In the closing decades of the nineteenth century the six independent colonies in Australia began to consider joining together to create a federated nation. The decision to federate was made finally by a referendum in each colony in 1899, with Western Australia joining in 1900. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901 with celebrations in Sydney.

Colonial rivalries had marred the long period of negotiation that preceded the decision. None was more hotly contested than the site of the eventual national capital. Both New South Wales and Victoria vied for the honour. In the end to ensure New South Wales' agreement to federate, it was determined that the capital city would be in New South Wales, but at an equal distance between Sydney and Melbourne. In the meantime Melbourne would host the federal parliament and government while the new capital city was built.


Opening of the first Australian Parliament

The opening of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia took place  in the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V), officiated in the name of the King. The city was decorated with a series of grand arches to celebrate the momentous occasion and the visit of the royal duke and duchess. The use of arches to celebrate important civic occasions has a long history, extending from ancient times, but it was revived in the late nineteenth century as part of the 'City Beautiful' movement in America.

Melbourne excelled itself, with a series of eight grand ceremonial arches marking the route to be travelled by the royal carriage on the journey to and from the Exhibition Building. There was a grand Municipal (or Corporation) Arch, a King's Arch, Queen Victoria's Arch, the Duke of York's Arch and a Citizens' Arch. There was also a Butter Arch and two arches contributed by non-Anglo communities - a German Arch and a Chinese Arch. Two additional arches were built in St Kilda and four in Ballarat. Small towns also joined in. Spencer Street Station was decorated to resemble Windsor Castle!


Where were the arches?

The carriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York travelled the streets of Melbourne in procession. The Sydney Morning Herald provided the following account of the route: 'passed under the King's arch, in Swanston-street, turned into Collins-street, and passing under the Queen Victoria arch thence went along Spring-street to Parliament house and down Bourke-street, passing under the Citizen's arch, and the Duke of York's arch to William-street. Then turning into Collins-street it passed under the Butter arch and German arch, and on reaching Swanston-street, passed over the Prince's Bridge to Government House….'.

The following photographs document this series of extraordinary civic decorations. The arches remained in place for only a brief period.


The Melbourne Arch at the Sydney celebrations

The Municipal (or Corporation) Arch

Location: Princes Bridge
This grand arch was modeled off the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
This arch was intended to stand for 12 months as a reminder of the celebrations, however one month after the visit a strong wind blew some of the columns down blocking the road and so it was dismantled.
Designed by noted architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear, this was the first, and grandest of the arches. It reads (in Latin) ‘The city hails her monarch’s son’ and  ‘The wattle greets the rose of York’. A replica of the ship ‘Austral’ (the Ship-of-State) comes out of the arch with Australian states written on the oars. Above this were three masts, giving the illusion of sailing. A crown sits on the very top. The inside of the arch was painted deep crimson with electrical bulbs which when lit appeared to be stars.

The Butter Arch

Location: Collins Street
The Butter arch looks like a medieval battlement with two turrets and flags flying on each. Poised above the centre is a shield for each of the six states. It was composed of butter boxes which looked like bricks. The number of boxes used in the construction represented the amount of butter exported daily from Victoria at the time.
This was the only arch erected in Melbourne for a particular industry.

The Chinese Arch

Location: Swanston Street near Little Bourke Street.
It was designed by Public Works architect Mr G.H.B Austin and paid for by the Victorian Chinese community.
The Chinese Arch looked like a Chinese temple and was covered in the finest silks. Musicians sat at the apex and played Chinese music during the procession.
This arch was not included in the official procession on May 9th.

The Citizen’s Arch

Location: Bourke Street, just east of Russell Street.
Measuring 18 by 11 metres this arch featured a portrait of King Edward VII under the original Melbourne coat of arms. This coat of arms is divided into quarters by the Saint George cross, the quarters containing a sheep, a bull, a whale and a ship, representing Victorian industry and trade. (This coat of arms can still be seen around the city, notably on Princes Bridge).

On the columns of the arch were portraits of the Duke (left) and Duchess (right) both adorned with the Union Jack, below these portraits were the badges of the six states and below them were copies of the Kings shield with the initials ‘ERI’ (abbreviated Latin meaning ‘Edward King and Emperor).

The six badges were: Victoria- a blue ensign with the southern cross surmounted by a crown, Queensland- a blue Maltese cross with the imperial crown in the centre, Western Australia- a black swan with a yellow circle, New South Wales- a golden lion on a red Saint George’s cross within a white circle, South Australia- a piping shrike in a yellow circle, Tasmania- a red lion in a white circle.
This arch was paid for by public subscription.

The Duke’s Arch

Location: Bourke Street
This naval themed arch featured photographs of the Duke (left) and Duchess (right) of Cornwall, the centre held a model warship titles ‘Melampus’ which moved as if tossed by waves. It was covered in velveteen of blue and red with orange lining and gold gilding. The arch was lit by over 400 electric lights at night.
When the royal carriage approached, there were tiny guns which were rigged to fire and a welcome flag would be raised.

The German Arch

Location: Collins Street
Two columns hold a flag suspended over the main tramway. Two smaller arches on either side provide room for pedestrians. The flag represents the ‘Genius of Australia’, above that a motto is painted in German which translated reads: ‘One people we, united and fraternal’.

The King’s (or Edward VII) Arch

Location: Swanston Street, just north of Flinders Lane.
This arch was themed for the Royal Robes and was covered in cardinal and deep crimson velveteen with gold silk cords. It was topped with gilded masts and silk flags. Searchlights from neighbouring buildings lit the arch at night.
Designed by Mr George H B Austin of the Public Works Department

The Queen’s Arch

Location: Corner of Russell and Collins streets.
This was the only arch to pay homage to a deceased person: Queen Victoria, she had died 4 months before it was erected.
This arch used the four corners of the street to great effect. Each corner held the side of an arch, all meeting in the middle, it was the only arch to do so. The centre of this intersection held a gilded statue of the late Queen (sculpted by C Douglas Anderson), beneath this was suspended a bouquet of flowers. The arch was coloured violet, white, silver and gold and was illuminated by 1000 lights at night.
Arches were assembled elsewhere in Victoria, like this one in St Kilda.


All images above courtesy State Library Victoria.