Welcome to the 2018 issue of Provenance. The four peer reviewed and four forum articles in this issue demonstrate the scope of material available to researchers and writers utilising Victorian archival collections to inform original research. A feature of the issue is the use of detailed case studies that bring to light new insights into broader trends and present new understandings about the history of Victoria. There is a focus on nineteenth-century research, covering a range of records produced by the colonial and Victorian state governments, which highlights how the records of our state can illuminate and inform studies of our past and present. The articles in this issue show the various ways in which the intersection of private interests, legislation and the decision-making of government came together in areas of land management and ownership, public health policy and the law to affect the lived experiences of Victorian people.

In the peer reviewed section, three articles utilise case studies from the goldfields region of Victoria to highlight aspects of health, legal and land use history during the nineteenth century.

Smallpox was a significant public health issue facing the colony of Victoria, and particular challenges were presented by the burgeoning populations of the goldfields region. Victoria led the way in introducing compulsory vaccination for smallpox in Australia, and it was successfully implemented due to the combined effort of the medical profession, public vaccinators and the central and local boards of health. Nicola Cousen’s article, ‘The smallpox on Ballarat’, shows how the development of this policy and its implementation played out in the unique environment of the Ballarat goldfields during the 1850s.

Peter Davies, Karen Twigg and Susan Lawrence researched the extensive collection of Crown land records at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) for their case study of the Inglewood Gold Field Common, established in 1861 as part of a broader commons system introduced in nineteenth-century Victoria. A little known aspect of the administration of public land in the mid-nineteenth century, gold fields commons provided a public resource for small-scale settlement around centres of mining activity. The common is revealed as a contested space, where competing interests and conflicts over land ownership and rights led to large portions being taken up through selection from the 1870s, while other land remains in public ownership to this day.

In ‘The Big Hill murder and the colonial death penalty’, John Waugh sheds new light on the administration of justice in colonial Victoria through the case of a well-publicised murder at Big Hill near Bendigo, for which George Nial was sentenced to death in 1860. Executive Council and other records for this time period held at PROV are a valuable resource, revealing details of confidential debates about decisions to commute death sentences and the use of the prerogative of mercy by the governor of Victoria, who had the ultimate power to decide whether a death penalty given by a jury would be carried out.

The sole twentieth-century article in this year’s issue, Giorgio Marfella’s study of ‘ICI House and the birth of discretionary tall building control in Melbourne (1945–1968)’, examines the decisions that led to the construction in the late 1950s of what is considered to be Melbourne’s first skyscraper. Marfella argues that ICI House is symbolic of a change in the way that the building regulations were interpreted and implemented by the City of Melbourne to allow taller buildings than had previously been allowed. This involved a move from approvals for buildings based on traditional height limits to a culture of case-by-case decision-making based on a number of trade-offs between private interests and public benefit, thereby shaping the nature of the contemporary central business district (CBD).

The forum section is similarly diverse, with authors demonstrating the various ways in which original research can help to inform our knowledge of our built environment, make personal connections with our family history, and answer questions about the experience of those settling on and working the land in the nineteenth century.

Barbara Minchinton and Sarah Hayes’ article, ‘Dating Melbourne’s cesspits: digging through the archives’, discusses how the discovery of Melbourne City Council records at PROV have helped archaeologists working in the ‘Little Lon’ area of the Melbourne CBD to understand the waste management history of the site during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Being able to date the operation and closure of cesspits in the area, alongside other evidence, such as artefacts found in the cesspits, can provide a richer picture of the people who lived in Little Lon at that time.

Lauren Murphy presents an entertaining tale of ‘The notorious Michael O’Grady: Big Mick in early Melbourne’. Big Mick was a colourful character whose petty criminality and Irish ‘larrikinism’ were frequently exploited for entertainment in the newspapers of the 1840s and 1850s. For Murphy, these light-hearted newspaper accounts, as well as letters from Big Mick himself (located in the records of the superintendent of the Port Philip District at PROV), are a glimpse into the kind of behaviour that helped to provide the basis for the emerging Australian character.

Records can contain personal details about the lives of ancestors. For Kath McKay, locating a detailed criminal trial record of the rape of her grandmother Ethel as a nine-year-old in 1895 was difficult. The way in which the trial was conducted highlights many of the difficulties faced by women and girls who made formal complaints against sexual assault. The case was significant in other ways; for example, it was the first time a woman doctor gave evidence in a Supreme Court trial. This doctor went on to be involved in the establishment of medical services specifically for women and children in inner Melbourne.

In ‘The Best Land Act: hope and despair at Merton’, Jennifer McNeice uses land selection files to construct case studies of the experiences of selectors in the Merton district, located in north-eastern Victoria, in the late nineteenth century. She examines the difficulties experienced by landholders under the Land Act 1884 that made reform necessary, and the subsequent impact on these landholders following the introduction of new land Act in 1898. These records show that, despite the optimism for change inspired by the minister for land Robert Best’s consultative approach, these reforms did not always deliver on the hope they promised.

I would like to express my thanks to the members of the Provenance editorial board who play a significant role in providing oversight and advice for each issue:

  • Dr Fred Cahir, Associate Professor of Aboriginal History, Federation University Australia

  • Dr Sebastian Gurciullo, Assistant Editor, Provenance; Collection Management Project Officer, Public Record Office Victoria

  • Dr Adrian Jones OAM, Associate Professor of History, La Trobe University

  • Mike Jones, Consultant Research Archivist, The University of Melbourne (since January 2018)

  • Dr Antonina Lewis, Research Fellow, Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics, Monash University

  • Dr Seamus O’Hanlon, Associate Professor of History, Monash University

  • Dr Dianne Reilly AM, FRHSV, Secretary, La Trobe Society

  • Katherine Sheedy, Professional Historians Association (Vic) Inc.

  • Dr Judith Smart, Adjunct Professor, RMIT University; Principal Fellow, The University of Melbourne

  • Dr Rachel Standfield, Lecturer, Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, Monash University

I would also like to thank PROV colleagues: Carly Godden who provided editorial support for the forum section of this issue, Andrew Joyce for digitisation and online support, and Natasha Cantwell and Kate Follington for support with communications and online engagement. Rani Kerin brought her copyediting and proofreading expertise to the preparation of this issue of the journal for publication.

Tsari Anderson

Editor, Provenance