History of the Clocktower

The Clocktower Centre has a colourful past from its early days as the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute to now.

The Clocktower Centre has a rich history, from its start as the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute, to its transformation into the Essendon Town Hall, before it became the vibrant cultural hub that we know it as today.

Check out our fascinating journey to becoming the Clocktower Centre below.

Behind the Tower

Introducing our very first video exploring the heritage of the Clocktower Centre, focussing on the creation of the clock tower itself.

Restored Musical Treasure

See how 1898 Bechstein grand piano, which now graces our freshly renovated café, was brought back to life.

From Town Hall to Arts Centre

Delve into the history of our hall as it went from Town Hall to modern Arts Centre over the decades.

Renaissance revival genius

Thousands of hopeful prospectors poured into Melbourne after gold was found in Victoria in 1850. Among them was the Clark family who joined the long trek along Mt Alexander Road towards the goldfields in 1852. They left behind their 14-year-old son who had secured work as a draughtsman in the colonial architect’s office.

Little did they know that their fortune would be with this bright, eager boy. He had completed a drawing of the city of Liverpool the year before, which demonstrated his exceptional draftsmanship. It was more than enough to find him employment in the colony. A few years later, at the age of just 19, this young man designed Melbourne’s Treasury building, which is now one of the finest examples of Renaissance Revival architecture today. He was John James Clark, better known simply as J J Clark: a very talented, budding architect who would eventually design the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute, which was later transformed into the Essendon Town Hall.

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The pursuit of knowledge, community and friendship

The 1870s was a period of rapid growth in Essendon. A group of forward thinking locals envisaged a mechanics’ institute for the town - a place for ‘the pursuit of knowledge, community and friendship.’ Mechanics’ institutes were the precursors to libraries and offered affordable trades and art education.

They provided education and training well before the formation of our first education department and technical colleges. A nineteenth-century ‘mechanic’ was a skilled craftsman equivalent to the modern-day ‘tradie’.

Over 1,000 institutes were built in Victoria and several became architectural icons, adorned with statues, columns and iron lacework. Initially mechanics’ institutes restricted the entry of women by only allowing them to attend ‘penny reading’ sessions, where they paid a coin to read a lightweight, fluffy, romantic novel – the Mills and Boons of the nineteenth century.

If you were a suffragette though, then you might have been banned altogether!

The latest technology was demonstrated at presentations. A diverse array of subjects were discussed and illustrated using the latest in visual aids: hand-painted or photographic slides projected from a ‘magic lantern’; a slide projector in today’s terms.

Founding members of the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute raised £600 and borrowed £800, which was to make a start in 1879. The total cost was expected to exceed £4,000.

Mayor John Parry proudly opened the institute on 21 September 1880...or rather sections of it.

‘At present only a portion of the main hall, 50 feet long, together with the stage and retiring rooms, is being built at a cost of £1,300 – giving seating accommodation for 350 persons.’

A library of journals and newspapers started. Those desperate to advance their status in life spent many hours devouring new knowledge. The first librarian, Mrs Windsor, worked in the library for 56 years from the opening of the building until her retirement in 1938 at the age of 88.


A new approach to design

J J Clark designed some of Melbourne’s most impressive public buildings as an employee of the colonial architect’s office including the Mint, Customs House (now the Immigration Museum) and Government House with his superior, William Wardell).

Despite his obvious talent, Clark was retrenched in the ‘Black Wednesday’ financial and political crisis of January 1878. He was undeterred and sought commissions as an independent draftsman. His design of the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute was possibly one of his earliest independent contracts.

The institute illustrated a new direction for Clark. He designed it at a time when architectural asymmetry was becoming increasingly fashionable. Clark departed from strictly adhering to classical design and instead placed the tower off-centre and treated the rooms on either side of the tower differently.


The Essendon and Flemington institute
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Essendon needs a centrepiece

In 1882, two years after the institute opened, the Flemington and Kensington wards separated from the Essendon municipality and the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute lost its original identity.

