State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011


Gerard Hayes
George Rowe's View of Melbourne from the Observatory 1858

In July 1858, the artist George Rowe exhibited in Melbourne a watercolour panorama of the city as seen from Flagstaff Hill. Rowe1 was a prolific topographical printmaker and watercolourist who had arrived in Australia from England in 1852. Having tried his luck as a shopkeeper on the goldfields, he reverted to his principal profession and specialized in panoramic views such as this one of Melbourne. He produced a lithographic version of the Flagstaff view in an edition of 250, which he sold by subscription: subscribers were also eligible to win the original watercolour, which Rowe valued at 100 guineas.2
Most of the early topographical views of Melbourne were made from the south side of the Yarra, so it is useful to have this view from the opposite end of the city. We are looking south, with King Street at our right, La Trobe Street running across our field of view, and William Street at our left.
Flagstaff hill was a focal point for the young city of Melbourne. One of the first cemeteries was located there, and in 1850 a huge bonfire was lit on the hill to celebrate the separation of Victoria from New South Wales. The flagstaff itself was a signalling device, in communication via telescope with a similar station in Williamstown. By means of flag signals, the first news of shipping arrivals could be rapidly communicated to the city. The Flagstaff station also operated a time signal, a large ball which dropped down a mast at noon precisely, visible to most of the city.
Visual communication with Williamstown, however, was difficult in bad weather, and the coming of the telegraph abruptly ended the communication role of Flagstaff Hill. However, in 1858 the station took on a new function as the home of the Melbourne Observatory, under the direction of the German scientist Georg Neumayer.3 While astronomical observations were conducted at Williamstown, Flagstaff was the centre for meteorological and magnetic observations. The Flagstaff location was only temporary: Neumayer was able in 1863 to re-establish the magnetic, meteorological and astronomical observatories together on his preferred site near the Botanic Gardens.
A word should be said about the complex business of magnetic surveying, which was a particular passion of Neumayer's. The earth's magnetic field is not static, but fluctuates under the influence of forces both from within the earth, and from the sun. One of the great scientific enterprises of the nineteenth century was the mapping of the earth's magnetic field and, as well as running the observatory in Melbourne, Neumayer conducted the first magnetic survey of the state of Victoria, in a series of expeditions between 1858 and 1864.
Neumayer came to the Colony equipped with many of his own magnetic
instruments. These were extremely sensitive and could be influenced by metallic objects as small as building nails, so the structures which housed them had to be constructed of non-magnetic materials. One can only wonder how Neumayer would have greeted the lady visitors shown in this print, with metal ribs in their parasols and crinoline skirts.
We know from Neumayer's own detailed account of the observatory that Rowe has depicted it accurately: the white box on a platform, topped by a mast with a wind vane, housed several thermometers. The smaller white box beside it housed a rain gauge. The round brick structure with a domed roof contained an astronomical observing instrument which was used to orient the magnetic theodolite. To the left, the low white conical structure which resembles a tent is the roof of the Horary House. This room was sunk twelve feet into the earth, to protect its instruments from variations in temperature. Here, the readings of magnetic variations from hour to hour ('horary') were made on the magnetic theodolite. With a staff of only two assistants (one of whom was William John Wills, destined to perish within a few years on the famous Bourke and Wills expedition)4, Neumayer kept up a round-the-clock roster of hourly observations.5
Looking beyond the observatory, we see a flourishing city. When Rowe first exhibited his watercolour of this view, the Argus noted that he availed himself of 'poetic licence' to show certain buildings which did not yet exist quite as depicted: specifically Parliament House, the Public Library and the Wesleyan Church in Lonsdale Street.6 Like a number of other artists, he fell into the trap of showing Parliament House with the lantern and cupola it was meant to have, but which never materialized.
Other features of the view changed not long after Rowe depicted them: Batman's Hill, at the right, was removed a few years later in 1864-5 to allow for the extension of the railway. The Exhibition Building which features prominently on the corner of La Trobe and King Streets had been constructed for the 1854 Exhibition, but it was not built to last and was demolished in the late 1860s. The building described by Rowe as 'Government House' is in fact the Government Offices on William Street.
The lithograph was made with an eye to the 'home' market in England, and Rowe works in as much local colour as possible: along William Street, to the left, we see Chinese diggers heading off to the goldfields on foot, while a covered wagon sets out for Bendigo. Bullock carts bring bales of wool into the city, while further along, a fast four-horse wagon surrounded by mounted escorts brings gold from the diggings to the Treasury in William Street.
On the hill itself, Chinese, aborigines, diggers, gentlemen and their ladies congregate in what might otherwise be a fairly empty foreground. The hill at this time was no beauty spot: it was notorious as a dumping ground for waste and a quarry for soil. Rowe shows only a single miserable dead tree. Repeated efforts by citizens and councillors to have the hill reserved as a public park finally succeeded in 1862, when fencing and planting of the enclosure began. Charles Nettleton's photographs of 1866 show a still-raw garden, in which casts of classical statues stand stark and exposed amidst young trees and shrubs.


George Rowe (1796-1864). See his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, available at


My Note Book, 26 June 1858, p. 631, and 7 August 1858, p. 677. The whereabouts of the original watercolour are not known. A watercolour copy by someone other than Rowe, presumably after the lithograph, exists in two corresponding halves, one held by the National Library of Australia (NK4191) and the other by the State Library of Victoria (H8364).


Georg Balthasar van Neumayer (1826-1909). See his entry in ADB at


The white-coated gentleman to the immediate left of the Observatory bears a suggestive resemblance to Ludwig Becker, the artist who also perished on the fateful Burke and Wills expedition. Becker knew Neumayer well and he would have undoubtedly been a familiar visitor to the Observatory.


Georg Neumayer, 'Description and System of working of the Flagstaff Observatory', Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, vol. III, 1859, pp. 94-103.


Argus, 12 July 1858.