Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2009

The Place for a Village (2010), by Gary Presland

The Place for a Village 2I borrowed The Place for a Village from the library, started reading it but got distracted by other things – and now Library Elf tells me it’s due back and I can’t renew it because someone else has reserved it. Bother, bother, bother!

Or, maybe this is the Fates telling me that I need to buy this fascinating book?

It begins by explaining that the long gone Batman’s Hill is a metaphor for how this city of mine has been shaped by its landscape and how it altered that landscape beyond recognition.  The earliest explorers in January 1803 used it as a point of reconnaissance, but Batman was the settler who forged an infamous ‘treaty’ with the unsuspecting indigenous people in 1835 and set the processes of change in motion.  Naturally he chose the best bit of land, and built his eight-roomed house on top of the hill.  He fenced off the south and east slopes for his farm, a pattern of development in the east and southeast that persists to this day.  Anyone who’s been out west on a scorcher with a hot northerly wind knows why, but Presland promises a more sophisticated analysis based on the characteristics of the competing environments.

What little I learned of Australian history at school was mostly about its exploration rather than its development, and of course there was a lot about politics.  One year at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival I discovered Robyn Annear’s wonderful Bearbrass which re-imagines early Melbourne with amusing anecdotes and all sorts of intriguing information, and I also have The Encyclopedia of Melbourne but The Place for a Village is different because it focusses on its natural history.

Natural history, first described by Aristotle, (384-322 BCE) was the precursor to the range of sciences which exist today.  Presland cites the original OED definition: the systematic study of all natural objects, animal, vegetable and mineral; now restricted to animal life, usually in a popular manner’ (p9), an allusion to the 18th and 19th century interest in natural history as a hobby for those that had the leisure to indulge it. Charles Darwin is the best known of these, and representative of their great achievements in geography, zoology, botany and geology.  For Presland,  the challenge is to somehow reconstruct the lost landscapes of our city from historical sources, artwork and contemporary knowledge of the natural sciences to fill the gap.

In retrospect, it is astonishing really how quickly Melbourne developed.  After Batman died in 1839 that hill was taken over by the government, and his house was used by Governor LaTrobe till something more splendid was built.   There were vague plans for it to be used for a 50 acre Botanic Gardens but it ended up as a site for a slaughterhouse instead, until the advent of the railways, financed by money from the Gold Rush in the 1850s.  Batman’s Hill, a mere 16 years after his arrival was the site of the first railway station, a remarkable development considering that the locomotives had to imported from Britain in sailing ships.  (You can see Locomotive no 1 at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, but I think Melbourne scrapped our first one.)

BunjilThe significance of Melbourne’s early rail is that by 1892 Batman’s Hill was completely flattened so that the track between Spencer St and Flinders St stations could be laid.  Click here for before and after views. Every time I take the train into the city I travel over this lost landscape, with only Bunjil brooding over Wurundjeri Way to remind me that there is an even older Aboriginal landscape stretching back for tens of thousands of years, and a pre-human natural history before that.

I have reports to write so even reading Chapter 2 is self-indulgence but the story of Melbourne’s geological history is fascinating.  Now I know why I need a brolly so much more often at work in the foothills of Melbourne than I do at home on its coastal plain! The illustrations of early Melbourne (most of which I’ve seen before in various galleries and the State Library) mean so much more when they are linked to Presland’s clear and intriguing explanations about our topography.   Click here, for example, to see Charles Bennett’s 1883 painting of ‘Falls Bridge’ – now the Queen Street Bridge.  The engraving shows the rocky ledge underneath the bridge that the earliest settlers used as stepping stones across the Yarra when they walked to town from the port at Sandridge, saving the price of a ticket for the punt across the river. The Falls, now long gone, were the dividing line between fresh and salt water, and fresh water upstream was what determined the site for the settlement.   The picture that really took me aback was the photograph of the Mordialloc Creek in 1880 which so clearly shows the way in which this landscape has been utterly transformed by swamp drainage and other works.

This is a beautiful, fascinating, wonderful book with chapters covering Melbourne’s climate, its streams and wetlands, pre-European vegetation and animal life, and the influence of nature on our culture.  I can’t wait to read the rest of it….

The Age reviewed The Place for a Village properly  – I wish they’d sent me a nice copy to review!

Update 5/7/18 Historian Janine Rizzetti has reviewed this book too.

Author: Dr Gary Presland
Title: The Place for a Village, How Nature Has Shaped the City of Melbourne
Publisher: Museum Victoria 2008
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


  1. […] if you have a really, really good memory you might remember that I reviewed Presland’s book The Place for a Village but this session was more about the resources that he used for his research.  It turns out that […]


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