At that time, the Councillors of the newly independent Borough of Essendon sat in their town hall on the corner of Mt Alexander Road and Warrick Street in Ascot Vale. They now felt isolated from the new centre of town, which was firmly focussed on the burgeoning commercial district located near the Mt Alexander Road junction over which the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute dominated.

Surely that grand building was befitting a new town hall and council chambers?

Despite protests and petitions, a community poll produced 365 for, and 99 against moving the town hall into the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute. “… it would be unfair to all parties concerned to keep the town offices at the extreme south merely for the convenience of one section of the community.”


Prosperity in Essendon

In 1884, after leasing the building for two years, Council purchased the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute and agreed to finish construction to J J Clark’s original plan – with a few additions.

They added offices for Council staff, a court of petty sessions, a holding cell and a Magistrates’ Court. The library and auditorium were extended and the hall began hosting a variety of balls, displays, concerts and operas.

The building was renamed the Essendon Town Hall and was officially opened on 4 February 1886. Mayor James Graham, swelling with pride, presided over a sumptuous banquet for 130 excited guests. These included the local Member of Parliament and the Minister of Public Works, Alfred Deakin (Australia’s second Prime Minister and namesake of Deakin University), who formally opened the town hall. “Prosperity to the Borough of Essendon” he toasted, then declared that the district, ‘… now possessed the handsomest hall in any of the suburbs around the City of Melbourne.’

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Wish you were here

The original Essendon Town Hall was regarded as a stunning example of architecture, set at the apex of a wide ‘boulevard’ with landscaped gardens and leafy trees. It was the perfect postcard image and became a saleable commodity.

Postcards grew in popularity in the 1890s, becoming a fashionable way of keeping in touch and they were collected, swapped or sent as greetings.

Not all early postcards were designed for personalised greetings on the reverse however, as some were simply purchased for the image.

Glorious images of ornate Victorian homes, tree-lined boulevards, picturesque lakes and exceptionally grand public buildings, like the Essendon Town Hall, became collectable as postcards.


Not sufficient to house a bazaar

Life behind the grand façade of the stately Essendon Town Hall was anything but glamorous. Congestion was the main issue with squabbles over room usage, particularly over the use of the auditorium.

The Magistrates’ Court needed more space, so it was moved in 1890 to a new purpose-built facility down the road in what is now the Essendon Historical Society. Essendon had grown to over 23,000 people by 1909 and was proclaimed a city. The increase in community numbers put a strain on the town hall, which could only accommodate 500 for an event, ‘Our present hall accommodation is not sufficient to house a small country bazaar.’

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Improve the town hall

“The stage was small, badly lit, draughty and inconvenient. The sanitary requirements were out of the question. It was a question of if the breach of law was not taking place,” declared Mr W Cattanach at a public meeting in 1910.

The foundation stone for the new town hall was laid on 11 November 1913 after 30 years of service. The plan was ambitious as it increased the seating.

This was no small undertaking, especially as labour costs had soared since the depression of the 1890s. A substantial loan of £30,000 was added to the £7,000 granted by Council, but funds were still tight.

Architectural monstrosity?

The newly enlarged auditorium hosted a celebration dinner for 900 guests on 15 July 1914 to declare the freshly renovated Essendon Town Hall open for business.

The renovation involved the removal of the second turret tower and the former Magistrates’ Court, as well as the rebuilding of the old public hall. As behoves many a community endeavour, not everyone was happy. One local declared, “In plain language, it’s an architectural monstrosity. Seems as though the house removers had been at work and dumped a second-hand building each side of the tower. There is a total absence of symmetry about the thing, the varying height of walls leading one to the belief that three different people live there.” (4)

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Disputed aesthetics

Modern and cheaper construction materials were proposed for the renovation and expansion of the town hall, which upset several locals.

A vigorous protest ensued over the use of iron instead of slate for the roofing, but Council held firm:

‘… it is obvious that if £700 extra went up on the roof, there would have been £700 less to spend in offices and accommodation below. Of course the appearance of slate is better alongside slate.”

In the end, the community was delighted with the renovated Essendon Town Hall and was eager to join the official launch celebrations. Council considered how all ratepayers could participate in the evening’s event, but realised that their newly expanded auditorium was still not big enough stating that “no hall in the universe would hold them.”

