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BEHIND THE PILLARS Ten things you may not know about Victoria's Parliament

The columns that form the front entrance to Parliament House are one of the most recognisable landmarks in Melbourne.

Step behind the façade and you will find a treasure trove of stories about the drama of Victorian politics and the theatre in which it is played out.

Those stories give an insight into our past but also help us understand how we have reached our present.

From the vast array of facts and figures (and even a few follies), we’ve selected 10 things you may not know about the place where Victoria meets and decides how we are governed.

1. Walls of wealth

It was boom times when construction of Parliament House began, and the gold from the digs outside Melbourne soon found its way to the top of Bourke Street.

Twenty-three carat gold leaf was used to adorn the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council chambers and it can still be seen on the walls and ceilings today.

But the boom times were relatively short-lived and when they ended so too did the spending.

Parliament House was never completed to its original design, with the then Minister for Public Works Alfred Deakin pulling the plug on completion of the building that never got its grand dome.

2. Hapless hearth

When work on the building stopped, a fireplace that had already been built ended up on an outside wall. It can be seen today from the car park adjacent to the rear entrance of the building.

It’s a fireplace that has never been lit and is a sobering reminder of grand plans snuffed out.

3. The light fantastic

One of the most precious artefacts remaining from that bygone era is a glistening chandelier that now hangs in the Parliamentary Library. But even here the story is not crystal clear.

The chandelier is one of three that originally hung in the Legislative Council chamber. Those chandeliers, powered by gas, were taken down in 1912. After a period in storage, one of the chandeliers made its way into the Parliamentary Library. It’s not known what happened to the other two.

The chandeliers in the Legislative Assembly chamber didn’t fare any better. The originals went missing, also after being removed in 1912. Eventually replacements from Waterford in Ireland were installed in 1987 and shine in the chamber today.

4. Unsolved mystery

There is a $50,000 reward on offer – not for the missing chandeliers but for an equally intriguing mystery.

The symbol of the Speaker’s authority in the Legislative Assembly is a rod called the mace, which sits in brackets on the central table when parliament is in session. It’s a tradition dating back to medieval England.

The Victorian Parliament’s mace went missing one night in October 1891 and has never been found.

If you can solve the mystery and find the missing mace you can claim the $50,000 reward that still remains on the table.

5. The bar with no beer

It’s hard to imagine, but there is a bar without beer at the Victorian Parliament.

If anyone obstructs the business of parliament, MPs can decide to hold that person in contempt of parliament. He or she can be brought into parliament either to apologise or hear the punishment.

On any such occasion, the offender would be brought to the front of the parliamentary chamber and would stand behind a brass rod that is pulled across the passage way into the chamber.

That brass rod is called the bar of the house. The Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council both have one.

6. Jailhouse in the rock

If someone is held in contempt of parliament or if they disrupt the proceedings, they can be imprisoned.

In the depths of the bluestone corridors at the rear of Parliament House, Room 79 is the Victorian Parliament’s jail cell – a place where people could be detained before being taken away by police.

It’s unclear whether anyone has ever been held there, but it could have become a temporary holding place for a newspaper editor who was threatened with jail as parliament considered contempt charges against him.

While the old lock and bolt remain in place, Room 79 is now used as a change room.

7. Typo in marble

Jail may well have been one option considered for the person who chiselled incorrect spelling onto a statue of Queen Victoria.

The marble sculpture has stood in the Victorian Parliament since 1883, positioned in the aptly named Queen’s Hall. Clearly visible at the base is the etched error.

The sculptor’s name was Marshall Wood but the name carved into the marble is ‘Mashall Wood’.

8. Roots of a nation

The gardens at the back are another special feature of Parliament House and one of the historic treasures you will find there is an old oak tree planted by one of our nation’s founding fathers.

The Federal Oak was planted on 27 March 1890 by Sir Henry Parkes, the then Premier of the Colony of New South Wales, to commemorate the 1890 Australasian Federation Conference held at Parliament House in Melbourne.

That conference, attended by politicians from Australia’s six colonies and New Zealand, was one of the major steps towards Australian Federation.

A plaque commemorating the planting sits below the tree, which has matched the federation it represents for resilience and strength.

9. Roll out the vote

The referendums that brought Australia to nationhood were held from 1898 to 1900. The Victorian Parliamentary Library has in its collection the Victorian electoral roll for the 1899 referendum.

That electoral roll, which includes the signatures of a future king and queen and a who’s who of Victoria at the turn of the 20th century, is on display in the Deakin Gallery at Parliament House.

10. The missing link

Rounding off our list of ten lesser known things about the Victorian Parliament is a story of liberty lost.

Twelve figures can be found in the Legislative Council chamber, each holding a symbolic object. One of them is supposed to depict liberty, symbolised originally by a broken chain she was holding.

But federal intervention ended up shackling the winged goddess.

When the federal parliament took up residence in the new capital of Canberra, after borrowing the Victorian parliamentary building for 26 years, it ordered some maintenance work to ensure the Victorian Parliament was left in good shape. As part of that maintenance work, unwittingly the broken chain of liberty was connected together.

The chain remains linked to this day, although there has been talk of emancipation. But that’s another story…

To hear more stories about Victoria’s Parliament take a free public tour on non-sitting days. Visit parliament.vic.gov.au/visit for full details.

Credits:

Written and produced by Parliament of Victoria News in association with Tours and Customer Service Unit and Parliamentary Library & Information Service. Video by Parliament Broadcasting.

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