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Unveiling the Layers of Batman's Hill and Melbourne's Urban History

While doing the Melbourne Urban History subject this February, one site, Batman’s Hill, caught my attention. It is a site that has floated in and out of Melbourne’s urban consciousness since colonisation. The various activities, narratives and interpretations associated with Batman's Hill shed light on its historical use, its role in the commemoration of John Batman and its appropriation by urban planners in the Docklands precinct.

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While doing the Melbourne Urban History subject this February, one site, Batman’s Hill, caught my attention. It is a site that has floated in and out of Melbourne’s urban consciousness since colonisation. The various activities, narratives and interpretations associated with Batman's Hill shed light on its historical use, its role in the commemoration of John Batman and its appropriation by urban planners in the Docklands precinct. Batman’s Hill is a microcosm of the broader contest of Melbourne's civic history.

Though it once overlooked vast wetlands, today Batman’s Hill is little more than a minor concrete rise amidst an urban jungle. Located at the western end of Melbourne’s original Hoddle Street grid, Batman’s Hill was named for John Batman, a colonial overstraiter from Van Diemen’s Land who led the Port Phillip Association’s settlement of what would become Melbourne and built his house on the hill. The once-18-metre-high hill is located to the south of today’s Collins Street, Southern Cross Railway Station, at the eastern border of the Docklands precinct. Once a prominent natural feature, Batman's Hill now stands as a mere vestige amidst Melbourne's urban jungle.

View from Batman's Hill looking westward, from an original sketch taken in 1836 or beginning of 1837. Robert Russell, surveyor, 1884. Courtesy of the State Library Victoria Collection. Though the physical hill is gone, Batman's Hill remains a site of continual transformation, both physically and symbolically.  Batman’s Hill has been implicated in the contestation and memorialising of John Batman’s legacy as a form of settler “Indigenisation”. Planners of the Docklands precinct have appropriated the name “Batman’s Hill” to situate the area within a foundational myth of Melbourne and thereby resurrected a once-forgotten figure in the cityscape. I argue that the Docklands development rebuilt Batman’s Hill as both a physical and symbolic site of significance. Ultimately, Batman’s Hill provides a lens through which to comprehend how Melbourne’s civic history has been understood and disputed more broadly.

When John Batman and the Port Phillip Association first arrived at the mouth of the Birrarung (Yarra) River in 1835, what became known as Batman’s Hill was a cone-shaped, 18-metre-tall hill overlooking the wetlands that expanded to the west. This was a view of widely recognised beauty, reproduced in several watercolours and sketches. In April 1836, Batman and his family settled on the hill and built a house at the base, where Batman lived until his early death from syphilis in 1839. The Batmans’ house was one of the largest and grandest in the settlement, frequently featured in art of early settlement Melbourne.

In 1837, the Hoddle Grid, Melbourne’s first town plan, was designed with Batman’s Hill as its western boundary–its significance to the new settlement evidenced by its prominent features on Hoddle’s map. However, by the 1880s, the physical hill–including any traces of Batman’s original house–was blown up and removed for industrial use. With all physical memory erased, the site became less culturally significant to Melbourne’s citizens. In maps from the 1890s, the site is no longer labelled as Batman’s Hill.

The recognition of Batman's Hill fluctuated with the recognition of John Batman himself. Today, Batman's role in Melbourne's founding is widely acknowledged. He made a controversial “Treaty” with Wurundjeri Elders, though its validity was disputed. This treaty was invalid under Crown law, and the Wurundjuri likely did not consider it a transferral of land ownership. Nevertheless, the treaty heralded the beginning of the dispossession of the Kulin Nation through the establishment of Melbourne. After his death, Batman was largely forgotten. When Batman died in 1839, he was in debt, and his hilltop house was acquired for Government use. Batman was buried in an unmarked grave and he was largely forgotten. However, after Victoria’s separation from New South Wales in 1852, there was renewed interest in the origin story of Melbourne. John Batman was suddenly elevated to heroic status and remembered as a courageous pioneer and adventurer. Bonwick’s Discovery and Settlement (1856) and later John Batman: The Founder of Melbourne (1867) were both part of this revival in civic historical interest and paint a romanticised picture of both the foundation of Melbourne and John Batman’s role within it. However, as noted by Harsel, the 1885 Sands and McDougall Melbourne and Suburban Directory only listed two Batman streets.

