History and Heritage of Mornington
Historical Attractions of Main Street Mornington
Main Street Mornington is loved for its historical walk, which includes the tiny 1860 Court House, old banks where good food and wine is the new currency, and an impressive 1892 ‘coffee palace’ which quickly changed into the Grand Hotel. Pick up a self-guided walking tour map at the information centre in the old Court House, and you’re on your way.
A Brief History of Mornington
Back in the mid 1850s, a petition was signed by more than 70 entrepreneurial townsfolk on the Mornington Peninsula. Off it went to Major General Edward Macarthur, the administrator in Victoria, requesting a pier be built at Snapper Point as a vital link with Melbourne.
The signatories, from Snapper Point, Mount Eliza and Mount Martha, recognised a good marketing opportunity when they saw one, as they said: “…we would respectfully call your attention to the fact that Snapper Point presents considerable temptations to the tourist or invalid, who would readily avail themselves of its advantages except for the difficulty of approach”.
They got their 46-metre pier in 1858 at an estimated cost of £8,761.25. The pier quickly fed into the social and economic heart of the Mornington Peninsula, with fishing boats, supply boats, paddle steamers and twice-weekly ferries full of visitors driving the growth of Snapper Point.
So rapid was its growth that Snapper Point (named after a local headland) was given a far grander name in 1861: Mornington, after the 2nd Earl of Mornington who had been British Foreign Secretary from 1809-12.
Mornington rapidly became the major commercial and legal centre for communities across the Mornington Peninsula and, with a population of around 25,000, it remains the largest of more than villages dotted along the coasts and hinterland of the Peninsula.
Walk Mornington’s vibrant and cosmopolitan Main Street, and you can see many reminders of this early history. Start at the seaward end, dropping into the information centre in the Old Court House or the Old Post Office Museum, where you can collect a self-guided walking tour brochure.
Mornington’s Historic Railway
The Mornington Peninsula Railway operated for just over 100 years, from 1889 to 1981. It’s been restored by the Mornington Peninsula Preservation Society, and the heritage cars, classic old steam and diesel locomotives make it a real enthusiast and family favourite. Three Sunday’s a month the Mornington Historial Railway comes to life and takes you on a 40 minute ride from Somerville to Mornington. A Courtesy Bus runs between the Mornington Station and Main Street, so you can take a ride on the train and then spend the day in Mornington – a wonderful day out.
Two nearby historic estates give you very different views of history: the imposing 1863 Beleura with its magnificent gardens (bookings essential), and The Briars Park with its more modest 1840s homestead which houses a priceless Napoleonic Collection of around 500 items. There’s a 96-hectare wildlife reserve where you can stroll along walking tracks and boardwalks, watching out for native animals.
Court House, 1860
The oldest public building in Mornington, the tiny Court House cost £892 to build. A rear extension was added in 1862, but the public purse got excellent value for money as the Mornington Court of Petty Sessions was held here until 1988. The original Lock Up was officially declared a gaol in 1862, but 20 years later it was used mainly to hold the accused overnight or during court sessions.
Check out the notorious case of the ‘Mornington Scandal’ in the historical brochure, in which a former shire president was charged with forgery and falsification but got off lightly. Was improper influence brought to bear on the Solicitor General?
Old Post Office, 1863/64
Just over the road from the Old Court House is the Old Post Office, built in Palladian Italian Renaissance style. It replaced the even older 1861 telegraph and post office building when lines of copper connected Mornington to Melbourne. But you can’t stop progress, and the invention of the telephone in 1876 ultimately led to Mornington’s first telephone exchange opening in this building in 1905.
The Post Office occupied the building for 100 years, transferring ownership to the Mornington Shire in 1964. Four years later the Old Post Office became a museum and home to the Mornington and District Historical Society.
The Old State Savings Bank
This is next door to the Old Post Office and, rather curiously, the bank and residence was built in picturesque Swiss chalet style. The timber construction is unusual for a bank, but typical of the less formal design of rural State Savings Banks. It was completed in 1912, and since 1954 the building has been through a number of incarnations, including an office for police detectives.
Now it’s a bright and breezy cafe, with the original pressed metal ceilings, fireplaces and some vintage furnishings.
The Mechanics Institute
Not far up Main Street from the Old Post Office, the Mechanics Institute was one of many in the British colonies which provided education for the working man. Watch for the sculpted head of a Greek philosopher mounted on the keystone in the arched entrance to the building, which indicates a place of learning.
In front of the building, in the shade of two large plane trees, is the large Westminster Bollard. It was a gift to the Shire of Mornington from the City of Westminster in London, but some might think it a rather odd gift. The bollard originally stood at the head of the steps leading down to the River Thames opposite Millbank Prison, where prisoners condemned to transportation to Australia boarded their ships.
The Old Bank
Cross over Main Street and walk up to number 62, a stately Italian Renaissance style building built in the early 1890s when Melbourne was enjoying boom times as a result of the goldrush. Moneyed bank directors felt they should work in appropriately grand surroundings, and three different banks have occupied these premises.
Look for the faded sign on the facade reading ‘The Commercial Bank of Australia Limd’, which should of course have read ‘Ltd’ or ‘Limited’. (Perhaps the bank directors’ literacy did not match their numeracy?) The last bank moved out in 1986, and money now changes hands for drinks and delicious restaurant meals.
The Grand Hotel
The Gold Rush and the 1880s boom put a lot of money into a lot of pockets, so much alcohol was consumed. The temperance movement pushed for alcohol-free hotels, and the imposing Grand Coffee Palace at 126 Main Street was a most impressive example. Designed by noted architect William Pitt, who also designed Melbourne’s magnificent Windsor Hotel, the coffee palace had a very short life. It was built in 1892, but the following year took over the liquor licence from the hotel next door. Locals were most relieved when the beer began flowing.
These are just some of Main Street’s historical buildings, which you can enjoy with the Historic Main Street Mornington self-guided walking tour map. Collect a copy from the information centre in the Old Court House at the seaward end of Main Street, then stroll up one side of the street and down the other, watching out for the historic plaques on buildings.