Melbourne in 1835

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)

Historian Bill Gammage’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox event was subtitled ‘How Aborigines made Australia’. In the course of his address, Gammage gave the audience a bird’s eye overview of what central Melbourne would have looked like when Batman and co first arrived in 1835, using eyewitness accounts of the time.

North of the Yarra, the land was ‘park-like’, ‘open grassy forest, rising into low hills’. But it was not all the same. Imagine a line from the bottom of Swanston Street to Flagstaff Hill. Southwest, hill and valley were grassy with scattered trees. Northeast was eucalypt woodland, open but with dense forest patches. One patch east of Swanston Street and south of Bourke Street perhaps shielded a dance ground, while at Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens open forest suddenly gave way to ‘dense gum forest’, mostly manna gum. Hilltops varied. Flagstaff Hill was ‘covered with a beautiful grassy surface … [It] had the appearance of a large lawn’. Batman’s Hill (Southern Cross Station) was grassy but topped by sheoaks.

A creek down Elizabeth Street separated two hills, ‘rising and picturesque eminences … on the verge of a beautiful park’, one cresting east at Spring Street, the other west at William Street, each burnt differently. ‘The Eastern Hill was a gum and wattle tree forest, and the Western Hill was so clothed with sheoaks as to give it the appearance of a primeval park’. Both were ‘lightly wooded’, which means regular fire, the west topped with mushrooms, the east with a grass clearing between the Museum and Parliament House. Along the river stood tea-tree patches, as you’d expect of a shallow stream choked with debris and flooding easily, but the patches alternated with grass, which you wouldn’t expect.

All this, Gammage argued, was to promote grass and suppress tea-tree to encourage animals such as kangaroos to feed, and all of it was a landscape managed by just a few families. Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, systematically outlines for the first time how the Australia European settlers found from 1788 on was not a wilderness but in fact a continental-sized garden carefully tended by Aboriginal Australians in a mosaic pattern to maximise its natural abundance.

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