The Silent Clocktower

No one was surprised when the North Melbourne Town Hall and Municipal Buildings were listed in the heritage register. They are among Melbourne's greatest buildings. But many must have been surprised that it had taken so long - it happened only a couple of months ago. This odd oversight suggests there is something amiss with the process of heritage listing. Whatever the reason, justice has at last been done.

Recently the buildings have had yet another facelift. In appearance, they are as near to their original conception as a town hall without a town can be. In function, council offices, court house and living quarters have gone, but the hall, the post office, the library and the Errol Street shops are still the same as planned over 120 years ago.

The listed buildings were created between 1875 and 1886. The first was the Town Hall, designed by the architect George Raymond Johnson. This was built on the same site as a preceding town hall designed by John Flanagan. Flanagan's hall was just twelve years old when it was demolished. Nothing much is known about Flanagan's building there are no plans, engravings, sketches or photos of it — but it was apparently quite modest. It was better than meeting in some-one's shop or house but it was not up to the image Hotham Council had of itself. It was indeed compared unfavourably to the Bank of Victoria (now the NAB) diagonally opposite. Hotham council felt that its somewhat unruly immigrant population needed an august symbol of civic order.

Johnson's successful tender, like many of its kind then and now was tainted by scandal. He had unduly influenced councilors before they judged the tenders, it was alleged, but nothing came of it. David Parry was engaged as builder, but died before the building was finished. A foundation stone, of which there is no trace, was laid and the building went ahead with its hall, offices, post office, courthouse and clock tower. Such was the expense of this grand building that it opened in June 1876 with its clock face blank and its bell tower empty.

The bells chimed the Edinburgh peal for the first time on Christmas day 1878 and the clock summoned children to school, workers to labour and travelers to the trains from May 1879.

George Johnson was also asked also to design the library, mechanics institute and shops next to the Post Office along Errol Street. This time there was no controversy, but there is yet another missing foundation stone. A photo of the laying exists but no specific stone. We must assume that, as with the Town Hall stone, nothing was engraved on it. The stones might be visible in the blue-stone foundations but they cannot be identified. To atone for this lack of recognition of George Johnson's work, the Hotham History Project managed to have the lane between the post office and the shops named George Johnson Lane.

The library and shops were built in two stages between 1883 and 1887. Since the municipality changed its name from Hotham to North Melbourne in 1887 the buildings bear the names of both Hotham, in stone, and North Melbourne in iron. A library had been planned in the town hall building but the room was too small. There was also a mechanics institute added but it does not seem to have hosted much more than billiards. Building shops with public money was not really above board, but the council got away with it.

To many old residents of North Melbourne, the clock symbolized their town. They felt uneasy, one said, if they could not see it from their house. Fortunately for estate agents, it is visible from most parts of the suburb. Today passers-by perhaps identify the municipal area not only with the clock, now silent, but also with the ornate fountain near the corner of Errol and Queeensberry Streets. No one drinks from a public water fountain in these days of bottled water and the injunction to keep the pavement dry was hard to obey, so its taps are not serviced. When it was first donated to the town by Mayor Thomas Henderson the fountain stood where the Vespasian now offers public relief, and gave the space outside the Town Hall entrance the air of a town square. The insistent demands of traffic and parking caused it to be moved to the pavement.

The effect of adding a line of 'municipal' buildings to the town hall was to establish an ineradicable character for Errol Street. There have been some awful modem buildings put up in Errol Street, but none have been able to detract from the noble Victorian character that the municipal complex confers on Errol Street, watched over by its stylish tower.

by Bill Hannan, Hotham History Project, June 2010.