Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Victoria’s hidden cultural history

Andrew Stephens, These 10 extraordinary Victorian stories have been hidden for too long, The Age, 20 January 2023

Dotted around Victoria are landmarks whose stories we might never have guessed.

There are places we walk past every day without knowing the hidden stories that lie within. From a city intersection where two freedom fighters were hanged in 1842, to the unmarked grave of a pioneering female newspaper editor, these landmarks whisper of faraway lives and stories long forgotten. In this intriguing tour of 10 Victorian landmarks, long-forgotten people and places reveal themselves anew …

Melbourne Town Hall

Turtle soup, larded guinea fowl, boar’s head and champagne jelly: the “Right Worshipful” (and unimaginatively named) Lord Mayor Benjamin Benjamin and guests feasted upon such dubious delicacies in 1887 for his inaugural dinner at Melbourne’s majestic Town Hall. The food sounds hideous. One of many in the City of Melbourne’s vast Art and Heritage Collection, this menu details seven courses, peppered with a tedious 15 toasts, with “the Ladies” scraping in last, just behind “the Press”.

Menu for the inaugural dinner of Lord Mayor Benjamin Benjamin, 1887. E. Whitehead & Co. CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE CITY OF MELBOURNE ART AND HERITAGE COLLECTION.

In those days, the Town Hall we know today – built in 1870 after the first one proved too small – was the epicentre of the burgeoning town’s cultural and political life. The collected menus are a fascinating record of what the upper echelons consumed. Many were written in French, then the height of sophistication. But by the 20th century, the tucker became more recognisable and a little more local: in 1921, Mayor John Swanson enjoyed caviar, crème of celery soup and roast chook with cress, topping it off with peach Melba (kind of local: named after Melbourne’s famed soprano, but created at London’s Savoy by a Frenchman).

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, dined on pigeon vol-au-vents, beef tongue and marbled frozen jellies during his visit to Melbourne in 1867. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES.

The menus take in dinners held elsewhere (hotels, clubs, Parliament House, Government House). A nine-course dinner held in 1867 at the Melbourne Club was especially lavish: it was for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, the first Royal Family member to visit Melbourne. He couldn’t eat at the Town Hall because it hadn’t been built: he was here to lay its foundation stone. His dinner sounds challenging, with pigeon vol-au-vents, beef tongue and marbled frozen jellies, but he survived indigestion to make two more visits to the thriving metropolis.

City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection items feature in themed exhibitions at City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall.

Koorie Heritage Trust

Glenda Nicholls with some of her feather flowers for Miwi Milloo, or Good Spirit of the Murray River, commissioned NGV Triennial 2020. CREDIT:WAYNE QUILLIAM.

Glenda Nicholls, a Waddi Waddi/Ngarrindjeri/Yorta Yorta woman, first sent one of her feather-flower creations to the Koorie Heritage Trust many years ago, when she was a young mother and hoping to get traditional craft practices into public view.

Feather-flowers are unusual bouquets made from selected bird feathers and have traditionally had a ceremonial function among many Indigenous clans around the country. They have individual storylines that tend to be handed down matrilineally – Nicholls learnt the tradition from her mother, who learnt it from her mother, and so this particular feather-flower storyline stretches back to South Australia, where Nicholls’ Ngarrindjeri mob comes from (the family has been in the Swan Hill area for several generations).

Installation view of Glenda Nicholls’ work Miwi Milloo (Good Spirit of the Murray River). CREDIT: TOM ROSS/NGV.

Today, the trust has about 150 feather-flowers from various sources, including Nicholls’ works. “I learnt from my mum by watching her,” says Nicholls, whose enormous creation Miwi Milloo, or Good Spirit of the Murray River was suspended in front of the water wall for the NGV Triennial in 2020 – the work comprises fishing nets with daintily hanging feather-flowers.

“I was a sickly kid, and when I was home sick, Mum’d be making these feather flowers,” Nicholls says. “She sold them for what she called ‘wheelbarrow’ money – if there was anything we needed that didn’t fit into our budget, she was able to buy it with the wheelbarrow money.” On Ngarrindjeri country, the birds found or eaten would have provided the feathers – but some were avoided. Her grandmother, for example, was always averse to emu and owl feathers. “You get to know the feeling of ‘No, don’t use that one’.”

Her mother usually used chicken feathers but has always told her daughter that she must adapt to what surrounds her – so she used cockatoo, galah and rosella feathers, among others. Nicholls, who occasionally runs feather workshops, tends to buy hers online from reputable sources where the animals aren’t exploited. “And if a special bird comes my way, I will use that for a special purpose, such as a ceremonial outfit to wear while doing dancing or for someone else who does ceremonial dancing,” she says.

The Koorie Heritage Trust feather-flower collection can be viewed by appointment. koorieheritagetrust.com.au

Sands & McDougall building, Spencer Street

In the 1960s, US-born Melbourne photographer Maggie Diaz diligently made portraits of workers at the Sands & McDougall publishing house in West Melbourne. The magnificent building was like a city-state, its docks and alleyways a thriving hub for delivery trucks (horses in the early days) amid the clamour of the presses. Diaz recorded every aspect of this industry, from the smartly dressed Mad Men-like art department staff to the men in grubby overalls who inked things up down below.

Maggie Diaz, Sands McDougall Workers, 1960s.

Sands & Mac was famous in Melbourne for 117 years as the producer not only of stationery and other paper products but the huge volume known as the Melbourne Directory – or, more colloquially, the “Sands & Mac”. A sort of internet of its day, the annually updated directory was an extraordinary feat of logistics: foot soldiers from the factory would methodically door-knock the entire city to check names and addresses and include them in the book, founded in 1857.

The Melbourne Directory was better known as the “Sands & Mac”.

Known as “walkers”, the compilers must have had extraordinary insights into the lives of Melburnians – but the information they collected was strictly defined; if only they’d been able to publish their cultural and social observations in these monstrous volumes which, at their grandest in 1927, weighed five kilos and were 3520 pages long.

As well as residents, listed alphabetically by surname, each directory included maps and a guide to banks, societies and associations, and listings covering municipal, government, colonial, legal and ecclesiastical sectors. It sounds tedious, but it was a goldmine, especially for debt-collectors.

Melbourne historian John Lack has written that the Melbourne Directory was unmatched in its reliability, comprehensive coverage and, now, its inestimable value to social scientists and historians. Sands & Mac continued until 1978 but the final directory was printed in 1974. Demand had plummeted thanks to the Melway, and free phone books tossed annually onto everyone’s front lawn. The directory was sunk, and best used as a doorstopper. The beautiful building remains as offices.

Melbourne Directory volumes are held in collections such as the State Library of Victoria, University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library and the City of Melbourne.

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