Melbourne and mining history

Mining Towns: Making a living, making a life by Professor Erik Eklund.

Mining Towns: Making a living, making a life by Professor Erik Eklund.

by Professor Erik Eklund

The current mining boom has revealed a range of controversies over who benefits from the extracted mineral wealth, whether it’s the resource rent tax, the economic and social costs of a fly-in-fly-out workforce, or the repatriation of profits overseas. The issue of who benefits has played out in our history before. By the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the city of Melbourne occupied a pre-eminent position as the commercial and financial capital of Australia. This was, to a large degree, based on the wealth generated by gold mining from the 1850s, and then base metal mining from the 1880s.

Our best urban historians have given us a rich picture of the expanding colonial metropolis of Melbourne, but if we focus on the city’s relationship to other places, specifically the areas of mining wealth, we can begin to see how Melbourne’s banks and commercial buildings, its finest suburbs and colonial mansions were built on the back of mining wealth. “The actual production does not take place in Victoria,” wrote visiting English author Richard Twopeny in 1883, “but it is in Melbourne that the money resulting from the productions of other colonies as well as of Victoria is turned over.”

One way to explore this theme is through an interpretation of one of the Melbourne’s most famous representations, John Brack’s iconic painting, ‘Collins St., 5pm’. The background buildings in Brack’s painting were not copied directly. A photographer friend took pictures later used for a composite streetscape, yet the building to the viewer’s right of the Bank of New South Wales was clearly 360 Collins Street, a crucial seat of financial and economic power that influenced not only Melbourne but places well beyond the city limits.

The building’s graceful archway led on to Sicilian marble corridors and red marble walls. This was a site well known to Brack himself, who stood in this archway waiting for a friend who worked in the building while he did sketches for the painting.

Many individual, family and company interests came together at 360 Collins Street, the home of the ‘Collins House Group’ led by key businessmen such as W L Baillieu, W S Robinson and Colin Fraser. Completed in 1911, the building was the centre of a mining empire, a confederation of separate companies held together by friendship, marriage and interlocking business interests. It had its genesis in Broken Hill but eventually was involved in just about every major mining and industrial site in the country.

Melbourne’s position as “the metropolis of the Southern Hemisphere”, as Twopeny called it, was well-established by the 1880s. But in that decade the city’s financial and business power was further cemented by the wealth that flowed from a number of valuable mineral finds hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. Melbourne was partly built on mining wealth extracted from other places, much of it controlled and managed from Collins Street. Bankers, solicitors, pastoralists and surveyors joined together to create syndicates and joint stock companies. Melbourne was the hub of this activity.

Australia’s first mining millionaires were Melbourne-based. Some were hands-on managers who lived in the mining locality and then, having made their fortune, headed to Melbourne to sit on boards as experienced directors. Mining profits were invested in the fashionable suburbs and mining wealth underpinned the new homes built in South Yarra, Malvern, Toorak and elsewhere.

The view of these lavish homes and business empires from the mining areas that generated this fabulous wealth was not always complimentary. As trade unions recovered from the worst of the 1890s depression and a more confident Labor Party began contesting municipal and state elections, Board members were less likely to be so warmly welcomed in mining areas.

Members of the labour movement began criticising the extent of the wealth gouged from mining areas and transferred to far-away capitals. After many years of company control at Mount Morgan, a Labor candidate, Henry Cowap won the 1902 state election promising an absentee tax: “The millionaires could draw their money from Mount Morgan, live at home in peace and comfort, and enjoy all the luxuries that the world could bring them; but all they paid to the Government was five per cent.” At Broken Hill, the dusty, primitive conditions with simple tents or corrugated housing, where locals struggled with Barrier fever (a form of typhoid) in the summer of 1889 was a long way from the Melbourne clubs, ornate commercial buildings and impressive mansions.

For a few decades Melbourne was the centre of such mining and industrial empires. By the time that Brack completed his work in 1955 the Collins House group was breaking up. Many of its founding figures had died. Collins House, with extensive additions by Walter Burley Griffin completed in 1914, was finally demolished in 1974. Mining wealth, which once accrued in Melbourne in such large amounts, moved on to other cities, with Perth and Brisbane now gaining more than their fair share.

How fitting then, in light of this argument, that the only words in Brack’s iconic painting of Melbourne were “Bank of New South Wales”, for indeed much of the wealth of late nineteenth century Collins Street came from the far western NSW town of Broken Hill. Just as mining wealth helped create the commercial centre of Melbourne and its well-to-do suburbs, mining wealth continues to shape our urban fabric, channelling wealth from the sites of production to the places where the businesses are owned and managed.

Erik Eklund is a Professor of History in the School of Applied Media and Social Sciences at Monash University’s Gippsland and Berwick Campuses. Professor Eklund’s new book, Mining Towns: making a living, making a life, has just been published by New South Books.