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MacRobertson Bridge

 
This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.175 on 2 June 2006.

“You seem miles away” says my friend as we pass the MacRobertson Bridge.

At first sight this bridge, which crosses the Yarra at Grange Road linking Toorak and Burnley, may seem unremarkable. However ‘Mac’ Robertson, the man who gave Melbourne the bridge was certainly not unremarkable. We have mentioned Mac in this newsletter before as Melbourne’s own Willy Wonka building a sweets empire from nothing and being the natural successor to E.W.Cole of the Book Arcade as a master of marketing (as distinct from a Master of Marketing). Perhaps less well known is that Mac is the main reason that Melbourne has become the undisputed philanthropy capital of Australia with over 80% of Australia’s philanthropic trusts registered here.

In the early 1930s, Melbourne was a somewhat grey and sombre place. Much of the wealth of the gold rush had been swept away by the major depression of the 1890s. After that, wartime strictures arrived (along with 6 o’clock closing) and just as Melbourne was starting to climb out of its enforced isolation it was hit by the (not quite as) great depression of the 1930s with many people on ‘susso’ and the dole. As 1935 approached there was some optimism in the air and art deco buildings such as the Manchester Unity with Melbourne’s first escalator were starting to give Melbourne a modern atmosphere. The artist of choice to represent this new-found optimism was Napier Waller. Like many artists of the time he was likely to connect Melbourne with classical antiquity rather than dwelling on the less prosaic aspects of Melbourne’s history. Here was a Melbourne with neither blood nor mud on its hands. In Collins Street, the newly refurbished Newspaper House boasted on its mural “I’ll put a girdle around the earth” while a block away at their newly refurbished department store, Myers was intent on putting a girdle around every Melbourne matron.

It was in this atmosphere that Mac was thinking how he could help Melbourne celebrate the centenary of its foundation by Batman and Fawkner in 1835. As Australia’s highest taxpayer he felt no compulsion to make an additional donation to the government for the event – they would probably only spend it on expensive advertising promoting themselves. Better to spend it on something promoting Melbourne. The London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race ensured that Melbourne was on the front page of newspapers around the world for weeks. And if the newspaper happened to mention that Mac Robertson owned a sweets company he didn’t mind all that much. In the centenary year of 1934-35 a number of Melbourne buildings were floodlit for the first time, making it very suitable for destination marketing.

However, like many a self-made-man, Mac was also intent on contributing something more lasting and practical for the people of Melbourne. There had long been needed a bridge over the Yarra in the Burnley area so Mac donated the money. His other gifts to the people of Melbourne for that centenary year include the herbarium in the Botanic Gardens, a fountain at the St Kilda end of the surrounds of the newly built Shrine and a girls’ high school which bears his name.

Sometimes I imagine I can see Mac inspecting the details of his newly built bridge in 1935. At the same time, further down river is another man standing on Princes Bridge. A lot of water had flowed under those arches since he first worked there as a young engineer and he was now contemplating the view of the newly built Shrine for which he had been the major driving force.

“You seem miles away” says my friend as we drive along the Monash Freeway under MacRobertson Bridge. “Not miles away” I say. “Just 70 years”.

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Monuments of Melbourne:

Seven Bridges of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Princes Bridge
No. 2 – MacRobertson Bridge
No. 3 - Sandridge Rail Bridge
No. 4 – Lines composed upon Spencer Street Bridge
No. 5 - Kane's Bridge
No. 6 - West Gate Bridge
No. 7 - Chandler Highway Bridge


You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.