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Detail from the original plans for the Portland Town Hall, drawn by Alexander Ross in 1862. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

It was a plan to build a grand monument for the new settlement – a new town hall made of bluestone for the Borough of Portland.

But as simple as it sounds, the project was so fraught with mistakes and mishaps that it is a wonder the building was erected at all.

According to historical reports, there were four major blunders throughout the planning and building stages of one of Portland's early official buildings, one that still stands today and now houses the town's history museum and research centre, History House.

 

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 Portland Town Hall and Memorial Triangle (foreground). The Memorial Triangle had previously been called the Coronation Triangle. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

In October 1862, the local newspaper the Portland Guardian reported the Municipal Council had "decided on the expenditure of £600 on the Town Hall".

"A sum of £10 has been offered as a premium for the best design and the 14th of November next has been fixed as the last day upon such will be received," the article stated.

Therein lay problem number one. Entries for the design of the town hall were received and judged, but when the "winner's" design was costed it was found to be well in excess of budget. Another architect's plans were subsequently chosen but the original winner refused to give back the £10 prize.

 

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Interior of the Portland Town Hall c. 1900. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

Anne Grant, from Portland's History House, says the laying of the foundation stone became problem number two.

With great extravagance connected to the occasion, Anne says much money, time and effort was expended on a ceremony to mark the occasion. A very expensive silver trowel was made and engraved especially, and many officials attended a function marked with a street procession and official ceremony.

The ceremony included placing a bottle filled with coins, newspapers and an explanatory note underneath the foundation stone, and then, with three strikes of a mallet, declaring the stone "well laid, true and trusty".

 

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 Ceremonial trowel used by William Learmonth to lay the foundation stone for the new Portland Town Hall, 21st September 1863. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

While all this information – including the fact that a foundation stone was laid – is well documented, to this day no-one has found a recognisable foundation stone on the town hall site.

Anne explains that it was once building commenced that the third major problem arose – disruptions and delays caused by in-fighting between contractors, contractors refusing to follow instructions and inferior workmanship that had to be re-completed.

According to the town hall's Conservation Management Plan, the plasterer questioned the quality of the mason's work and that of the surveyor, and the council decided to defer payments to the plasterer, the mason and the commission to the architect Alexander Ross.

 

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 Portland Town Hall today – now known as “History House”. The building houses a genealogical research centre and museum.

The original plasterer "declined to carry out his contract" and when another plasterer took over, he was fined £11 for "the un-tradesman like manner" in which the work was carried out.

And to top things off, the council allowed tradesmen to postpone the completion of the work until many months after the contracts stipulated.

The centrepiece of municipal governance for the settlement, however, was finally completed in 1864 and an official opening ceremony was held on 24th May (Queen Victoria's birthday).

In comparison to the laying of the foundation stone, the official opening was a much more subdued event with only around 50 people attending, including the Shire of Portland President Mr Edwin Atkinson, Judge Brewer, the Town Clerk and Municipal Surveyor, and the building's architect Alexander Ross.

A far cry from the pomp and ceremony of the foundation laying ceremony, but one probably more suited to the building's recent history.

What was the fourth blunder the Portland Town Hall building project suffered?

Who was the original "winner", and why did he refuse to return the £10 prize?

Does the silver trowel used to lay the town hall's mysterious foundation stone still exist?

To find the answers to all these questions and more, visit Glenelg Shire Council's museum and research centre History House, where you will find photographs, newspaper articles and booklets that go into more detail about the construction of the Portland Town Hall.

 

And you'll also find passionate volunteers willing to share their immense knowledge with you!

 

History House – Museum and Research Centre
Cliff Street, Portland VIC 3305 (PO Box 409)

Phone: (03) 5522 2266

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Open daily 10am-noon and 1pm-4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day.