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History

11 Jul 2019

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Southbank Morgue

One of the most important state government buildings located in Southbank is the State Coroner’s Office and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Pathology, where medical staff examine bodies and prepare for testimony at a Coronial enquiry as to the cause of death.

Constructed in 1988 to a design by architects Bates Smart, it sits on the corner of Kavanagh and Power streets, on a site that was previously occupied by Streets Ice-cream company for its fleet.

Melbourne had a long history of controversy over the collection and storage of dead bodies. In the early days of the colony, bodies were kept in local hotels until examined, which often caused the local drinkers to move elsewhere! Inquests could also be viewed by the public and reported by newspapers. Primitive morgues were then built on railway land at Princes Bridge and in a yard at the wharf on the Yarra, but were full of fleas, rats (which required the bodies to be covered in iron), badly lit and unsewered, so the drainage from bodies awaiting post mortems at the morgue flowed straight into the Yarra.

After years of bureaucratic wrangling over who was responsible for the role of the morgue, its dreadful condition and its ultimate location, a new morgue was opened in 1888. It was in Batman Avenue, on the edge of Southbank, and next to the site that would be used for the Beaurepaire pool, constructed in Spanish Mission style in 1935 (and subsequently demolished). But that’s a story for another time!

Morgue buildings, by their very nature, are not cheerful but this one was particularly morbid. The duties of newspapers roundsman took them to a round of government offices, but the one they hated was the morgue, as did the police, families of the deceased and undertakers. It had a number of controversies over the years, with police charged with robbing bodies and one very fortunate woman, declared dead at a hospital, who woke up just as she was going into the freezer.

After receiving criticism for many years it was renovated and completely remodelled in 1936 and served until 1951 when a new morgue was constructed on the Flinders St extension. It was finally replaced in 1988 by the new Coronial Services Centre, after a change in legislation and a new Coroners Act 1985. Victoria at last had a purpose-built building for services to the coroner, courts and community, together with a research facility. It is in Southbank that the numerous complicated tasks associated with care for the dead take place.

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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