By the early twentieth century, with Melbourne’s centenary approaching, there was a renewed interest in reclaiming the identity of John Batman as the founder of Melbourne. Governments of the day re-examined what it meant to be a Melburnian and as a result, the story of Batman was re-emphasised for the celebrations. This can be seen in the publicity posters and biscuit tins featuring the ghost of John Batman standing over Melbourne with text quoting his diary, "This will be the place for a village" (see below). Pinto argues these Centennial celebrations recounts “colonisation as ‘settlement’, erasing Indigenous peoples, places and histories,” as well as centring John Batman as a fundamental figure in the city’s foundation. By 1935, there were five major streets named after John Batman, further highlighting the increasingly positive civic sentiment towards him. Still, during this time, Batman’s Hill remained unmarked on maps. It was not part of this commemorative landscape; its role remained industrial.

Accordingly, the Docklands development marked a distinct shift in the public understanding of Batman’s Hill. The Docklands development was a substantial redevelopment scheme begun in the 1980s. It aimed to extend Melbourne’s grid and facilitate the city’s growing commerce. The development effectively recreated Batman’s Hill through the elevated extension of Collins Street, following the curve of the original hill. As well, the curve of the Collins Street bridge now follows the shape of the original Batman’s Hill. This evocation of Batman’s Hill has been reinforced by names and commemorations; as one walks through Docklands there is a development called Batman’s Place, a tram stop called Batman’s Hill, the Spencer Street pub called Batman’s Hill on Collins, and a large pole commemorating the original hill and the surveying of Melbourne that took place from it. The renaming of sites such as Batman’s Hill and Batman’s Park resurrected the name of John Batman, inscribing the western part of the city with commemorations of a once forgotten figure. While Batman’s name vanished from maps of Melbourne for over 100 years, it is again resplendent.

This moment within the urban landscape of Melbourne can be seen as part of a broader tension between settler Australia and Indigenous peoples’ ongoing presence –and therefore resistance–to the settler project. This settler project–both in pursuit and its resistance–is cleaved into our urban environments. At Batman’s Hill, this settler history is unsettled and another history is revealed. This new “Batman’s Hill” is positioned alongside Wurundjeri Way, a freeway named for the area’s original owners. It cuts through the new development, physically and symbolically. Likewise, Tom Nicholson’s public memorial to the hill in Batman’s Park gestures towards the unfinished nature of the treaty, as well as the form of the original hill. Similarly, Bunjil, the 25-metre eagle sculpture by Bruce Armstrong, reinscribes Indigenous presence as the creation eagle overlooks the Batman Hill development (See figure 21). As pointed out by historian Sarah Pinto, these commemorations of Indigenous presence creates “a different and more complex story of violence, accommodation, and dispossession” than those portraying benevolent white settlers. The Bunjil sculpture, Nicholson’s sculpture and the naming of Wurundjeri Way all make an unsettling, albeit symbolic, intervention into the Docklands site. The Docklands development and its commemorations of the Kulin Nation through naming, art and monuments are a microcosm of Melbourne’s fraught relationship with its violent history of settlement and ongoing Indigenous presence.

By examining Batman's Hill, we gain insights into Melbourne's civic history, its contested narratives and the layers of meaning associated with this site. Batman's Hill serves as a lens through which we can comprehend the understanding of Melbourne's past and the ongoing debates surrounding it.

Image References

  1. View from Batman's Hill looking westward, from an original sketch taken in 1836 or beginning of 1837. Robert Russell, surveyor, 1884. Courtesy of the State Library Victoria Collection.
  2. Three ink sketches showing the site of Batman's Hill from 1840 to 1892. J. Macfarlane, circa 1892. Print: wood engraving. State Library of Victoria; Figure 8: Melbourne and suburbs Victoria. Department of Crown Lands and Survey. 1910. Map. State Library of Victoria.
  3. Percy Tromf, 'This will be the place for a village', Publicity poster issued for the Centenary Celebrations, 1934-35, State Library of Victoria.
 
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