When Melbourne was Australia’s capital city

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 1, No. 8  25 June - 9 July 2007 ]

By Kristin Otto

At the start of 1901 the news was: the 20th century had begun, and so had the Commonwealth of Australia.

Political compromise had been reached in the federation process, and Melbourne would be the temporary seat of government until a new city was built. About half a million people found themselves living in what had become the capital of Australia, Melbourne.

Sermons were preached on ‘this great continent’, the glory of the new century, and the wonders of recent inventions and discoveries. Flags and banners flew – ‘One Flag, One Hope, One Destiny’ – and notable establishments were illuminated by the night-time spectacle of electric-lights.

The 19th century truly concluded on 22 January 1901 when Queen Victoria died. She had begun her reign in the same decade Melbourne was founded, the 1830s. The city was still in mourning when the first federal parliament of Australia opened in May 1901. There were more illuminations, and ceremonial archways. The Argus believed, ‘A new city was created …a veritable Paris of the South, the city of a faerie dreamland.’

Two painters were separately commissioned to depict the actual scene of the opening in the Exhibition-building: Tom Roberts and Charles Nuttall. Each picture was then reproduced and the prints sold using brochures proclaiming: ‘The history of a great country, of its great men, of its greatest political event, reduced to the understanding of a child’, ‘An event without parallel ... Never before in history has an entire continent been brought under the rule of a single Government with a Parliament completely representative of a free people’, ‘We trust … that every home of patriotism and loyalty in Australia will possess a copy’.

After the ceremonial opening in the Exhibition, the real work of government began in Parliament House on Spring Street. State Parliament had agreed to vacate temporarily for the Commonwealth until a new federal capital was built. (They spent the next quarter-century in a now-demolished annexe of the Exhibition Building.)

Camping in the house

Edmund Barton, the first prime minister, would kip in a couple of small adjoining rooms in a top corner of Parliament House. At night, he could work late there, or have discussions with Alfred Deakin and a few others, boiling the billy and throwing a few chops on the fire as the clock headed towards morning.

In the early days, Barton could apparently carry the entire records of the federal government in one Gladstone bag.

Federal politicians suffered accommodation problems for years, being away from home for long periods. One suggested he could live in a tent in the back garden of Parliament House. Lucky Deakin would ride his bike, walk, or take the tram home to South Yarra.

Two years into the job, Barton collapsed. Deakin became Prime Minister.

Melbourne was the capital city of Australia from 1901 to 1927. It was a small town where extraordinary people did amazing things. The first feature film in the world was made here in 1906, emerging from the same chemist shop premises where aspirin was reinvented in World War One.

People, events, and locations interconnected. From Barak in 1901 – who was there before Melbourne existed – to Melba returning, and returning, these years saw not only the introduction of film, but also cars, planes, radio, and electricity. What mattered, and matters still, was not the size of the town, or its location, but the size of people’s thoughts.

© Kristin Otto. 2007

Kristin Otto is a writer, and the Redmond Barry 1854 Fellow for 2007, sponsored by the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria. She is working on a manuscript: Capital: Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia, which will be published by Text in late 2008.

Grand times: Celebrations for the opening of the first Australian national parliament in Melbourne in 1901 included a number of sponsored monumental arches, including the Municipal Arch at Princes Bridge.

[ Photographic print from the Bishop Family Collection, University of Melbourne Archives ]

top of page