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The Melbourne Centenary


1934 was the centenary year of Melbourne. Since its glory days as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ in the 1880s it had suffered a major financial crisis in the 1890s, the isolation and strictures imposed by WWI, a worldwide depression in 1930 and was clawing its way out of sombre times come the centenary of the small European settlement that was to become the city Melbourne. During this period, fiscal stimulus had been provided not so much by governments but by self-made businessmen from humble backgrounds who felt a duty to keep employing and offering back to the community during tough times provided they could keep their businesses afloat. People like Sid Myer and Mac Robertson.

Mac had started by making sweets in the family home and by a combination of astute business and brand marketing had done extremely well, still managing to employ a small army of workers in his ‘White City’ in Collingwood during these tough times. For Melbourne’s centenary he could just sign a cheque and hand it over to the city fathers, but he felt he had more to offer than that.

First he set about organising and offer a grand prize for an air race from London to Melbourne. Fast aeroplanes were sure to raise the imaginations and make the front pages of newspapers around the world for a period of time – and all of these headlines would be mentioning Melbourne. And if they mentioned MacRobertson as well then that was a useful side effect. After all, the success of his sweets empire could produce more employment and more philanthropy in the future.

In addition, Mac sought to find out what local initiatives would benefit the people of Melbourne. He settled on three things.

A fountain.

Well, a fountain is nice and I sometimes sit by the MacRobertson Fountain at the southern end of The Shrine parklands and ponder the centenary year.

A bridge.

There was growing need for a bridge across the Yarra in the Toorak area, so Mac funded the MacRobertson Bridge. You can find more background on that bridge in our Seven Bridges of Melbourne series.

A girls high school.

Mac was convinced that girls and women had more to contribute to Melbourne than just studying ‘home duties’ then leaving school at the earliest opportunity. MacRobertson Girls High School was build as a fine modern building in parkland surroundings and remains one of Melbourne’s best examples of restrained ‘Moderne’ architecture.

In the meantime, Melbourne had seen somewhat of a building Renaissance. Depression times are always good for escapist entertainment so the Plaster of Paris never-never lands of the Regent and the State Theatre were erected. These were great fun but not great architecture. However buildings such as Burley Griffin’s Capitol Theatre were particularly when supplemented by other buildings such as the T&G, the Manchester Unity, the Century and so on. Melbourne was again starting to boast architecture of which it could be proud. And for the centenary year, it was arranged that a number of Melbourne’s buildings should be floodlit at night. (This had been made possible by the State Electricity Commission created by John Monash who was the subject of our previous article in this series.)This may not seem particularly significant in the 21st century, but in 1934 the effect of seeing certain buildings in a different light for the first time prompted citizens to look in a new way at the city in which they lived.

Apart from the finish of the air race at Flemington Racecourse, there was probably no one event that generated huge crowds and wild euphoria, however I think it can be said that Melbourne entered its centenary year with dogged determination and left it with a newfound pride and optimism – a pride and optimism that was to influence the city for a number of years to come.

In an era when we now take our floodlit buildings for granted and have grown used to destination marketing campaigns promoting Brand Melbourne, it is useful to look back on the legacy of that centenary year.

  • MacRobertson Fountain
  • Collins Street
  • Eastern Hill Fire Station
  • Flinders Street Station
  • Gordon Place
  • Parliament House
  • Princes Bridge
    Princes Bridge
  • Shrine of Remembrance
  • Stanford Fountain
  • State Theatre (now the Forum Theatre)
    State Theatre (now the Forum Theatre)
  • Swanston Street
  • Treasury Building
  • Hotel Windsor
  • Yarra north bank


Seven Melbourne Events that were Bigger Than The Beatles - overview

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