Melbourne’s 1854 Exhibition 

By Rosemary Cameron, Royal Historical Society of Victoria

In 1851 London staged The Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park. 

Six million people passed through those crystal doors and the event became a defining point of the nineteenth century.

Spurred by London’s success, industrial nations competed to showcase their innovative engineering and scientific advances. World fairs or “expos” became all the rage.

Expos are still held, but their heyday was the second half of the 19th century. The Eiffel Tower was Paris’ centerpiece. Chicago built the fabled White City. St Louis’ expo was immortalised in the Judy Garland film Meet me in St Louis and Melbourne built the beautiful Royal Exhibition Building for its expo in 1880.

However, before we took centre-stage in our own right, we staged a more modest exhibition in 1854 to showcase the industrial and agricultural products the colony of Victoria was sending to the Parisian 1855 World Expo.

A competition for the design of a building “capable of being cheaply and quickly constructed” had been won by architect Samuel Merrett and, in just 77 days, a capacious two storeys were built and filled with “objects of utility, taste and curiosity”.

On a site in William St, between Little Lonsdale and LaTrobe streets, Merrett’s design used a framework of timber and iron fitted with almost 200 large windows and the roof was also largely made of glass.

Mrs Charles Pasley, wife of the Chief Commissioner of Lands, described the building as: “The Exhibition Building is a little gem. It is a miniature model of the Crystal Palace and of much beauty.”

When the exhibition opened, visitors could feast their eyes on exotica such as:

A pair of an improved description of pantaloon riding breeches;

A self-acting organ, playing 16 tunes, with eight-day clock attached;

A pair of boots with revolving heels; and

Part of the heart of a tree curiously perforated by ants.

The Age newspaper exhibited a steam printing machine, and in fact, the very first edition of The Age was printed at the exhibition on Tuesday, October 17 1854.

The building was used again for an exhibition in 1861 and, as it was one of the few buildings in Melbourne big enough to accommodate large public functions, it was in much demand.

The public was captivated with events including the governor’s levees, the mayor’s fancy dress ball in 1863, a vice-regal ball in honour of Her Majesty’s birthday in 1864, and a grand state ball given by His Excellency the Governor in honour of H. R. H. the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867.

In 1855, the first lectures at the University of Melbourne were held in the Exhibition Building whilst the university buildings in Carlton were being built.

On July 17, 1866 the ship Netherby ran aground on King Island. All 500 passengers made it safely to shore and the survivors were brought to Melbourne where they were temporarily housed in the Exhibition Building.

The Temperance League of Victoria held mass rallies in the building campaigning against the demon drink and it was the setting for the first Melbourne Dog Show in April 1864, attracting 381 entries.

The Exhibition Building was eventually demolished in the late 1860s and the Mint, which still stands, was erected on the site during 1871-72.

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