Hold the front page! Melbourne’s first printing office

Hold the front page! Melbourne’s first printing office
Dr Cheryl Griffin

This image of a derelict building in a laneway off Market St was the scene of great activity in the early years of the colony ...

It’s where an antiquated printing press churned out the pages of Melbourne’s earliest newspaper, The Melbourne Advertiser, dubbed by Garryowen (journalist Edmund Finn) “a miserable rag”.

The first issue was published on New Year’s Day 1838 and in the absence of a printing press it was handwritten by the paper’s owner, John Pascoe Fawkner. After 10 editions, a dilapidated hand-operated printing press was put into action, although the newspaper closed soon after because Fawkner did not have a publishing licence. Undeterred, he was back a year later with The Port Phillip Patriot.

Fawkner’s printing office was tucked away behind Lange and Thoneman’s Market St store. This image was taken in 1887, just before Lange and Thoneman, who owned it by then, had it demolished. 

They used it as a store for groceries and other goods and we are told that they were “somewhat reluctant” to demolish the building but did so because they wanted to build a larger structure on the site.

So, you see here a building at the end of its life, a decaying remnant of the earliest days of white settlement. Believed to be the oldest building in the city, it was held in place by the brick walls of the merchant’s two stores. But those walls were crumbling, and sections had been rebuilt because of the level of decay. With its shingled roof and earthen floor, it was a far cry from the magnificent edifices of “Marvellous Melbourne”. 

The photograph was provided to the Australasian Sketcher, which published it in July 1887, by Charles Atkin of Hotham (now North Melbourne), whose son, a member of the Amateur Photographic Association, was the photographer. 

It seems that Atkin also gave a copy to Lange and Thoneman and from there it made its way to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s (RHSV) collection courtesy of Lange’s daughter Mrs Marie Bage, a foundation member of the Society.

If you thought you recognised this image, then it’s possible you saw it on the front cover of Bearbrass, Robyn Annear’s wonderfully evocative imagining of early Melbourne. If you haven’t already done so, it is well worth reading.

You will be absorbed into the life of Melbourne when it was just a village, before the explosive growth of the goldrush era and long before “Marvellous Melbourne” swept through the CBD in all its magnificence.

And if you’re interested in finding out more about this period of Melbourne’s history, please visit RHSV’s current exhibition Garryowen’s Melbourne, curated by Dr Liz Rushen AM. It’s at the Drill Hall, 239 A’Beckett St (opposite Flagstaff Gardens) and runs until March 2024. •

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