Former court and police complex

Melbourne Magistrates' Court and City Watch-house
Russell Street, Melbourne

Former city watch-house

Former city watch-house. Photo (1998) by MLRuwoldt.

Fast facts

Significance

The Magistrates' Court and city watch-house have been acknowledged as architecturally and historically significant by the Heritage Council, the National Trust of Australia and the Melbourne Planning Scheme of Melbourne City Council. The Magistrates' Court is on the National Estate Register.

Building dates: Magistrates' Court

In 1842-3 a modest two-storey brick building was erected to house the Supreme Court of Victoria on the corner of Russell and La Trobe streets, Melbourne. A wooden extension was added in 1853 to cope with the sudden increase of cases associated with the gold rush. In 1884 the Supreme Court moved to more suitable accommodation in the new Law Courts in William Street. The Russell Street buildings were then used for the Court of Petty Sessions. The buildings were demolished in 1910 and the current courthouse (pictured, right) was erected in their place. The current building's foundation stone was laid in 1911 and it was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, D.V. Hennessy, on 20 January 1914. The 1911building is of 'Norman Romanesque revival' style, designed by George B.H. Austin of the Public Works Department and built by Swanson Brothers, a contracting firm. As a symbol of national pride, it was constructed entirely of Australian materials—yellow Moorabool stone and Batesford limestone from a quarry on the Moorabool River near Geelong, plus Gippsland marble and local timbers.

Building dates: city watch-house

The city watch-house, used for holding alleged offenders until they were officially remanded or released on bail, operated on the site next to the Magistrates' Court from 1892. At first it was housed in a disused cell block of the Old Melbourne Gaol. This was demolished and the current brick building, designed by the same architect as the Magistrates' Court, was built in 1907 – 8.

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Former magistrates' court

Former Magistrates' Court, Russell Street, Melbourne. Photo by Andrew Yee.

Magistrates' Court

The then Premier of Victoria, Hon. Thomas Bent, had promised the Council of the Working Men's College (now RMIT University) that this new court would blend in with their main administrative building, which was next door at 124 La Trobe Street. Opinion was divided as to whether this aim was achieved.

Features of interest:

  • The cedar canopy in the Second Court, which was moved from the old Supreme Court on the site. This is said to be the canopy under which Justice Sir Redmond Barry sat at the trial of Ned Kelly.
  • Unique seven-sided polygonal stair vestibule in the entrance foyer.
  • L-shaped peristyle courtyard, popularly known as the 'bull-ring'. Defendants and witnesses used to gather here before being called to the bench, resulting in some explosive and tense encounters.

City watch-house

This facility (pictured below right) was used until the closure of the old Magistrates' Court building in 1994. All fixtures and fittings, including the graffiti, are as they were left in 1994.

Areas of interest include:

  • cells where prisoners were held awaiting trial or bail
  • separate exercise yards for men and women prisoners
  • identification room, where prisoners in ID parades were separated from their accusers by no more than a set of strong floodlights.

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Former Magistrates' Court, interior

Former Magistrates' Court interior entrance. Photo by Andrew Yee.

History

Over the years rooms in the Magistrates' Court building were converted to courtroom use, so that the original three expanded to eleven. In the early 1960s a four-storey cream brick building was built at the back to provide additional courts and clerical offices. In 1970 the name was changed from the Court of Petty Sessions to the Magistrates' Court, as this was felt to more accurately reflect its function.

Famous trials held here:

  • thirteen prisoners taken at the Eureka Stockade, who were arraigned for high treason in 1855 but acquitted
  • notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, who was tried in 1880, convicted of murder and hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol next door
  • infamous gangster Leslie 'Squizzy' Taylor, said to have regularly made social visits to police friends at the court, was tried in 1924 for negligent driving that caused the death of a pedestrian.

The Melbourne Magistrates' Court relocated to the corner of William Street and Lonsdale Street in the early 1990s and the Russell Street building was closed. It remained largely unused, except as a set for television series and films, until it was purchased by RMIT University in 1997.

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