Wednesday 1 May 2013

the 10 best places to sit and relax in Melbourne's CBD (and the stories behind the city): part 2 of 2

Park your rear here, because what follows is the final article in my two-part series on the best places to sit in Melbourne's CBD.

You can read the selection criteria and part one of the series by clicking here.  Otherwise, storytime continues... now.


#5 – St. Augustine's Churchyard 

Seating: park benches.

On the western end of Bourke Street between Spencer and King streets lies the small church of St. Augustine's.  Its leafy, secluded front courtyard is ringed with park benches.

The church is named after St. Augustine of Hippo, who died in the year 430.  The patron saint of printers, St. Augustine inspired the creation of the "Canons Regular" religious order, even though Augustine himself was always more of a Hewlett-Packard man (and far from regular).

Built primarily out of bluestone in the Gothic Revival style, St. Augustine's opened on 25 September 1870.  A handsome collection was taken from the capacity crowd during the opening mass, but a debt of £1000 remained owing to the builders.

The church took a very direct route in raising the funds.  On Boxing Day, 26 December 1870, it placed an advertisement in The Argus newspaper as follows:
THIRTY-FOUR THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED and NINETEEN inhabitants of West Melbourne, Hotham, &c, WANTED at CATHOLIC PICNIC, on day commonly called Boxing, to swell the proceeds, which are to be given to liquidate the debt on St Augustine's Church.
Apparently the "Catholic Picnic" was all the rage in the 1870s.  In that same newspaper, I spotted around fifteen advertisements for the Boxing Day Catholic Picnic—you must remember, these were the days before televised cricket.

Where did this Catholic Picnic come from?  A clue might perhaps be found in a South Australian Register article from 30 December 1880, which outlined the history of Adelaide's version of the event:
Some twelve or fourteen years ago the 26th of December was "Boxing Day" in reality. Large numbers of men used to assemble for the purpose of either joining in or witnessing combat in the "wrestling ring"...different nationalities were set antagonistically against each other, and consequently the result of a contest not only caused ill-feeling between the two persons immediately concerned, but over the whole district.
Father Kennedy can take the credit for putting a stop to these brutal practices...the attractions of the wrestling ring being done away with, it was necessary to establish something else, and consequently an annual picnic was resorted to.

So, remember when your primary school teacher told you that Boxing Day never had anything to do with boxing?  She should've read this blog.

#4 – The Age front lawn

Seating: concrete benches, concrete steps, grassy knoll.

Published in Melbourne since 1854, The Age newspaper is headquartered on a small rise overlooking Collins and Spencer streets in the western end of Melbourne's CBD.

That small rise used to be a lot larger.  The Age sits on part of what used to be Batman's Hill, an 18-metre mound on which Melbourne pioneer John Batman built a house and settled his family.

Batman begun his journey into the history books in June 1835, when he travelled to present-day Northcote to negotiate a "treaty" with the local Wurundjeri aborigines, purchasing most of present-day Melbourne in exchange for 40 pairs of blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 pairs of scissors, 40 looking glasses, 250 handkerchiefs, 18 shirts, 4 flannel jackets, and 4 suits of clothes.  Given that Batman's treaty was eventually invalidated by the colonial authorities, he would have been better off to keep those items for himself, remain in Northcote until 2013, and open up a vintage clothing and accessories store.

The grassy hill in front of The Age is a great place to stop, sit, and watch the city go by, like John Batman may have done over 170 years ago.  Just make sure you avoid this area on a windy day—or you might be blown off your perch by the breeze funnelling across from Docklands, also known as the "Stalingrad End" of town.

Actually, I'm not being very fair with that description.  Apologies. The city of Stalingrad was immensely popular at certain points in history (most particularly amongst German tourists during the winter of 1943), whereas nobody in their right mind has ever wanted to go to Docklands.

#3 – State Library of Victoria

Seating: concrete steps, park benches, grass.

Considerable debate rages to this day about who was the true founder of Melbourne.  Was it John Batman, who famously declared "this will be the place for a village!" after signing his treaty with the Aborigines?  Or was it cunning Tasmanian businessman John Pascoe Fawkner, who assured John Batman upon hearing about the treaty that he had no intention of settling anywhere near the future site of Melbourne, and then, when Batman wasn't looking, sent an entire ship stocked with settlers, materials and provisions up the Yarra river and built a town, pub, and newspaper?

The answer to this question is truly Melbourne's great social divide; moreso than any allegiance to political party, union, school, suburb, or football team, this is the question that defines us.  Like a country town with only two pubs, Melbourne is split firmly into the Batman camp and the Fawkner camp.

And I would advise visitors to our great city to capitalise on this!  If you wish to make friends with a Melburnian, don't be so foolish as to strike up a conversation about football—rather, simply ask whether he or she believes John Batman or John Pascoe Fawkner to be Melbourne's true founder.  If you get a blank stare in reply, it is likely that your question was not heard.  Ask again, much louder this time.

