Rediscover the Flagstaff Gardens

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

There are many reasons to visit the Flagstaff Gardens. 

The gardens are of great significance to Victoria’s history. In many ways you can trace the vast social and technological changes experienced by Melbourne, by Victoria, by Australia and even by the world as you walk around the gardens today. You will certainly get a sense of the changing attitudes to public spaces over the past 180 or so years, since white settlers first came to the area.

The Flagstaff Gardens take the visitor back to the very beginnings of white settlement in Victoria. To begin with there was just a hut used by John Batman’s shepherds. Then in 1836 or 1837 it became the first burial ground for Melbourne. There is now a Pioneers Monument, erected in 1871, marking the spot of the earlier Burial Hill. It’s a memorial to the early settlers whose resting place this is. Created in the Gothic style, you almost feel as though it’s been directly taken out of an English church and transplanted here in the heart of Melbourne.

When the gardens were laid out in 1840, the site was lightly wooded. A signalling station was established. To begin with it was just a wooden signalman’s hut with a flagstaff through which they communicated with a similar station at Point Gellibrand at Williamstown. Flags were flown to indicate shipping arrivals. There was a bulletin board nearby where shipping lists were posted, so it soon became a regular gathering place for Melburnians. There is even mention of it being a popular place for duelling!

Once you looked over Melbourne from the hilltop. Now you need to use your imagination and picture a time before high-rise buildings and busy city streets. For example, looking west, trees and buildings block much of the view but you can still see the occasional church spire in the distance and parts of Docklands where for thousands of years before white settlement it had been fertile wetlands, a hunting and fishing ground for generations of Aboriginal people and a meeting place for ceremonies and trade. 

On the hilltop you will find Separation Monument, the site of celebrations associated with Victoria’s separation from New South Wales in 1851. Today you have to imagine hard to picture the crowds that gathered there, the bonfires, the bands playing and festivities of all sorts that took place. It must have been an exciting time of looking forward to a prosperous future, a future built on the wealth brought by the gold rush.

For a brief period (1857 to 1862), the top of the hill was the site of a magnetic and meteorological observatory under Bavarian professor Georg von Neumayer. Progress got in its way however, and it had to be relocated because the engines and iron in a nearby timber mill were interfering with the electro-magnetic readings. The top of the hill was levelled off in the 1920s after the buildings were demolished, so now the visitor must imagine what it was like a century or more ago.

From the early 1860s, the site became a public park and the gardens were established in the gardenesque style. Then in the 1890s Guilfoyle redesigned the gardens. It’s changed over time, of course. The current paths are not necessarily those of the past. And it’s hard to picture it now, but from the 1860s until the 1920s there were picket fences and closed gates around the park to protect the new plants from being destroyed by Melbourne’s domestic goats which roamed freely around the area. 

There is much more to know about the Flagstaff Gardens and their environs. Why not join one of the Royal Historical Society’s guided walks to find out more?

Time: Mondays at 11am

Where: Royal Historical Society,
239 A’Beckett St

Cost: $10. (Children under 16 free)

Duration: 75 minutes

Bookings preferred: Book at reception or phone 9326 9288 or email [email protected]

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