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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 6 years, 3 months ago

Time Travellers in Essendon, Flemington and the Keilor Plains




by Lenore Frost


The first Essendon Court of Petty Sessions opened on 9 July 1860 in a room adjoining the Moonee Ponds Hotel, rented from publican John Wilson.  The Borough Council of Essendon & Flemington shared this venue when it formed in 1862.


Courts of Petty Sessions dealt with summary offences and minor civil disputes, typically cases of drunkeness, theft, minor assaults, street offences, breaches of by-laws or regulations, and breaches of the Masters and Servants Act.  In the case of serious charges, Courts of Petty Sessions carried out preliminary enquiries to determine if there was sufficient evidence to require the accused to stand trial in a higher court.  Other functions included licencing of hotels, billiard tables, estate agents, and slaughterhouses, or handling applications for old-age pensions.


The Essendon Court was part of a circuit, with court being held in Essendon on Mondays, at Donnybrook on Fridays, and in Keilor on every 2nd and 4th Wednesday.  The first Clerk of Petty Sessions, Townsend Somerville, travelled between the three Courts, while local Magistrates (or Justices of the Peace) heard the cases.


The new Essendon and Flemington Borough Council set out to attract a government grant for courts by erecting a dual purpose building, selecting a site next to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Mount Alexander Road, on the corner of Warrick Street in Ascot Vale.    In August 1864 the Essendon Court at the Moonee Ponds Hotel was closed, and a new Court, known as the Flemington Police Court, was established in the new town hall, with Councillors and Court officials sharing the hall and furniture.  The hall was also used for recreational purposes by local churches and organisations for religious services, dances, concerts, bazaars, and other entertainments. This building still stands behind a row of shops.


The Borough Town Hall and Flemington Court in Mt Alexander Rd, on the corner of Warrick St Ascot Vale.  You can find it still standing behind a row of shopfronts.  Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria Collection.


The Borough of Essendon and Flemington separated into two boroughs in 1882, leaving the old town hall/courthouse in Ascot Vale close to the southern boundary of the Borough of Essendon.  This led the new Borough of Essendon to look for more central premises.  Negotiations were undertaken with the Essendon and Flemington Institute to take over their building and the debt, and on  2 November 1885 a new court was duly opened at the site of the new Town Hall in Moonee Ponds. 


The new arrangements at Moonee Ponds led to disagreements between Councillors and Magistrates over the placement of the furniture; the Court Chairman of the Bench, John Davies, also complained about the lack of a fireplace in the new Court.  By 1887 the Town Clerk was instructed to write to the Law Department offering to return the annual grant of £500 if the Department gave up the lease for the Court.


Representations to the Law Department eventually had their effect, land was acquired, and Public Works Department architect Samuel E Bindley was instructed to draw up plans for a new Courthouse. 


The former Moonee Ponds Court House is a bold and impressive single-storey building, containing an eclectic mix of design elements.  Due to it's high gable end and it's clerestory windows casual observers sometimes mistaken it for a two-storey building.  The building is in one of the high-Victorian Boom-period styles, and incorporates tuck-pointed polychrome brickwork and a number of Gothic Revival elements, together with some uncommon variations. ......


The main internal volume is the court room it's self, which takes up most of the floor area.  There are a number of smaller offices gathered around the court room, with access doors located near the corners.  After passing through the porch and the entrance passage, the visitor cannot help but be overwhelmed by the court room with its’ almost cubic proportions and it's sense of self-importance.

                                                                                                John Lucy, architect.


"Most of the old furniture was removed to the new Court-house, and a local wag seized the opportunity, while the "flitting" was in progress, to remark that the new building should be named "Mount Sinai" because it was being descended upon by patriarchs bearing the tables of the law!


The new courthouse opened on 18 August 1890 with no fanfare, but with local Justices of the Peace Davies, Filson, Reeve and Dr Fishbourne settling to their usual work - nine locals were fined for having allowed animals to stray, and a number of summonses for rates were withdrawn.   The administration of local justice was implemented in this building for the next 85 years. 


The 1890 courthouse designed by Samuel Bindley.  Photographer:  Dallas James, 2009.


In contrast with the unheralded opening of the earlier courthouse, the new Moonee Ponds Courthouse in Kellaway Avenue was opened on 27 April 1973 by the Attorney-General, Sir George Reid, in front of a crowd of local dignitaries.  The new building, with two courtrooms and interview rooms, provided more comfortable conditions for the adjudicators, police, solicitors, barristers and witnesses.  The old Courthouse had been very warm on hot days and very cool on cold days.


Criminal cases were transferred to the new Sunshine Court  in 1999, leaving the courthouse used only one day a week for domestic violence cases.  In 2003 the building was made available for use by community groups, setting a precedent for other superseded Victorian courthouses.


                                                                                                                                                      ©  Lenore Frost


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