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Melbourne Exhibition Building Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony 1879

The Solid Gold Trowel



Whatever happened to the solid gold trowel presented to his Excellency Sir George F. Bowen, K.C.M.G., Governor of Victoria, when he laid the foundation stone for the Melbourne Exhibition Building on 19 February 1879? Now worth over $44,000 (AU) for the gold alone. The trowel was designed and handcrafted by Messrs Walsh Bros, the fashionable jewellers, goldsmiths and silversmiths of Collins-street, Melbourne.


Foundation Stone Ceremonies

Foundation stone ceremonies were popular history marking events and usually attracted onlookers from far and wide.  The earliest recorded ceremonies included Dublin’s Trinity College celebrated in 1592 and Britain’s St Paul’s Cathedral celebrated in 1675. The foundation stone or cornerstone is the most important stone in a building representing:

“… the first stone set in a foundation.  It is of crucial importance as all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thereby determining the position of the entire structure.” (Bernbaum, 2018[?])

Ceremonial Trowels

Special trowels were used for the ceremonial spreading of the first mortar on which the foundation stone of a significant building or structure would lay. There was a touch of Freemasonry about the tradition which was practised in parts of Europe and the Commonwealth.

Trowels were used in ceremonies up until the early 1960s in Britain but then fell out of fashion.  Today the commencement of a building is usually celebrated by a sod-turning with a spade or shovel. Or the building ceremony takes place when the building is topped off, finished or opened.

The trowels used in bygone years usually featured elaborate artistic designs, the work of silversmiths and goldsmiths telling the story of a period in time, the significance of the occasion and the architectural feat. They were often richly symbolic.  Architects loved foundation ceremonies and encouraged them as a PR exercise. They frequently commissioned the trowel making and the trowel usually advertised their name and business.

The Solid Gold Trowel Used in the Melbourne Exhibition Building Ceremony

Mr Joseph Reed* the architect of the Exhibition building presented the gold trowel, weighing 22oz (0.62kg), to the Governor of Victoria for his ceremonial duty on 19 February 1879. His Excellency Sir George F. Bowen, K.C.M.G., used the trowel to spread mortar for the foundation stone marking the commencement of works to build the Melbourne International Exhibition Building in the Carlton Gardens. Today the Trowel would be worth over $44,000 for the gold alone. The historic value would be much greater.

*Joseph Reed of Reed and Barnes Architects also designed the Melbourne Town Hall and the State Library of Victoria.

The Solid Gold Trowel was a Beauty

The trowel admired for its beauty and design was described in Melbourne’s ‘Leader’ newspaper:

“The handle of the trowel is moulded in the form of an allegorical female figure representing Victoria.  She holds in her right hand an enamelled shield bearing representations of the four staple industries of the colony – a sheep representing wool, a sheaf of wheat, a bunch of grapes and a pick and shovel signifying the wealth that she has derived from her goldfields.  Five diamonds are placed between these figures in such a position as to form the well-known constellation of the Southern Cross.  Engraved on the back of the trowel is a design of the Exhibition buildings as they will appear when completed.  This engraving was taken from the pictorial representation of the International Exhibition buildings given in a recent issue of the Illustrated Australian News.  Beneath this design appears the names of the Exhibition Commissioners.  On the front of the trowel, bordering around the inscription quoted above, are ornamental representations of animals and birds peculiar to Australia, as the kangaroo, the emu, the opossum, the native bear, the lyrebird and parrot.  The whole forms an exquisite piece of workmanship and is made of solid gold.  Its total weight is 22 oz.  It was designed and manufactured by Messrs. Walsh Bros., of Collins-street.” (Leader, 22 Feb 1879)

What designs would be used today to represent the four staple industries of the State of Victoria?

Benefits of an International Exhibition in Melbourne

Governor Bowen was popular with Victorians.  He had thrown his full support behind the proposal for Melbourne to host an International Exhibition predicted to bring enormous benefits to the city, the colony and the nation across a range of areas including industry, science, culture and the arts.

It would put the colony on the map again after the heady gold rush days showcasing what Australia had to offer the world and what countries had to offer each other in the name of knowledge sharing and progress. The Exhibition would also help promote trade, prosperity and peace between nations. The State was excited.

Carlton Bursts at the Seams to Witness the Ceremony at the Melbourne Exhibition Building

A massive crowd of people estimated at between 20,000 to 30,000 came to witness the historic ceremony in the Carlton Gardens.  Nicholson Street became a surging mass of people blocking all access routes to the event. Military units and suburban brigades were used for crowd control.

The well-heeled ladies and gentlemen of Melbourne society were squeezed into the reserve area which was overflowing.

Pomp and Pageantry was the Order of the Day

The ceremony was bursting with pomp and pageantry beginning and ending with a 19 gun salute. Speeches delivered declared loyalty and devotion to Queen Victoria and acknowledged her husband’s foresight, the “illustrious” Prince Consort, whose vision brought the world the first international exhibition in London in 1851.

After the 1851 London Exhibition, Paris held the second in 1855 followed by London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873, Philadelphia 1876 and Paris again in 1878.

