mile towns, the daring and bold bushrangers who would attempt to hold up and rob the escorts en route to the city.
I found the third vault the most interesting as stories of the day were told in modern news reporting style by Channel Ten's Mal Walden. Reports from October 1859 on clipper ships, overcrowding in Hobson Bay, pirates, and speed records for ships transporting gold from Melbourne back to the motherland of old England.
The other vaults reenact stories of the people who experienced the gold rush first hand, both good and bad, a panoramic view of Melbourne in 1866 (the Nettleton panorama), stories of the cultural change and impact on Melbourne and its people brought about by the gold rush, the first ever visiting English cricket team coming to play in Australia at the newly opened MCG etc. The see-through floor of the eighth vault instantly grabs your attention upon entry, as lines of solid gold bars make up the floor viewed through a thick slab of Perspex. A rush of excitement washes over you as you gaze at them. No wonder so many people suffered 'gold fever' back in those days.
As I prepared to leave the building I gave thanks that some of the laws of the day are no longer enforced. Of how it was an actual crime to be poor (the poor/vagrancy law), of how it was illegal for people to be seen hanging around the streets of Melbourne for no reason or without a job. Laws that if enforced today would see me do a solid stint behind bars.
The Old Treasury Building with its free entry is well worth a look (as the glowing reports in the visitors book testify). It's a fascinating look into the history of Melbourne from its very origin, the history and the characters that made up 'marvellous Melbourne'. You'll find plenty of new thought-provoking riches in this, one of Melbourne's oldest treasures. Highly recommended.