Plays, parties, festivals and farewells

The Essendon Town Hall was the centre of many festive occasions. It was fashionable for the Mayor to host lavish balls and dinners, while various associations held their club meetings.

Other events included school speech nights, operas, concerts, plays, gymnastic displays, art exhibitions, lectures, state and national anniversaries, celebrations and when war was declared, civic farewells.

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No excuse for unpunctuality

The Essendon Town Hall had waited a long time for a clock to complete the landmark tower. It was finally installed in 1930 and was a triumph!

Moonee Ponds resident, Mrs Learmonth, commissioned the clock from prestigious watchmaker and jeweller, Gaunt and Company. Gaunt had been servicing Melbourne’s clock requirements since the gold rush, making several iconic clocks including those that adorned Melbourne’s GPO, Parliament House and the Block Arcade.

The commission was for a four-faced electric clock to keep with modern standards. Mayor Fenton was elated … “now there is no excuse for unpunctuality on the part of local residents.”

The new timepiece was welcomed by a number of people who had been setting their watches by the Moonee Ponds Hotel clock tower, “a clock which carries on business in a public house.”

Foundation stone legacy

The Essendon Town Hall auditorium once again required renovations, 26 years after its last major overhaul in 1914. This time a fashionable art deco façade was added, breaking with tradition and sharply contrasting with the Edwardian offices either side.

As the sledge-hammers got to work, a time capsule was revealed beneath the foundation stone which, “included a number of newspapers of the day and a statement from the town clerk of the time giving a summary of the municipality of the time - size, population, income from rates - and a short history of the building.”

The new hall was officially opened on 2 April 1941.

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Welcome to Essendon

The Essendon Town Hall remained the focus for many major public events hosted by Council. There was plenty to celebrate.

The festivities began at the end of WWI: “At the portals of the town hall a well-known lady resident flung convention to the winds while she sang ‘The Red, White and Blue’ and the crowd heartily joined in the chorus and cheered the soloist.”

In 1954, Essendon’s proximity to the Essendon Airport was advantageous because it was the first place in Victoria to receive the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II on her Australian coronation tour.


Rise of the Essendon Community Centre

By 1970 the City’s Councillors decided a new, modern and purpose-built civic centre was needed. The aging town hall was again pegged for demolition, but the local community refused to let it go.

A strong-minded group lobbied hard for the building to be redeveloped as a community centre, after Council moved into their new Kellaway Road accommodation. A Federal Government building grant saw the Essendon Town Hall undergo another renovation, reopening in 1976 as the Essendon Community Centre.

There was now a gymnasium, indoor sports and hobby centre, child minding facilities and offices for welfare services. A multicultural and multifunctional ambience pervaded the centre. There were meeting rooms for the Italian Senior Citizens, Essendon Young Wives and the Young Socialists, and multifunctional spaces for Reverse Garbage, Ladies Keep Fit exercise classes and The Peru Dance Company.

Sadly, devastation hit on 16 January 1978, when the centre was set alight by an arsonist.

The centre was reopened in 1979 and was bricked in red with deep, stylish awnings shading the multipaned windows.

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Clocktower Centre exterior

The Clocktower Centre today

The City of Essendon was abolished to become part of the newly created City of Moonee Valley in 1994’s Victorian council amalgamations.

A cultural plan was initiated that included an ambitious $5 million transformation of the community centre into a modern centre for arts and culture.

The plans continued to morph over the next few years, increasing in cost, but the opening of the new Clocktower Centre in February 2000 was well worth the wait.

The City of Moonee Valley now had a fixed-seat theatre that could host 500 patrons, a 300-seat function room, several smaller multipurpose meeting rooms and a café.

The magnificent clock tower that had presided over the community since the opening of the Essendon and Flemington Mechanics Institute in 1880 was now the only original feature left and fittingly gave rise to the precinct’s new name.

The Essendon Historical Society

Find out more information about the Clocktower's history and surrounds by contacting the Essendon Historical Society.