Where government found a home

By David Thompson

Although today Spring St is synonymous with government, in Melbourne’s early days, government was centred on the western end of what is now the CBD. Superintendent La Trobe and other government officials occupied a range of temporary accommodation in the area, including John Batman’s old house near Batman’s Hill.

In 1843 James Rattenbury, the Clerk of Works, prepared a design for new government offices. After several design changes, the colonial government in Sydney finally gave its approval and contractor James Webb began work in 1844.

In 1846, despite controversy over the quality of the granite used in construction, the two-storey government office building was completed on the south-east corner of William and Lonsdale streets.

The building was at the time one of the most important buildings in the Port Phillip District. It was described as having “... dignified plain facades with horizontal banded courses on the ground floor and ashlar above. The roof overhung the walls in the Italian fashion ...”

There were portico entrances on the Lonsdale St and William St facades. Internally, there were five offices on each floor.

In January 1846, government officials moved from their previous cramped accommodation into their new premises. Superintendent LaTrobe occupied one of the offices on the first floor.

Other departments in the building included the Sub-Treasury, Survey, Land and Emigration Board, and the Crown Commissioner’s Department.

On July 15, 1851 Victoria officially separated from New South Wales, and Charles Joseph LaTrobe was installed as the new colony’s first Lieutenant-Governor. The ceremony took place on the steps of the government offices. The Colonial Secretary, Captain Lonsdale, began to read the proclamation, but, reported the Argus, “… by some mismanagement, this seemed to act as the signal for the salute to be fired from the guns stationed close by and the voice of the Colonial Secretary was momentarily drowned by the loud boom of the field battery. The honourable gentleman, however had probably smelt too much powder in his time, to be scared from the performance of his duty and he read steadily on …”

Following the proclamation, numerous addresses of congratulation were presented to the Lieutenant-Governor from the Mayor and Council of Melbourne, and from various civic bodies. After the formalities were completed, the new Governor held his first levee inside the government offices, beginning at 2pm. Regulations published in the press stated that: “All persons attending the Levee are requested to appear in full evening costume.”

LaTrobe decided on May 16, 1853 to hold a grand ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 25, 1853. No suitable venue existed so a new ballroom, large enough to hold 1500 people, was erected beside the government offices. Construction was completed in little over a week, an achievement which was, as the Argus commented, “…considering the usual pace of governmental undertakings, nothing short of absolutely miraculous.” The ball was regarded as a great success. Shortly afterwards the ballroom was taken over by the government printing office, which had previously occupied a succession of nearby buildings. The printing office remained there until 1858, when it moved to a new building near Parliament House.

In 1854, the electric telegraph office was built adjacent to the government offices and was linked to Williamstown by Australia’s first electric telegraph line, which opened in March, 1854. At first, the telegraph office was a crude wooden shack but that was soon replaced by a substantial stone building.

The old government offices building was demolished in the early 1870s to make way for the new Supreme Court, construction of which began in 1874. It is sad that a building of such significance to Victoria’s early history has disappeared without trace. Today, the only reminder of that period is a plaque on the William St wall of the Supreme Court, near Little Bourke St, commemorating the establishment of Australia’s first telegraph line in 1854.

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