By Meg Hill
Walking into Neil Munro’s sixth floor Collins St apartment in Temple Court is like walking into a living museum.
Most of the furniture is 19th century antique, classical music is playing on the radio, the walls are covered with oil paintings, and 82-year-old Neil immediately begins to fill you in on his family history.
“My father’s mother’s family, the Chalmers, arrived on the Travencore on the first of November 1849 – they got off in Geelong,” Neil says.
The atmosphere is accentuated consistently by his archival knowledge of history and his family’s place in it.
“My paternal grandfather was born in Miners Rest, and he married my grandmother in the 1890s during the great crash after the land boom.”
“He was pioneering a property down near Korumburra and he came to Melbourne to work in the accounts department in the newly-established Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, which was set up in 1891.”
“He sent the money back to the farm to keep it going.”
So, it’s not surprising that the Camberwell Historical Society featured Neil in its film about the suburb – Neil’s old family home in Camberwell, which he owns, was built for his parents in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression.
He’s had his CBD apartment since 2001.
His family history is interwoven with landmark historical events and figures.
“My father was born in 1894 in Hawthorn, he got a scholarship to South Melbourne College and then he went to Melbourne University. Only about 2 per cent of the population went to university, and it was the only university in Melbourne.”
“That was in 1912 or 1913. He should have graduated in 1916 but he went to the First World War and luckily survived.”
Neil’s father went to university with an 18-year-old Robert Menzies, who told him “I’m going to be Prime Minister one day”. They were both in the debating society.
What makes the atmosphere strange is the juxtaposition between the time-capsule apartment and the view outside. Sitting on antique armchairs in front of Neil’s window, we’re overlooking a tower being built in the middle of Collins Street.
Neil is used to the world speeding up around him, although he’s far from happy with the way development has trumped heritage. He worked for a few companies based in “in big glass boxes” in the city during the 60s, and says there “was no upper limit to the chaos” in those companies when the first computers were introduced.
“Clerks were writing things and were suddenly faced with customer numbers and swipe cards,” he said.
“They were pioneering it and the chaos was terrible because they were running the two systems together, and then they decided to go to decimal currency.”
These days Neil goes between Camberwell and the CBD. He says he comes to the city almost every day “because I just like it”.
“I’m a member of the RACV Club, I go there most days. If I’m not there I’ve got my books and my music.”
Titles about Melbourne were stacked on his 19th century cabinet: Lost Melbourne, Remembering Melbourne, Retro Melbourne.
And as for the paintings: “Most of them are my brother’s paintings, early ones from when he was a student. He went on to do abstract later in life, but I don’t like the abstract ones so I have a collection of his early works – portraits and landscapes.”
As I’m on my way out he points to a painting by the door. It’s a landscape of a grassy, bare patch of Melbourne before hardly anything had been built. He remarks that development isn’t all bad.