Building 20 (Former Magistrates’ Court)
This proud building’s Romanesque style intends to reflect ancient British legal traditions. It’s the site of many famous trials and also where an ancient fossil was discovered.
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.
The building straddles the Russell and La Trobe streets corner. Gangster Leslie 'Squizzy' Taylor was tried here in 1924 for killing a pedestrian while driving. Bushranger Ned Kelly was convicted of murder in 1880, when it was the Supreme Court, and hanged at the adjoining Old Melbourne Gaol.
Features of interest
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.
- 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.
Transport and access
Located on Russell Street, near the La Trobe Street corner, catch a City Loop train to Melbourne Central train station or to Flinders Street. From Flinders Street, you can take a connecting City Loop train or Yarra Tram along nearby Swanston Street.
Trams running along Swanston Street include routes 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 16, 64, 67 and 72. Tram routes 24, 30 and 35 run along La Trobe Street.
Visit the Public Transport Victoria website for more information and connecting services in your area.
No on-campus parking is available for visitors, but you’ll find many commercial car parks a short walk away. Metered street parking is also available nearby, but note the time limits and clearway restrictions.
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 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 1911 building 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.
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 from the Eureka Stockade rebellion on the Ballarat gold fields were called in 1855 to answer charges of high treason before being 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.
When the Supreme Court moved to William Street in 1884, it became the site of the Court of Petty until the Magistrates’ Court was built in 1913. That’s when a stonemason discovered a 19-million-year-old Barnacle fossil while splitting a Batesford limestone building block during construction.
The block with the fossil was incorporated into the new building’s entrance. After RMIT acquired the building in 1997, two University geologists examined the Tertaclitella fossil but were frustrated in their attempts to declare it a new species.
That step required lodging a specimen sample, known as a holotype, in a museum, but the National Trust listing on the building made removing anything illegal.
That obstacle was overcome in 2006, when, surrounded by curious onlookers and television cameras, RMIT was allowed to collect its holotype for handing over to Museum Victoria.