The Bottle Buried Beneath the Stone

An interesting aspect of the Melbourne Exhibition Building ceremony was the burial of a hermetically sealed bottle containing coins and papers in the cavity beneath the foundation stone.  The exact contents of the bottle included:

  1. Copy of the third supplement to the Victoria Government Gazette of Friday, 30th August 1878, containing the appointment of commissioners to carry out the exhibition.
  2. An act to provide for the holding of Victorian Exhibitions.
  3. List of commissioners, and regulations for carrying out the exhibition.
  4. Rules adopted by the commissioners.
  5. Address to his Excellency Sir George Bowen on laying the foundation stone.
  6. The Sketcher, 10th June 1878, illustrated newspaper, containing a view of the Exhibition building.
  7. The Illustrated Australian News, 10th June 1878, containing panoramic view of Melbourne.
  8. Argus, of 17th February 1879, containing a description of building.
  9. Evening Herald, of 18th February 1879.
  10. Argus of 19th February 1879.
  11. The Age, of 19th February 1879, containing description of building.
  12. Daily Telegraph, of 19th February, 1879.
  13. Card of Messrs. Reed and Barnes, architects.
  14. Card of Mr David Mitchell, builder.
  15. A sovereign, half-sovereign, crown, half-crown, florin, shilling, sixpence, fourpenny piece, threepenny piece, penny, halfpenny, farthing.

A printed copy of the reply of his Excellency to the address presented to him on the occasion was also laid in the cavity of the stone.” (Leader, 22 Feb 1879)

The Governor spread the mortar with the solid gold trowel and declared the stone “well and truly laid” to rousing cheers from the crowd. Evidence of his popularity came when he and his wife left for Government House after the ceremony. As they departed through the gates of Carlton Gardens their carriage was showered with beautiful bouquets thrown from every direction by adoring fans.

But where did the trowel go after the ceremony? Was it the Governor’s to keep? Many beautifully designed and crafted trowels have disappeared. Some still appear at auction and there are probably a few trowel collectors throughout the world.

A Surviving Trowel of Exquisite Design in Australia

An exquisite trowel that has survived in Australia is the one used in the foundation stone laying ceremony for the Great Hall of Sydney Town Hall on 13 November 1883 by Henriette Lizzie Harris wife of John Harris, Mayor of Sydney.  This trowel was designed and crafted by Irishman, William Kerr (1838-1891) a leading silversmith in Sydney who used Australian plants and animals in his distinctive design. The trowel is the collection at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.  Here it records:

“The striking design and execution as well as the original condition of the trowel, which is applied with Australian flowers crafted in gold, make it an outstanding item of metalwork of the period.  It is the only example of its kind known to have been made and survived.” (Bernbaum 2018 [?])

Trowel used in the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the Great Hall at Sydney Town Hall on 13 November 1883. In the Powerhouse Museum Collection in Sydney. Photograph in Anthony Bernbaum Article ‘Silver Ceremonial Trowels’, 2018 (?)


This beautiful trowel can be viewed online at https://collection.maas.museum/object/360279 where a full description of the object is supplied.

A Family Tie-in to the Melbourne Exhibition Building at a Pinch

When the stone laying ceremony for the Melbourne Exhibition Building took place Edward (Ned) KEARNEY was not quite three years old.  He was born at home on 5 May 1876 in Little Marion Street, Fitzroy, a cul-de-sac behind Nicholson St, a stone’s throw from the Exhibition building.  18 months after his birth and 14 months before the stone laying, Ned’s father, Matthew died leaving his 43-year-old wife, Anne with seven children, including baby Ned to raise.

The Melbourne Exhibition Building was a stone’s throw from Marion Street, Fitzroy, where Edward lived as a child. Photo taken January 2020.


The Melbourne Exhibition Building took 18 months to build and was completed in October 1880 in readiness for the International Exhibition that ran from October until April 1881. Over this time Anne KEARNEY undoubtedly had her hands full trying to make ends meet and at the same time care for her children, one of whom died (his father’s namesake, Matthew) in November 1880 aged six years.

Growing up with a lack of supervision in a single-parent household probably encouraged Ned’s free spirit and having the Carlton Gardens over the road as a playground was a bonus.

Who Started the Fire? “Boys again.”

Ned had just turned ten years old when he and a couple of mates were caught in the vicinity of the Exhibition Building vandalising the property of Mr ROFF.  The newspaper report said:

“Boys again.

Three little boys named David Stewart, Frank Hornblower, and Edward Kearney, for whom their parents appeared, were fined 1s. each and 10s. damage, for destroying part of the boarding opposite the Exhibition Building, the property of Mr Roff, the whole damage amounting to 30s.  They had chopped down some of the uprights and started a fire in the enclosure, with the assistance of other boys, and ought to consider themselves leniently dealt with.” (Mercury and Weekly Courier, 4 June 1886)

My G Grandfather, Edward Kearney was often caught on the wrong side of the law throughout his life.



Source Leader Silver Ceremonial Trowels Powerhouse Museum
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