The Great Exhibition
. . . or to be more precise, the great exhibitions.
Melbourne had started life as a small bedraggled settlement, but gold
was to change all that. Fortunately, the gold came at pretty much the
right time and the right place. By the time the gold was running out a
number of remarkable people, most of them starting from scratch, had
taken the opportunities of the time to set up thriving and worthwhile
industries and commercial enterprises. By the 1870s Melbourne's wealth
was starting to be generated by industries created mainly by self-made
men and women of enterprise, rather than those whose power came from
inherited wealth or class. Unfortunately at the same time a number of
people were accumulating temporary unearned wealth courtesy of a
land and property boom but by the 1890s that bubble burst and we had
learned our lesson for ever – maybe.
Melbourne had held several exhibitions of its industries trades and
arts at an exhibition building made substantially of glass standing
diagonally opposite the Flagstaff Gardens. That building was later
replaced by the Royal Mint.
Meanwhile, back in England, a queen who had named herself after this
esteemed colony (or was it the other way around) had married a German
gentleman who met the appropriate political and diplomatic requirements.
The English did not warm quickly to Albert who was a cultured and
scholarly man. He however had a firm belief in the civilising effects of
industry and commerce, arguing that if nations became mutually
co-dependent through trade then there would less and less incentive to
go to war with each other. As a result he became a great promoter of the
world fair concept. People would come together in a city somewhere in
the world for up to a year at a time and the arts, culture, industry and
trades of various nations put on show. They had such an impact that
they had major influence on the futures of many artists, musicians,
designers, industrialists, engineers, thinkers and ordinary citizens of
Melbourne held a grand exhibition in 1880 and commissioned a
temporary building to house it. Local architect
Joseph Reed and local builder
David Mitchell seemed to shape up
well. They say Mitchell's daughter
Helen could sing a bit too. Many said the venture was too risky and
the exhibition was an expensive experiment that would never work.
Fortunately those sort of people have now disappeared from Melbourne.
The Exhibition Building was
erected together with a number of ancillary buildings and the 1880
exhibition was a great success. So much so that after this proof of
concept a second grander exhibition was held in 1888. Fortunately the
temporary Exhibition Building had not been knocked down so it could be
These two exhibitions left an indelible impression on Melbourne.
Reading the correspondence of the time reveals certain parallels with the
2000 Sydney Olympics. Australians had half prepared themselves for a cringeworthy opening ceremony but eventually relaxed and exuded a
certain pride when it did not turn out that way. Similarly the
exhibitions of the 1880s led to a certain fear that Melbourne would be
revealed to the world as a city of backwater hicks with a lot of money
but not much culture. When it turned out that our local home-grown
industries and enterprises were being hailed as world class there was a
silent sigh of relief. Matrons, regardless of whether their
circumstances were well-heeled or modest, took a little extra care in
their grooming before heading into the city and carried themselves with
an air of dignity befitting residents of a well-regarded metropolis.
International businessmen who had previously omitted their country of
origin from their calling cards now proudly displayed the word
‘Melbourne’ together with a picture of the Exhibition Building.
It is difficult to go around Melbourne, or Victoria for that matter,
without seeing reminders of the Great Exhibition. In Carlton you will
see terraces that hastily had second or third storeys added to house the
visitors. At the entry to the
Gardens you will see the bust of Sir
William John Clarke who was made an hereditary baronet for his
services to her beloved Albert’s world fair ventures. In
Docklands you will see the large railway
goods shed erected there to handle goods for the exhibition. In a
Warrnambool gallery you will see the Loch Ard Peacock which never quite
made it to the exhibition. And so on.
However, the most permanent reminder is David Mitchell’s temporary
building. All over Europe you will find impressive heritage buildings
but most of them have been turned into museums or tourist venues.
Melbourne is young enough for many of its most impressive heritage
buildings to still operate as working buildings.
Parliament House is still the
home to Parliament. The Melbourne
Club still operates as club rooms. The
Old Treasury Building is still the
office of the Governor. And David Mitchell’s temporary building has
still continued to earn its keep for over a century despite a proposal
for its demolition to Melbourne City Council which was defeated by one
vote. The grand old dame has seen some less than salubrious times but
continued to work and has served as a venue home shows, car shows,
examinations, balls, gala occasions and of course – exhibitions. She
knows that if she continues to work and earn her keep she will possibly
escape being relegated to a home for the irrelevant. And like the
matrons of 1888 she knows the most important thing is, no matter what,
to retain your dignity.
We feel it is fair to say that impact on Melbourne of the Great
Exhibition was bigger than the Beatles.
No. 2 - The Great Exhibition