Local heritage in ruins

By Meg Hill

In recent years archaeologists have marvelled over a photo of workers at the Capitol Theatre site in the 1920s. They’re standing next to a picket fence found buried a metre under the ground. 

Then, in 2017 when work began on a development at the Wesley Church site on Lonsdale St, an entire neighbourhood block was found preserved beneath the earth. 

Both sites were too deep to correlate properly with the timeline of European settlement in Melbourne. A new study commissioned by the Heritage Council of Victoria found answers among City of Melbourne documents. 

Heritage in Ruins: An investigation into Melbourne’s ‘buried blocks’ cites, for example, an 1856 petition from a local resident to the City of Melbourne. The resident had been ordered by the council to fill in his low-lying property to the level of his roof with earth. He pleaded for financial assistance. 

Richard Hill lived in Franklyn Street in North Melbourne but his petition is key to the development of land in the CBD in particular.

Local laws passed in the 1840s and ‘50s sought to level the CBD and immediate surrounds as street formation developed and flooding worsened. The default was to force the landowner or tenant to complete this process themselves.

It seems that Richard Hill’s request, which included details of his unlucky ventures at the goldfields, was successful and his house was raised with the new ground level. But around the city, other structures were buried whole.

A retrospective description written in 1888 described street intersections as “gullies or quagmires” that were “almost inextricable for man or beast once glued into them”. 

“During winter, the streets were chains of waterholes, and the traffic had to be suspended in places … Elizabeth and Swanston streets were shallow gullies, with deep and dangerous ruts every 20 yards,” it continued.

“Flinders St was a swamp, and even Collins St was so slushy and sticky, that often to cross over from any portion of the now well-flagged and fashionable ‘Block’ one required to be equipped in a pair of leggings or long mud-boots.”

The study by Alliance Archaeology could pinpoint some specific examples, but the magnitude of the task requires ongoing research.

Researchers found recurring references to “Lake Lonsdale” and the “Lonsdale Swamp”. The body of water on the eastern side of Lonsdale St was apparently considered a major source of disease.

A body was found in a “waterhole” off Spencer St, a child fished out of a pond on Dudley St, and a horse drawn cart disappeared into a body of water at the intersection of Bourke and Elizabeth streets. 

But it’s the “filling” phenomenon, led by the council, that had real repercussions for archaeologists by forming what are like time capsules.

Archaeologist and Heritage Council member Meg Goulding said the study marked a starting point for further research with “huge potential” to uncover heritage sites of state significance in the CBD.

“We just don’t know where they are at this stage,” Ms Goulding said.

30 specific sites of filling events were identified, but the study points to the existence of many more.

In 1855, land was filled surrounding the Sydney Hotel on William St, in a backyard at 113 Little Bourke St, and at the corner of Mincing Lane and Flinders St, according to council documents discovered. 

Ms Goulding said that examples like the petition by Richard Hill were particularly special.

“What I think is really fascinating is the more personal stories that come through, like landowners who are feeling the financial burden of having to raise their block of land all of a sudden by a couple of metres or a metre,” she said.

“It brings history to life by getting a sense of the people of the time, and the landscape itself that people were experiencing.”

Ms Goulding said the research was “at the beginning of the start”, and a natural next step was to partner with universities to lead further studies.

And the implications reach back far beyond European settlement. The act of filling in lower lying sites around the CBD has almost certainly protected Aboriginal archaeology through what researchers call “capping”.

“What we are finding with these excavations more and more are Aboriginal artefacts on the early land surface that Europeans and Aboriginal people were interacting on,” Ms Goulding said.

“You excavate in some places around the CBD and come to this early surface. What this is pointing to is a sort of sealed-in early surface that we did know existed, but that the City of Melbourne initiative in the 1840s and ‘50s really did assist in protecting Aboriginal as well as European archaeology.”

Heritage in Ruins can be downloaded online at heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au

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