Commonwealth celebrations – May 1901

Commonwealth celebrations – May 1901
Robin Grow

The month of May 1901 was a major point for the new country of Australia with foundation celebrations taking place across the new nation.

In Sydney, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the Domain to hear the proclamation.  In Melbourne many processions took place and celebrations were enhanced by the visit of the royal couple (the Duke of Cornwall and York, heir apparent to the throne, accompanied by the Duchess) who opened the first Federal Parliament of the new country at the Exhibition Building in May 1901.


In what is now Southbank, the entrance to the city was enhanced by the erection of a celebratory arch on the Princes Bridge section of St Kilda Rd.


It was intended to represent the living bonds of Empire. While welcomed by most, it was derided by some for showing excessive pomp and being wasteful.

Commissioned by the Melbourne City Council, it was designed by the leading architect Harold Desbrowe Annear, and contained various patriotic references. It consisted of a triumphal three-span arch of great dimensions in the strong and virile style of pure Roman Doric.

The three arches were semi-circular sections, adorned with half-columns, with the larger one in the centre containing a tram line for cable cars. The other two arches were dedicated to traffic of bicycles, horse-drawn traffic, and pedestrians.

In total the large arch was 27 metres wide and 12 metres deep, so it was a substantial building that welcomed visitors to the city.

The major theme of the arch celebrated the nautical might of the British Empire, and the keystone of the main arch was formed by the prow of a classic galley with a large lion’s head as the figure head.

It was topped with three enormous banners hung as square sails, emphasising the idea of the Ship of State embodied in the architecture of the arch, while flags on the wall on either side were of a nautical nature.

But there was little representation of Australia on the arch, only the names of each of the federated states on rowing blades beneath the keystone.

The arch featured classical statements on both sides, while the two sections flanking the central arch featured two panels: one adorned with One Life One Flag, and the other with One Fleet One Throne.

The arch was on display at night, with light provided by six arc lights and more than 1000 incandescent lights, and the general scheme of decoration colour was gold and silver, with vermilion on a white ground.

Other arches were constructed in coming years, all temporary, with the final one installed for the 1956 Olympic Games. But that’s another story! •

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