Getting the message out

Old Government Printing Office in William Street. Government Printer John Ferres lived in the adjacent cottage.Site now occupied by Supreme Court of Victoria. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

By David Thompson

For society to function, a government needs a means of communicating its rules, regulations and processes with the governed. 

Today it is Twitter but in the early days of European settlement around Port Phillip the only means available, apart from word of mouth, was the printed word. Thus even during the first short-lived settlement in Victoria in 1803 at Sullivans Bay near Sorrento a small printing press produced the first official documents in Victoria, a set of general orders and garrison orders.

With the appointment of Charles LaTrobe as superintendent of Port Phillip District in 1839, the need again arose for official printing.

Initially this was done by private contractors. However in 1850 LaTrobe established a small Government Printing Office. The first government printer, Edward Khull, a former printer to the University of Glasgow, was appointed in 1851, only to be dismissed 10 months later.

He was replaced by John Ferres, the manager of the Melbourne Morning Herald. Ferres had gained extensive printing experience in England and proved to be a successful appointment.

According to one writer Ferres did his job “… with a degree of success which certainly few other men could equal and none excel.” He served in office for 33 years.

With a staff of about six, Ferres began work in an office in Lonsdale St West but that proved too small and so other buildings were used. Then in May, 1853, a ballroom originally built beside the government offices at the corner of Lonsdale and William streets for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday was modified for use by the government printer.

Ferres and his staff moved in and work began on printing government documents, among which were a large number of miner’s licences to cope with the demands of the gold rush. This site is now occupied by the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Melbourne’s environment made life difficult for Ferres. Summer heat softened the material of the printing rollers and they had to be cooled in a well dug in the centre of the print room floor.

To quote Ferres “… it is only by being able to replace a soft roller with a fresh one from the well that the pressmen succeed in proceeding steadily and continuously with their work.”

The dust which often enveloped Melbourne was also “… a great impediment in the way of fine printing …” as it caused much extra wear of the type fount and wooden printing blocks.

The converted ballroom was home for the Government Printing Office until 1858. Government had by then gravitated to the eastern end of the city and a new Government Printing Office was built on what is now the Treasury Reserve.

This building was designed by the remarkable John James Clark. The 14-year-old Clark migrated from England to Melbourne with his family in 1852. Clark had no formal qualifications but gained employment as a draughtsman in the Colonial Architect’s Office largely on the strength of a detailed and finely executed map of his home city of Liverpool, prepared as a school project. (That map is now one of the treasures in the Collection of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.)

The design of the new Government Printing Office was one of his first jobs and he went on to design many government buildings in Victoria and elsewhere.

Production began in the new building on May 31, 1858. Ferres now had a staff of over 100 and business was expanding rapidly. The Government Printer produced about six million documents in 1859. By 1874 that figure had risen to over nineteen million.

The new building was extended several times. It was quite badly damaged by fire in 1882 but continued to serve until 1961 when the Government Printer left the CBD and moved to new premises in North Melbourne.

The original ballroom has long disappeared but Clark’s building remains, hidden among other government buildings in St Andrews Place.

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