State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 65 Autumn 2000


Walter Woodbury's Panorama of Melbourne
1. A Photographic First?

FROM THE beginning of photography the restricted angle of view of the camera lens was seen as a constraint, particularly in landscape work. To overcome this limitation some workers took a series of views from a fixed position, the camera being turned on its axis between exposures by an amount equal to the angle of view of the lens. For example, in 1848 a panorama was taken by an American photographer using the daguerreotype process on eight plates which were then mounted side by side in a frame.1 Later, cameras dedicated to panoramic photography were developed.
One of the earliest practitioners of the wet-plate (or collodion) process in Australia was Walter Bentley Woodbury (1834-1885). Before leaving England in 1852 Woodbury made photographs by the collodion process which had been published by William Scott Archer the year before. Woodbury arrived in Melbourne in October 1852 at the age of 18 expecting to make his fortune on the goldfields but was disappointed. After many vicissitudes he found a secure job as a surveyor's assistant and immediately purchased a camera. By the end of January 1853 he was taking portraits in his spare time but did not have the money to continue with such an expensive hobby. Later he found a job as a draughtsman and when that ran out he turned his hobby into his profession.2 By August 1855 Woodbury had established a photographic business in North Melbourne and was advertising that ‘he takes portraits by the new Collodion Process’.3
The State Library of Victoria (SLV) holds a photographic copy of a panoramic view of Melbourne which, although unsigned, was undoubtedly taken by Woodbury (ref. H2544). The view takes in a sweep from west of Mt Macedon to the north, through to the city to the east and to the Yarra at the south. It consists of four overlapping photographs, each printed on 205 mm by 254 mm silver-gelatine paper (some trimmed), with the photographs set a different levels in order to align the horizon. They are mounted on a heavy, grey cardboard mat 790 mm by 268 mm with a superimposed window mat (now detached). On the front lower right-hand corner is the inscription ‘Melbourne from Batman's Hill c 1856. Presented by the Executrix of the Late George Bell Esq. [1932]’. On the back is a similar inscription and a pencilled note ‘Original in Yorick Club, Melbourne’.4 The La Trobe Picture Collection acquisitions book records the receipt of the item on 25/2/32. It is not clear whether the errors in the vertical alignment arose during the original photography or in copying.
On a separate slip of paper is an unsigned note ‘Panorama taken from Chimney of Melbourne Gas Works. Two sections of this panorama are in H8547 Collection of Photographs by Walter Woodbury (AACI)’. This refers to copies of photographs held
by the SLV and known to have been taken by Woodbury, the originals of which are held by the Royal Photographic Society in Bath.
On the SLV panorama the number 10 is visible below the Gunpowder Magazine and although faded the numbers 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 may be identified under a magnifying glass. However, the key to the numbers is missing.
As will be shown the date should almost certainly read 1855. Also, the fact that Batman's Hill is visible in the photograph is enough to prove that the inscription ‘taken from Batman's Hill’ is not correct. Furthermore, the elevation from which the photographs were taken was far greater than that of Batman's Hill. As the gasworks chimney was the only tall structure in the area, the top of the chimney was the only possible location for Woodbury to have set up his camera. There is thus little doubt that the unsigned note is correct in that respect.
But how did Woodbury gain access to the top of the chimney? To find this out required delving into the history of the gasworks.
Although the prospectus for the Melbourne Gas and Coke Company was issued in 1850 it was not until December 1854 that the foundation stone of the great smokestack was laid. The stack was finished late the next year.5 To celebrate the occasion the directors on 24 October 1855 entertained special guests at a unique and somewhat bizarre ceremony. The Argus, under the headline ‘High Festivities’ went on to report:
A rather singular festivity was carried out in this city on Wednesday morning, being nothing more nor less than the assemblage of thirty persons at a public breakfast or lunch on the top of a chimney 195 feet from the ground. The occasion of this assemblage was the completion of the shaft intended to convey the smoke from the Gasworks fairly into the upper atmosphere. The directors of the company and their friends … were conveyed in proper cradles to the top of the shaft by means of a small steam-engine. There was at the summit an apartment capable of containing about thirty persons.6
On 17 December the opening ceremony of Melbourne's first gasworks was performed when the Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, lit the first gas retort. Sadly, the Governor caught a chill at this time and died a week later.7
