Aboriginal history in the Hoddle Grid

By Meg Hill

A recently-released City of Melbourne heritage review is likely the most extensive study of the inner city’s Aboriginal history ever conducted.

At the April 2 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, Cr Rohan Leppert described the effort as “completely new in local government”.

The meeting discussed volumes three, four and five of the six volume Aboriginal heritage review, part of the overall Hoddle Grid Heritage Review.

Cr Nicolas Frances Gilley said it was an “extraordinary piece of work”.

“We have in this country somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 continuous years of a people living on the land – the oldest continuous culture in the world,” Cr Frances Gilley said.

“That’s extraordinary, and that now you might be able to better find and touch and understand how that culture was below the concrete that is now often on top of it is going to be really important for us in claiming that history and story.”

Cr Frances Gilley talked about The Falls, one of the places of significance highlighted by the review.

“I learnt today you can actually walk along the bank of the Yarra and look down and see some of the rocks that formed The Falls that separated the salt water people from the fresh water people,” he said.

“It’s so sad that with such a rich culture, the oldest culture on the planet, that we don’t know that, we weren’t taught that in school, we don’t have it so readily as the history of the invasion of this land.”

“What’s amazing to me is that while we haven’t acknowledged those cultures, the people of the Kulin nation, the three groups relevant to this land, contribute willingly to help us understand.”

“They don’t say: ‘You mean after 200 years you’re interested? Get lost.’ They say: ‘Here, this is what we know, this is what we’ve remembered’.” 

The three traditional owner organisations involved in the review are the Boon Wurrung Foundation, Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation.

Bunurong Land Council CEO Dan Turnbull said the review was extremely important and began to address the “current deficiency of information, promotion and recognition of the rich cultural history that lies beneath our feet”.

“Many people we speak to think that Aboriginal heritage sites are away from the city, as though they don’t understand that only 160 years ago it was a well-maintained open bushland and had been for tens of thousands of years,” he said.

“Today, the CBD is Melbourne’s business district but prior to 1835 it was the place where the Kulin Nation did their ‘business’ and, as such, the space is rich with both tangible and intangible Aboriginal cultural heritage.”

“We are proud to be working with the City of Melbourne and Context Heritage on this project.”

Parbinata Carolyn Briggs from the Boon Wurrung Foundation said the recognition and respect for their history by all peoples on their lands was vital for the harmony of our broader community.

“The Boonwurrung people are looking forward to making a further contribution to this ongoing project, which has a lot of merit to building the recognition of our traditional beliefs that all Melburnians have a stake in and can be proud of,” she said.

Cr Leppert highlighted the success of the review on the question of shared heritage.

“These three volumes in particular, which explore not just Aboriginal histories but the way we look at shared heritage and how to accurately reflect that shared heritage in our slightly fragmented heritage statutory framework,” he said.

“The law kind of takes a rigid approach where you’ve got post-contact European heritage on one side governed by the Heritage Act and Aboriginal heritage on the other side governed by the Aboriginal Heritage Act.”

“But what do you do about all of those places that have so many important values that meet so many different cultural values whether it’s European, Aboriginal or shared?”

“Heritage is a continually-evolving practice and that exploration into how you properly recognise shared heritage values is something that we’ve done here really well.”

CBD News has picked out some highlights from the review below, but we recommend reading the whole document. It’s available online from the Future Melbourne website.


The idea of uncovering pre-contact Aboriginal history of Melbourne CBD, particularly through archaeology, has long been neglected. 

New studies are rarely a requirement of developments, both because of the lack of cultural heritage sensitivity and the built-up nature of the CBD, according to the review.

But the review concludes against the common belief that prior ground disturbances had eliminated archaeological potential.

A review of pre-contact archaeological data found that Aboriginal stone artefacts in the area are found both in original as well as disturbed contexts.

The review highlights the prior land and water forms that existed for thousands of years, and their importance in considering pre-contact life in the area. 

For example, the review emphasised Batman Hill and Eastern/Parliament Hill as important locations to Aboriginal people in the early post-contact period with at least a pre-contact association.

Batman Hill was likely important because of its proximity to the West Melbourne Swamp, which the review also highlighted as a rich and important ecosystem.

Neither the hill or the swamp remains today, but are sites of built up development around Southern Cross Station and Docklands. 

Similarly, the Yarra itself was of probably of unparalleled importance to Aboriginal people since long before European settlement in the area, and has had its ecology changed.

The Falls and the Yarra 

The Yarra naturally separated salt water from fresh water by way of a waterfall at what is now the location of Queens Bridge.

The waterfall had long been the only crossing point in the area. The review concludes it was probably partially natural and partially constructed.

For the Kulin nation, it was also an ancestral meeting place. The Falls had a Kulin song, a name and a creation story.

The point was where settlers stopped in their expeditions – both John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner’s parties stopped at the part of the river below The Falls. 

There is evidence that Aboriginal people carried settlers over The Falls, and that the location – always crucially important to Aboriginal people in the area – also became central to the settlers.

A sub-genre of Melbourne historical illustration features The Falls and, according to most sources, John Batman’s son drowned after falling off The Falls 10 years after settlement. 

It was blown up in the 1880s to allow ships further up the river, but you can still see some of the original rocks below Queens Bridge.

Old Melbourne Gaol

The first people hanged by the new government in Melbourne were referred to at the time as Bob and Jack.

Their real names were Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, two Aboriginal freedom fighters from Tasmania. After witnessing the destruction of their communities in Tasmania, they were brought to Victoria and witnessed it a second time.

They escaped to the bush and, with some others, fought back, stockpiling guns and burning down settlements.

They were hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol after a trial in which they were deprived of a defence.

There is now a memorial to the pair at the location of their hanging outside RMIT University. Their bodies are buried somewhere beneath Queen Victoria Market. 

The review tells the stories of a number of other Aboriginal prisoners at the gaol, including the Wurundjeri elder Tullamareena who escaped from his imprisonment in the first Melbourne gaol and subsequently burnt the building down. 

The act is immortalised in an 1840 painting by Wilbraham Liardet, owned by the State Library.

William Cooper, the Australian Aborigines League and the former German Consulate

William Cooper is best known for leading a protest to the German Consulate in 1938, condemning the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany after Kristalnacht.

The act of solidarity from an Aboriginal activist to another persecuted community is striking. It is often highlighted that, at this time in history, most governments were turning a blind eye to the treatment of Jews in Germany.

The Consul General to the Third Reich refused to see the delegation. 

Seventy-four years later, Cooper’s grandson, Alf Turner, delivered a replica of the letter to the consul-general of Germany, accompanied by Aboriginal and Jewish community members. 

Mr Cooper became the honorary secretary of the Australian Aborigines League in 1935, campaigning for an end to discrimination, the granting of access to land, education and parliamentary representation.

The heritage review recommends that the former German Consulate building, where Cooper walked to from his home 10 km away with friends, family and other members of the Aboriginal community, be placed under further heritage protection. 

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