Melbourne’s Only Honey Locust
Standing on the corner of King and Bourke St in Melbourne is a living piece of history; the city's only Honey Locust tree, growing on this same spot for 160 years. It is such a fixture in the city that the tower block it stands in front of was designed around it.
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 primarily as the office for the Crown Lands Department, while also being used occasionally as a courthouse.
In 1841, the Lands Office was moved and the building reassigned to serve as Melbourne's first Supreme Court.
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, eccentric man. 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.
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 Storekeeper.
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 tree's planted was the Honey Locust tree.
It is not known exactly who planted it, or precisely when, but it is thought that the seeds for the tree were probably brought to Melbourne by immigrants from the Unite States, who started arriving in large numbers after the discovery of gold in 1851.
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 also 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 to create furniture, although this is only a boutique industry, as Honey Locusts are cultivated in small numbers. The primary use of the tree is ornamental.
After the bluestone buildings were constructed, subsequent Governments continued to use them for a variety of purposes.
The Colonial Store was replaced by the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Department, then the Labour Bureau, then the State Relief Committee, all of them working from the same buildings erected in 1857.
In 1970, the state Public Works Department ordered the buildings demolished, to make way for a larger, modern building that could house a larger volume of Government offices.
Due to the age of the buildings, and their connection to Melbourne's history, the National Trust declared them worthy of preservation. But in 1970, the National Trust was anorganisation without any legislation to support their decisions. The Government of the day was free to ignore its advice, which it did.
Melbourne University students picketed the site, and a private citizen's group attempted to get a court injunction, but the Government proceeded with their plan. The demolition took one week. Site foreman Mark Zita, of Whelan's Wreckers, said the building was 'sound enough to last another hundred years.'
As a sad epilogue, after the rush to demolition the Government then shelved their plans for the site, and it sat vacant for more than a decade.
Finally, in 1987, a developer was found for the land and a new project commenced.
The State Government had made one small concession to the calls for preservation of the site; they had ordered that the Honey Locust Tree be preserved. The developers were forced to include space for the tree, out the front of their new high rise building.
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; oddly it commemorates only the State Relief office that used to stand on the site.