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History

10 Aug 2017

History Image

Police Stables - Mounted Branch

For over 100 years, the streets of City South, which later became Southbank, echoed with the clip-clop of police horses.

They were based in the Police Stables building on Dodds Street, a distinctive building that was part of a complex of police buildings that included a hospital, barracks and drill hall.

19th Century Melbourne was a city that mainly relied on horse traffic for transport and delivery of goods. Horse and rider numbers increased in line with Victoria’s population, peaking in the early 1900s. Law enforcement was generally horse-based as well, with Mounted Stations throughout the state.

Built in 1912, the red-brick building is a notable example from Federation/Edwardian Period (1902-c.1918) and was part of the complex designed by the chief architect of the Public Works Department E. Evan Smith. The three-sided building, topped with a circular tower, anchors two long wings that included stalls for the horses (up to 50 in its heyday). Saddles and riding equipment hung on the wall. The day’s routines included grooming the horses and maintaining the riding equipment used for patrol, exercise, and ceremonial equipment. For decades, stories were passed down through generations of the Mounted Branch about the ghost that allegedly haunted the stables.

The near-city location of the stables meant that mounted police could quickly get to any event, such as parades or trouble spots in the city and quickly get to Government House. Their role changed as the city became more car-based but they still had an important role to play – and still do, on the frontline in protests, demonstrations, escorts and searches in remote areas for missing people or escaped criminals. Horses can go where cars and vehicles can’t, and a searcher on horseback can see much further than one on foot. One important function that mounted police no longer perform is to guard umpires leaving the ground at VFL football matches, common in the 1960s and 1970s.

For many years the police had their own horse breeding program, supplemented by former racehorses, such as Black Knight, Melbourne Cup winner from 1984. Police horses need to have the right temperament, ability and height and it takes about two years for a horse to be fully trained. The mounted police officers (predominantly female these days) are highly skilled and undertake a program of regular training, just like the horses. Daily routines consist of grooming, looking after the equipment used for riding, and training. Residents in the area were used to seeing the horses grazing on the lush grass outside the stables and local residents delighted in having a chat with the officers and a pat of the horses.

In 2015, the decision was made by Force Command to re-locate the Stables to Attwood (near Melbourne airport) and to truck them into the city when they were needed. The stables have now been vacated and have been taken over by the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and are being transformed into artists’ studios and exhibition space. It is great to see another historic building in Southbank receiving a new lease of life - but I still miss the clip-clop of horses through the streets of Southbank.

 

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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