Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Pride of Hotham, by Bill Hannan

This is a splendid history by local writer Bill Hannan (he's lived in the area for some forty years) which details the building of the Pride of Hotham, or more prosaically, the North Melbourne Town Hall.

Hannan's book is designed almost like the Victorian neo-classical building that it celebrates, taking on an architectural aspect. The basic political and financial considerations that brought the town hall into being are discussed, but also Hannan unobtrusively weaves in many of the other important features that played a part in 'The Pride of Hotham'. In a book on a single topic like this, essentially the biography of a building, you'd think that the author would often indulge in trivialities in order to pad out his book. Yet everything Hannan writes is substantial and worthwhile (his training as an art critic and writer has no doubt helped in this.)

North Melburnians like myself (actually, I live in West Melbourne, but it's almost the same thing) who've lived in the area for ages and love the suburb will have a great fondness for the town hall. As I don't often carry a watch, I find myself frequently looking out for the clock tower to find out the time. Hannan quotes North Melbourne residents who report a sense of calm that the clock tower provides. I understand what they mean. To see the North Melbourne clock tower from a distance means to know you are home.

The town hall was officially opened on 27 June 1876. The library and shop extensions were added about a decade later. The actual clock was a later addition as well, seeing there was not enough money around for it. Indeed, it was lucky that they had got the thing up by the 1870s, as by the 1890s the terrible depression of that period had hit and there was no money around.

The building's architect was George Johnson. He was quite famous for theatres in his day, but most have unfortunately been pulled down. It is his town halls that survive. North Melbourne residents will also know his building in Courtney Street, the Meat Market building, with its corner Metropolitan pub.

One comes away from this book with an admiration for the visionaries who wanted to stamp down on the traditional Wurundjeri Aboriginal lands their version of Victorian England. That's the ardent anglophile in me. On the other hand it seems quite mad. That madness involved pumping shit into a beautiful North Melbourne lake, rendering it a toxic health hazard and then having to have it drained. Kangaroos used to frequent the area too. Now of course they're gone, although you can still catch a possum at the Flagstaff Gardens.

Interestingly, a lot of the pioneers saw themselves as here only for the short term, then it would be back to England after they'd made their fortunes. Yet many ended up staying longer and longer.

It was sad also to read of the problems that came after the boom time during which the town hall was built. The 1890s saw a terrible depression. Then there was the First World War, in which the soldier sons of a lot of the councilors died, killed themselves, or turned to drink.

I very much enjoyed this history by Bill Hannan. He has a dry, sophisticated wit that he lets drop here and there throughout the text. I also liked his, what I'll call political, historical and aesthetic sensibilities. For example, he smartly says that the town hall was a triumph of the secular over the religious, and that it commanded the higher authority as being at the centre of the township. This is smart and astute writing.

I loved his musings on the special perfume that was created for 'The Pride of Hotham' by local chemist Charles Ager Atkin (41 and 43 Errol Street, established 1853. There is still a chemist in the same building) It was called 'The Pride of Hotham Bouquet'. I quoth Mr Hannan:

'I like to fancy that Pride of Hotham was a Classic Chypre note, evocative of the Mediterranean where Classical civilisation evolved, and with a top note of citrus, a longer middle note of rose and jasmine and an enduring base of animal musk. In architectural terms, Corinthian decadence on a sturdy Doric base.'

Alas, those heady heydays came to an end in the 1890s with a crushing depression. This would turn the area into a safe Labor seat. Yet the monument to those good times lives on. And in North Melbourne it lives on in the best style. The North Melbourne town hall, with its later extensions, merges harmoniously with the centre of North Melbourne's shopping strip.

Yet look at what happened to other town halls. Think of the Collingwood town hall, which sits incongruously on that horrid Hoddle Street. Bill Hannan rightly describes the effect as of a wedding cake sitting in a sandwich bar. Or the Fitroy town hall, which looks completely out of place in its residential setting.

Make no mistake, North Melburnians can hold their heads up high when it comes to 'The Pride of Hotham'.


Anonymous said...

Where was (is?) the North Melbourne lake, Chris?

Chris Saliba says....... said...

I believe the North Melbourne lake was around where the North Melbourne rail station and train lines now are, stretching up to Arden Street, where the football oval and pool are.

There are quotes from white settlers around the 1850s, in Mr Hannan's book, which attest to its beauty. It was pumped full of human waste and was eventually deemed unsanitary by the North Melbourne (then Hotham) council, and hence drained.

There were huge sanitary problems (and deaths) in the area due to human waste (feces).