A view to a hill (with an explosive secret)

A view to a hill (with an explosive secret)

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV)

It’s late 1855, and a new gasworks has been built west of Spencer St to help supply gas for the city’s growing energy needs.

Young photographer Walter Woodbury is looking for an opportunity to take a unique photo. He finds it at the top of the gasworks 195-foot (59.4-metre) chimney, which still has a steam engine-powered cradle that recently hauled up 30 guests to a platform for a celebratory tea party on completion of its construction. Upon reaching the top, he takes four photos to create the first known panoramic image of Melbourne.

One of them is this grainy image showing the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets. If one squints, you not only see the first Princes Bridge, but also Queens Wharf (which stretched between Spencer St and the current Aquarium site). Further to the right are the abattoirs that lined the Yarra, slowly polluting it with foul animal remains and noxious chemicals. At the bottom of the photo is the muddy flat of the nearby Melbourne Swamp, which was located north-west of Melbourne until drainage started in the 1870s.

Then, in-between all of this, is Batman’s Hill.

It is hard to believe for many Melburnians today, but the west side of Spencer St was originally an 18-metre hillock covered in she-oak, that sloped towards the Yarra. It was there that the city’s founder, John Batman, had his house. If one focuses right of centre of the hill, you can see the house standing on top, barricaded by a picket fence. When Batman died in 1839, it became a Government Office, and was later used as a hospital.

It also was a notable leisure site, as the founding members of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) played some of the city’s first games there, and gentlemen would settle scores with dramatic pistol duels. Most famously, the hill worked as a makeshift grandstand for fun-seeking citizens on March 6, 1838 when the first horse race in Victoria commenced from the swamp then along the grassy flat at the hill’s base. In the 1850s, the 40th Regiment of Foot band would perform there for any curious passersby in a musical mood.

On the far left of Woodbury’s photo is a boxy building surrounded by a square wall known as the Powder Magazine, which stored the city’s supply of gunpowder. It was designed by Royal Engineer George Barney and construction was overseen by architect Henry Ginn, who by 1855 had left Victoria and his Richmond residence had been converted into the pleasure gardens, Cremorne Gardens.

From the late 1830s, there had been public pleas to erect a powder magazine, especially to bolster the city’s defenses. An 1845 article from the Port Phillip Gazette and Settler’s Journal suggested one should be built at Indented Heads“in times of war with the French” who at the time were “striving for supremacy in the South Pacific”. Gunpowder was commercially sold in gun shops, as seen in an advertisement for J. Blanch’s store in the Port Phillip Gazette on December 29, 1838. Unfortunately, Blanch and his wife would be killed in a tragic accident in December 1839 when a gun went off and ignited his supply. At the time, the government was blamed for a lack of urgency on a safe storage space.

During a visit to Victoria in 1841, Governor George Gipps was reported saying by both the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser, that a magazine would be built near the beach near the Pier Hotel in Port Melbourne. However, it wasn’t until 1846 that construction started at Batman’s Hill, costing about £2000 and finishing on January 22, 1848. The powder was moved from its former storage in Williamstown, and a Captain Sutherland was assigned the magazine’s keeper. The magazine’s completion coincided with the introduction of a new Act that allowed the importation of gunpowder into Port Phillip. Under the Act, gunpowder had to be transported between 7am and 5pm, failure to deliver to a government magazine attracted a penalty of £5 to £50, and all ships with gunpowder on board had to hoist the Union Jack on the mainmast when entering a port. In 1854, around 247,883lbs of powder had been imported into Victoria’s ports, much of which would’ve been stored in the magazine.

However, local citizens didn’t exactly feel safe about the magazine’s close proximity to the city. Writing to the editor of The Argus on May 30, 1857, A. Gordon suggested that a magazine should be “three or four miles distant from any residence”. An 1861 report about Victoria’s defenses agreed with the sentiment, with J. Chatfield Tyler noting that having 80 tonnes of explosives near a timber yard and gasworks was “dangerous to the safety of the city”. In the same report, the Superintendent of Military Works, P.H. Scratchley, complained about the hazardous conditions, such as a lack of copper at the doorways, and the close proximity to wooden sheds.

Whether or not the magazine addressed these issues, it didn’t matter. With Spencer Street Station needing more land for its freight sheds, a contract was signed in 1863 to tear down the hill. By 1866, the levelling was complete at the cost of over £24,000. The gunpowder would be moved to a magazine at Royal Park, while Batman’s Cottage and the original magazine were left to the mercy of progress. In its wake, a 12-foot-high embankment remained until further Spencer Street Station extensions destroyed it in 1892.

Today, the hill (and the gasworks) are gone and the site is now the home of the Bunjil sculpture, based on the eagle deity of the Kulin Nation, who sternly gazes west towards Docklands. Alas, that salubrious view was a short-lived luxury as now all Bunjil can gaze upon is a high-rise apartment •

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