September 25, 2021

Melbourne’s Only Honey Locust Tree

Standing on the corner of King and Bourke Streets in Melbourne is a living piece of history; the city's only Honey Locust tree, growing on the same spot for 160 years.

Melbourne's only Honey Locust tree.
Melbourne's only Honey Locust tree.

The corner where the tree now stands has an interesting history.

The first building on the site was erected in 1840; made of wood, it served as the office for the Crown Lands Department. The following year, the Lands Office was moved and the building reassigned to serve as Melbourne's first Supreme Court.

Melbourne's first supreme court justice would prove to be an eccentric firebrand.

Judge John Willis
Judge John Willis

British born magistrate John Walpole Willis was sent to Melbourne from Sydney to hear the first cases. The judge's chambers were in a small brick building at the rear of the court.

Son of the physician who had treated King George III for mental illness, Judge Willis was a short tempered man, with unusual prejudices. He refused to hear any case where the participants sported facial hair, and would often threaten the unsuspecting beard-wearer with a contempt of court charge.

His sentences were notoriously severe. Unpopular with the local press, and public, Judge Willis had several petitions filed against him, and after a turbulent two years he was recalled to England, in 1843.

The Supreme Court was moved shortly thereafter, to a more permanent building on Russell Street.

Colonial Store marked on an early map of Melbourne, circa 1860.
Colonial Store marked on an early map of Melbourne, circa 1860.

In 1850, the office of the Colonial Storekeeper took over the property.

The Storekeeper was an important department in Melbourne at the time, as it was charged with supplying all other Government agencies with supplies and equipment. Rations, tools, uniforms, weapons and a thousand other items were all sourced by the Stores department.

In 1857, the busy office had their run down wooden shack replaced with a sturdy, bluestone building. A garden appears to have been planted about the same time:

'The Colonial Store entrance faced Bourke Street, its long side was on King, and both frontages were hemmed in by a fenced strip of garden.'

 

- Robyn Annear, 'A City Lost and Found'

One of the trees planted was a Honey Locust tree.

It is not known exactly who planted the tree, or precisely when. But it is thought that the seeds were probably brought to Melbourne by immigrants from the United States, who started arriving in large numbers after the discovery of gold in 1851.

A honey locust tree
A honey locust tree

The Honey Locust is a deciduous tree, native to North America.

Mature trees are 20 - 30 metres in height, and sprout thorns among their small, narrow leaves. The tree produces a seed pod, containing a pulpy substance that was a traditional food for native American peoples.

The wood of the tree is durable, and is used in furniture  making. Although this is only a boutique industry, as Honey Locusts are cultivated in small numbers. The primary use of the tree is ornamental.

The old Colonial Store building, circa 1960.
The old Colonial Store building, circa 1960.

The bluestone storekeeper building would be reused for a variety of purposes. After the Colonial Store was disbanded, it was replaced by the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Department, then the Labour Bureau, then the State Relief Committee.

In 1970, the state Public Works Department ordered the building demolished. They wanted to replace it with a larger, more modern building that could house Government administrative offices.

Due to the age of the building, and its connection to Melbourne's history, the National Trust declared it worthy of preservation. But in 1970, the National Trust was an organisation without any legislation to support for their decisions. The Government of the day was free to ignore its advice, which it often did.

They intended to continue with their plan.

Melbourne University students picketed the site, and a private citizen's group attempted to get a court injunction. The government remained unmoved.

The demolition took one week. Site foreman Mark Zita, of 'Whelan's Wreckers', said the building was 'sound enough to last another hundred years.' After the rush to demolition, the Government then shelved their plans for the site, and it sat vacant for more than a decade.

Ad for the new building, preserving Melbourne's honey locust tree
Ad for the new building

Finally, in 1987, a developer was found for the land and a new project announced.

The State Government made one small concession to calls for preservation of the site; they ordered that the Honey Locust Tree be preserved. The developers were forced to include space for the tree, out the front of their planned new high rise.

Melbourne's only honey locust tree, present day
Melbourne's only honey locust tree, present day

The tree now stands in a small clump of greenery, surrounded by a high metal fence.

A small historical plaque has been erected at its base. It commemorates only the State Relief office that used to stand on the site.

 More MUSEUM OF LOST

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