The mystery of a handsome bridge
Russell Degnan

One of my favourite ways to pass the time is to peruse the extensive colection of works in the State Library that show the evolution of Melbourne's city centre through the 19th century. Thus, did this article on recreating Melbourne in 1886 in digital for a recent ABC drama catch my eye. This is the shot:

Some are constraints. Such as the use of, then doubling the size of, the Morrell Bridge, which leaves it both too narrow, and lacking in the decoration of the Princes Bridge. Others less so, such as the smooth asphalt surface, that wouldn't have existed until the early 20th century, when cyclists and automobiles began pushing for better surfacing - the 1880s surface of choice being either dirt or wood. The city itself though is relatively accurate, give or take the building where the chapter house of St Paul's is, the strange narrowing of the Town Hall clock, and the raising of St Paul's spires from the stumps that characterised it in the 1890s.

But for 1886 though, the show isnt just wrong, it actually forewent an opportunity to really establish the period. For in 1886, neither the Princes Bridge nor St Paul's had been completed. Both were replacing former buildings, as part of the boom period of the late 1880s. The actual Princes Bridge looked more like this:

Immediately apparent is that the 1851 bridge didn't face Swanston Street, but instead the single span crossed the Yarra on the shortest perpendicular route, resulting in a sweeping path (although a number of illustrators took liberties with this, and with unfinished buildings). The crossers of 1886 would still have used this narrow austere bridge with its stone walls, while looking down on the new, longer steel bridge being erected nearby.

Tel Stolfo, the production designer, makes no claims for perfect authenticity, arguing that "I like to create an image of the period, a streetscape, that never existed". And that is fair enough, except, as with heritage, so with historical recreations, the messy process of building gets sanitised into a "Victorian era", which never existed in either reality or style. Which is also a roundabout way of noting that the easiest way to recreate Melbourne in the 1880s is to put a lot of scaffolding up.

Melbourne Town 29th October, 2012 02:28:50   [#]