The royal connection

RMIT Building 13, Corner Russell and Victoria streets, Melbourne

Architectural history of the building

As Melburnians gulped and guzzled during the 2001 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, those interested in the history of Australian cuisine were drawn to an exhibition in the RMIT University library.

The Department of Food Science exhibition, Australian Food and Society 1901 – 2001, depicted changes in eating and the cultural influences on Australian society.

Among the items exhibited were sample menus from 1901, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1970s and 2001. Also on show were food items from a 1950s pantry and five table settings representing changes in eating and culture through the twentieth century.

Other memorabilia included a visitors’ book signed in 1927 by Elizabeth, Duchess of York (later Her Majesty the Queen Mother), and photographs and important works from the Emily McPherson College book collection.

The Duchess of York opened the Emily McPherson College in 1927 and later became the college’s patron, a relationship described in the extracts, below, from James Docherty’s 1981 book, The Emily Mac: the story of the Emily McPherson College 1906 – 1979.

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Elizabeth, Duchess of York reviews the crowd in Eight Hours Place, 1927

The Duchess reviews the crowd in Eight Hours Place, 1927. Photo from Docherty (1981) The Emily Mac.

The official opening of the Emily McPherson College building

In 1927 the Duke of York (later George VI) and the Duchess paid a royal visit to Australia with the particular purpose of opening the first commonwealth Parliament to be held in Canberra; and it was typical of Dr Osborne that she should conceive the idea of approaching Her Royal Highness to ask her to take part in the official opening ceremony. Perhaps to the astonishment of those aware of the move the Duchess graciously agreed to fit this unscheduled commitment into an already busy program and Council was able to release a statement only a week before the event. On that day, 27 April, the Duke was scheduled to visit the University of Melbourne for the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

The Age on the following day estimated that a crowd of 5,000 people had gathered in Eight Hours Place, mainly women, with many organisations represented and with a guard of honor formed by students from schools as far afield as Ballarat and Bendigo. Dr [Ethel] Osborne had written to the Melbourne Rotary Club and in response to her suggestion many employers released their female employees, some of whom attended in their working uniforms. It was an overcast day and many of the spectators were drenched in the drizzling rain that began to fall about an hour before the Duchess was due to arrive. The Duchess was cheered through the city and given a very enthusiastic welcome by the crowd outside the College in Russell Street. Among the official party grouped outside the locked entrance grill were Lady Somers, wife of the Governor of Victoria, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Sir Stephen and Lady Morell, Sir Alexander Peacock, Mr Frank Tate, Sir William and Lady McPherson, Dr Osborne, Miss [Royena Strathy] Chisholm [Principal] and various Parliamentarians and officials. The Duchess was attended by Lady Cavan.

The first part of the ceremony was performed by Lady McPherson who, with a gold key handed to her by Mr Evan Smith, the Chief Architect, opened the outer grill amid great applause. The Duchess then untied the royal blue ribbon that secured the glass entrance doors and, escorted by Dr Osborne, took her place on a dais beneath the tablet she was to unveil. Before asking the Duchess to perform this task Sir Alexander Peacock acknowledged the generosity of Sir William and Lady McPherson.

The Duchess then unveiled the bronze tablet, the prominent feature of which was a bas relief of the head of Lady McPherson beneath which was the inscription:

"The erection of this college is due to the public spirited and generous benefaction of the Hon. Sir William and Lady McPherson, 1927"

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Elizabeth, Duchess of York, attended by Lady Cavan, at the college opening, 1927

The Duchess of York, attended by Lady Cavan, at the college opening, 1927. Photo printed in Docherty (1981) The Emily Mac.

Sir William then thanked the Duchess for her presence and remarked that, although it was fourteen years since he had forecast that the Gaol would be swept away and replaced by educational buildings, he had never expected to be involved in their erection. He acknowledged that what he had been able to do was due to the good employees in his service.

The Duchess then complied with Dr Osborne’s suggestion that she appear on the balcony to be seen by the crowd, after which she met Mrs Clifton Smith, the foundation Principal, and every member of staff. Then she entered the Hall, where Mr Tate asked her to accept from the Council President the first diploma to be issued by the College in its new home. Dr Osborne said that Her Royal Highness had set all Australians an example of home life, and therefore asked her to accept the diploma and to sign her name in the Visitors’ Book. Then in the only speech she had made in this state the Duchess said: “I would like to thank you all very much for this diploma. It will always be a delightful memento but one of which I am afraid I am not worthy”.

One of the proudest possessions of the College was the photograph of herself later sent by the Duchess bearing her autograph and conveying her best wishes for the future. Here as elsewhere Elizabeth, Duchess of York, had won a special place for all time in the hearts of those who met her, and the College felt itself particularly fortunate in having been the object of her goodwill… the Council and staff felt compensated for their hard work and devotion, politicians and members of the public had shown an upsurge of interest and support, while press cover was generous with reports, pictures and editorials. It seemed then that for the Emily McPherson College there were all the elements needed for a great resurgence. [Docherty chapter 6, pp 72-75]

Late in 1969 Mrs McPherson as President wrote to the appropriate authorities expressing the wish of Council to invite Her Majesty the Queen Mother to be the first patron of the College. Further correspondence followed, then within a matter of two months there came a letter from Clarence House informing that Her Majesty was graciously pleased to accept this invitation to become Patron of the College, of which she retained a clear recollection, and would appreciate being kept informed of its progress. [Docherty chapter 10, page 292]

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As Patron of the College, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother had been advised by Mrs McPherson of the impending changes and kept informed of the progression towards amalgamation [with RMIT]. When Her Majesty heard that the last rite had been performed she sent a message that aptly conveyed both the regret and the hope of these [sic] who had loved the College, and by which her gracious permission we record:

"The Queen Mother is sad to think that the Emily McPherson College has come to the end of its long independent life, but Her Majesty is confident that the work will continue to flourish under the new arrangement." [Docherty chapter 10, p 295]


Andrew Yee and James Griffiths, 'Exhibition traces a century of food and society', Openline volume 9 number 4 (May 2001), page2. RMIT University, Melbourne. ISSN1039-3463. Also available on-line.

James Docherty (1981) The Emily Mac: the story of the Emily McPherson College 1906-1979. Ormond Book and Educational Supplies Pty Ltd, Melbourne. ISBN 0 9599684 3 1 (hardcover).

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