Perhaps the answer will one day be found in the original diaries of Batman and Fawkner, both of which are held at the State Library of Victoria (initially as collateral after both Batman and Fawkner could not agree on how to share the colony's sole copy of "Do You Have a Flag?": the Travelling Englishman's Guide to Terra Nullius).

Oh yes, and the forecourt of the State Library is exceedingly popular with sitters, especially those wishing to sun themselves like lizards on a clear winter's day.

#2 – Old Melbourne Gaol

Seating: park benches, tables, concrete, artificial grass.

Opened in 1845, Old Melbourne Gaol is best known today as the site at which convicted bushranger Ned Kelly was executed in November 1880.

"It is not that I fear death; I fear it as little as to drink a cup of tea", said Kelly in court as he was sentenced to death by hanging, proving that whilst he was a brave man, he was also lucky enough to always take his tea-water from a kettle, and not one of those god-awful instant "boiling" water taps that pumps out tepid slop at offices across Melbourne.

But as the 20th century dawned, the Gaol was gradually put to other uses. "No finer record could be left by a Government than the emptying of gaols to provide accommodation for educational institutions", said Premier Alexander Peacock in 1914—a noble sentiment indeed, provided one duly ignores the spike in ruffianism that comes from emptying thousands of prisoners onto the streets.

Part of the Gaol was converted into the female-only Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy, which was opened by the future Queen Mother in 1927.  At the opening, the College presented the Queen Mother with an honorary diploma for setting "all Australians an example of home life", which caused sales of sherry to skyrocket throughout Australia on the following day.

These days, the Emily McPherson College has been subsumed into RMIT, which occupies most of the land in the area, including several spaces (such as Alumni Courtyard, pictured above) surrounding the old Gaol building that are clean, quiet, and eerily fantastic places for a sit.

The Gaol itself remains as a tourist attraction, claimed to be one of the most haunted sites in Melbourne, although Ned Kelly ghost sightings have drastically dropped off in recent times—strangely enough, ever since RMIT textile/photography double majors were instructed to stop cutting through the Gaol grounds on their way home to Brunswick.

#1 – Gordon Reserve

Seating: park benches, grass.

Located on Spring Street between Parliament House and the Treasury buildings, and replete with newly renovated lawns, benches, and fountain, Gordon Reserve is a sitter's dream—a welcome urban respite for city workers of all sorts, particularly members of government standing committees.

In an ingeniously thrifty maneuver that may soon prove more popular in cities running out of money and space, the reserve achieves maximum commemoration with minimal expenditure by being dedicated to the memory of not one, not two, but three famous Gordons—all connected throughout history!

Gordon #1 is Adam Lindsay Gordon: poet, politician, and jockey.  Once called "Australia's National Poet", he was the first Australian to have his bust placed in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey in London.

During his formative years in England, the teenaged Gordon #1 was a friend and schoolmate of Gordon #2: Charles George Gordon.  This Gordon was a Major-General in the British Army who believed that the Earth was encased in a large hollow sphere in which Satan dwelt somewhere over the south Pacific.

After being beheaded by rebels in the Sudan, Gordon #2 inspired a wave of patriotism across the British Empire—including in Australia, where Gordon #3, former Prime Minister of Australia Sir Robert Gordon Menzies was given his middle name in honour of Gordon #2's exploits.

Menzies' connection to Gordon Reserve comes in the form of a small stone plaque on the easternmost edge of the reserve that commemorates the laying of the first Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney coaxial telecommunications cable from 1957 to 1962, a nation-building project over which the Menzies government presided.

Designed to handle an increased volume of telephone traffic, the cable was also built with extra capacity to handle the emerging technology of television (despite TV in Australia being only one year old when planning began).

Thankfully, Menzies did not choose a "faster, cheaper, and more affordable" coaxial cable scheme—where perhaps the cable would have been laid only as far as Shepparton, at which point TV shows would be transcribed by operators and then transmitted onwards to Melbourne via Morse code on the existing telegraph network (even though this would surely have been "more than enough for the average household"—provided that households did not want to watch, say, live coverage of the 1963 federal election).

Did I mention Gordon Reserve is a great place to sit?  The best, in fact.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I love a good read.... My wife and I have moved to Hong Kong 2 years ago and this is the first time I had a chance to come back for an extended holiday. I've never appreciated Melbourne for all her worth when I grew up here. Thanks for your post - it was truly informative and complete with the perfect touch of humour.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! If I can slide in something even remotely educative amongst my usual nonsense, I'm a happy fella.

      I'm also completely with you on the delights of "re-discovering" a city. I did the same thing with Melbourne after a couple of years overseas and loved every minute.