“Encyclopedia

Civic Treasures

This selection of Melbourne's early civic treasures and foundational documents is drawn from the first decade of the city's history just prior to the tumultuous changes wrought by the discovery of gold in 1851.

Melbourne was officially founded in 1837 - Governor Richard Bourke chose its very English name, and surveyor Robert Hoddle pegged out its distinctive new-world grid pattern. Melbourne was incorporated as a town in the Port Phillip District of the Colony of New South Wales in 1842, and it initially comprised four electoral wards divided around the intersection of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets: Bourke (northwest), Gipps (northeast), La Trobe (southwest) and Lonsdale (southwest). Melbourne was created a Cathedral City in 1847 by Letters Patent of Queen Victoria, though the Act conferring Melbourne with City status was not passed until 1849. The new Colony of Victoria, with Melbourne as its capital, officially separated from New South Wales in 1851.

In making the case for self-government, The Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser (24 August 1840) claimed on 24 August 1840 that Melburnians could manage their own affairs better than 'a few irresponsible strangers, six hundred miles off, who could not say, to their own knowledge, whether we lived like opossums in trees, or underground like bandicoots'. The decade of the 1840s was marked by a boom and bust economy, the creation of a range of civic, social and cultural institutions, and the constant struggle to match urban infrastructure with the demands of an ever-increasing population.

Melbourne's nineteenth-century history is often dominated by the competing foundation mythologies of the mid 1830s, or the grand narratives of the 1850s goldrush, the 1880s land boom, and the bust of 1890s. Through a selection of images and documents from the pre-goldrush period, drawn from some of Melbourne's key cultural institutions, we can glimpse images of the emergent landscape of the 1840s town, as well as gain a sense of the concerns of its inhabitants expressed in the letters they wrote to the municipal council.

Public Record Office Victoria

The Public Record Office Victoria holds many records that date from the establishment of the Port Phillip District in the mid 1830s. These particularly include material created by the Town and later City of Melbourne and which are now bound in correspondence registers in VPRS 3621 (Correspondence Inwards, Government Letters) and VPRS 3622 (Correspondence Inwards, Miscellaneous Letters). The first volume of each series has been digitised for this Civic Treasures feature, and the letters they contain reveal the everyday concerns of citizens, business people, semi-officials and other government departments. Correspondence from Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe from 1842-1844 covers such issues as markets, the Botanic garden, police, the convict population, by-laws, bridges - even a request for wheelbarrows.
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Official letters to the Town Clerk
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Miscellaneous letters to the Town Clerk

University of Melbourne Archives

The collection of the University of Melbourne Archives includes historical records of the University, Victorian business, trade unions, community and cultural organisations, as well as the personal papers of many individuals prominent within them. Records from the first years of the Colony of Victoria are fragmentary, but include documents relating to legal, business and financial affairs.
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Map shewing (sic) the site of Melbourne ... 1837
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Melbourne, city allotments prior to separation, 1851
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Port Phillip Bank partnership document
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Port Phillip Bank partnership Cheque
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Port Phillip Bank partnership Cheque
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Facsimile copy of first judicial decision given in Victoria
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Grant by Purchase to Thomas Hood

City of Melbourne Art & Heritage Collection

Melbourne was created a town by the Melbourne Incorporation Act 1842 (6 Vic., No. 7). While much of the City of Melbourne's nineteenth-century archives are now lodged with the Public Record Office Victoria, the City's Art and Heritage Collection at the Melbourne Town Hall includes a handful of objects, artworks and documents with links to the first years of European settlement.
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A Brick from 1837 house
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Funeral Parlour Letter
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A gift to the Lord Mayor
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Princes Bridge Plaque
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A bust of Lord Nelson

Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne

The Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne is the largest university-based art museum in Australia and was founded in 1972. Its rich and varied collection of nineteenth-century Australian art includes some key watercolours, lithographs, maps, etchings and engravings that show the streets and environs of early Melbourne.
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House on Batman's Hill
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Head Station of Messrs W. and J. McHaffie of Phillip Island
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Melbourne from the South Side of the Yarra Yarra
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Melbourne from the South Side of the Yarra Yarra
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Collins Street in 1843
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View of Melbourne from the Eastern Hill
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Australia Felix, town of Melbourne, Port Phillip
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Vale of Heidelberg near Melbourne
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Elizabeth Street, Melbourne
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View from Bateman's Hill, Melbourne
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Melbourne from Collingwood 1847
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Wesleyan Chapel, with a view in Queens Street
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Wharf & Yarra from Bateman's Hill
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Collins Street from the West
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Elizabeth Street
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Bourke Street from the East
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Catholic Chapel, Melbourne
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Wharf, Melbourne
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Collins Street East from the Independent Chapel
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Signal Station, Melbourne
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Collins Street from Scotch Kirk
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Old Government Offices from Bateman's Hill
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Bridge over Yarra at Melbourne

Site-wide information and acknowledgements

This eMelbourne feature was curated by Professor Andrew J. May with research assistance from Lauren Piko and Gretel Evans, and supported by the University of Melbourne's Cultural & Community Relations Advisory Group and the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies.

Thanks to: Eddie Butler-Bowdon and Cressida Goddard (City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection); Dr Katrina Dean (University of Melbourne Archives); Dr Heather Gaunt (Ian Potter Museum of Art); John Lycette (Lycette Bros.); Helen Morgan (eScholarship Research Centre); Daniel Wilksch (Public Record Office Victoria).
University of Melbourne Public Record Office Victoria Ian Potter Museum of Art City of Melbourne