Clearly, the temporary structure perched on the top of the chimney must have been removed before the retorts were fired up; thus 17 December 1855 marks the very latest date the photographs could have been taken. We know from correspondence with his mother that he went ‘to town’ on 25 October, the day after the ‘High Festivities’, thus this marks the probable date of the photographs.8
Doubtless, Woodbury was aware of the temporary structure and was quick to take advantage of the short-lived opportunity to take his pictures. We can imagine young Woodbury with his wet-plate camera, tripod, portable darkroom and his chemicals being hoisted in a ‘proper cradle’ by means of the ‘small steam-engine’ up to the room at the top of the chimney.
On evaluating the situation Woodbury must have realised that the job was not as simple as setting his camera on the tripod and swinging it through the requisite
number of degrees between exposures. With his surveying experience and his training in draughtsmanship Woodbury would have been well aware of the principles of taking a photographic panorama, yet there is considerable overlap of the pictures. This suggests that the positions of the windows in the ‘apartment’ prevented him from setting his camera at the optimum angle for each view. It seems likely that he was forced to move his tripod between shots and this may have caused a problem with the vertical alignment.
Why did Woodbury go to considerable pains to take this series of photographs? Perhaps he was commissioned to do the work by the directors of the gas company. Another possibility is that having just started out as a commercial photographer he may have wanted something unusual with which to impress potential clients. Walter Woodbury was one of the earliest Australian photographers to make prints on paper by the albumen process. Thus, instead of displaying his images as one-off ambrotypes he would have been able to make multiple copies for sale.
The lost panorama formerly owned by the Yorick Club probably consisted of original albumen-silver prints made by Woodbury himself. The cut-off corner of one of the images is typical of Woodbury's print presentation. Certainly, the SLV copy shows that the sections were copied individually, indicating that the originals were displayed side by side rather than being trimmed and mounted as a finished panorama.
What is the significance of the four-section Woodbury panorama? Firstly, it is the earliest known panorama of Melbourne.9 Secondly, with a date before mid-December 1855 and more likely late October of that year it may well pre-date the five-part panorama of Hobart taken by John Sharp and Frederick Frith, which was first advertised in the Tasmanian Daily News of 18 January 1856.10
Photo-historian Gael Newton was of the opinion that ‘His [Woodbury's] panoramic sequences of two and eight views of Melbourne … previously thought to be the earliest photographic panoramas made in Australia, appear to have been actually made in 1857.11 Whilst the eight-section panorama almost certainly was taken early in 1857 it may now be said with confidence that the four-section panorama (of which only the two right-hand sections were previously known) was made in 1855.
Thus the copy held by the La Trobe Picture Collection of Walter Woodbury's four-part Melbourne panorama is the only known complete version of a work which is almost certainly one of the two earliest known panoramas taken in Australia and may well be the first.
Alan Elliott
Alan Elliott, who is Hon. Historian of the Victorian Chapter of the Royal Photographic Society, has been researching Walter Woodbury, giving particular attention to his stay in Australia from 1852 to 1857.


Argus, 27 April 1866, p. 5, col. 1.


Walter B. Woodbury, ‘Reminiscences of an Amateur Photographer’, The Amateur Photographer, 26 December 1884, pp. 185–86.


Walter B. Woodbury, ed. Alan Elliott, The Woodbury Papers: Letters and Documents Held by the Royal Photographic Society, Melbourne: Privately printed, 1966. Letter dated 1 August 1855.


George Bell (1855-1931) was a printer with the Argus. He was also a member of the Yorick Club and a founder member and a vice-president of The Historical Society of Victoria. (The Argus, 17 June 1931, p. 6). In 1966 the Yorick Club was absorbed by the Savage Club. However, the Savage Club does not hold the original panorama and no record of its fate has been found.


John D. Keating, The Lambent Flame, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1974, p. 50.


Argus, Melbourne, 26 October 1855.


B.A. Knox, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 4, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972.


Reference 3. Entry 25 October /55.


Another early panorama dated to 1856 was taken by Melbourne photographer George Perry. It was in five sections and said to have been taken from the gasometer of the Melbourne Gas and Coke Company.


Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Sydney: William Collins, 1988, pp. 26–27.


Ibid p. 19.