A Year with Bluestone: An Emotional History

BluestoneEmotions are everywhere. We most commonly think of them as governing inter-personal relationships; or, as much CHE research is showing, as driving political and historical change.  But as many contemporary thinkers are realising, the “human” is not the only category to think with.

Aligned with work in the environmental humanities and eco-materialism, one of my research projects for CHE is a cultural and affective, or emotional history of human relationships with stone. But it is also very much a local history, as the particular stone I am concerned with is the volcanic basalt — commonly called bluestone — that spreads over much of the state of Victoria, and that has become such a distinctive feature of the built environment, both in rural Victoria and the city and suburbs of Melbourne.

As a volcanic stone, basalt has undergone violent transformation from molten lava to the solid round boulders that spread from south-western Victoria to the western and northern suburbs of Melbourne. These boulders are typically held together by sticky black clay (even this Merri Creek mud is famous, used as the basis for the cricket pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1859). The basalt plains of Victoria are the third largest in the world. In the built environment, bluestone is characteristically cut into long rectangular blocks or square pitchers. It is a hard and unyielding stone that resists carving into decorative or figurative features. Yet even in its most common appearance as a building block, bluestone has some very evocative and emotional associations that are crucial to Victorian history, and local understandings of, and feelings about heritage culture. Bluestone “frames” Melbourne, in the foundations of many buildings, the basis for many iron railings and fences, the laneways that are such a distinguishing feature both of its central business district and its suburbs, and in the kerbs and trims of so many of its roads, to say nothing of its use in some of its most distinctive buildings and landmarks: Pentridge Prison, St Patrick’s Cathedral and other churches, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Grammar School. Regional Victoria also boasts significant numbers of bluestone gaols, churches and other buildings.

The book I am writing will constitute an emotional history of the way people have worked with this natural phenomenon, shaping their world with it, and reflecting on its characteristic features and affects.

Many of the earliest bluestone buildings in Victoria, for example, were built from bluestone quarried by convict labour. The irony of prisoners cutting bluestone blocks to form the walls of their own prisons is inescapable. Made of this very dark stone, bluestone prison walls seem particularly forbidding, though as a former prison guard at Pentridge explained to me, the stones of the prison cells were so large, and fitted so neatly, it was relatively easy to pull the stones out and escape.

The architecture of the original Pentridge site is a curious mixture. Its imposing front entrance with its crenellations and circular towers invokes a medieval fortress, while inside it is modelled on Jeremy Bentham’s ‘modern’ panopticon: archaeologists have recently uncovered the bluestone foundations of the old exercise yards: high walled wedges of a circle with a surveillance tower at the centre. One guard could see all the prisoners, but none of them could see each other.

The front gate of the famous Pentrage Prison.
The front gate of the famous Pentridge Prison.

Pentridge

After Pentridge was closed in 1997, much of the vast site in Coburg was sold to private developers to build housing stock. One developer consciously modelled his estate — Pentridge Piazza — on Italian walled towns, preserving many of the bluestone walls as features. As one resident explained, living at Pentridge is “like being someone special.” House prices increase, the closer they are to the original walls. In the context of the housing market, any gloomy penal associations have been displaced by the cultural capital of heritage and tradition.

In other contexts, however, like modern heritage tourism, bluestone prisons like the old Melbourne gaol in Russell St actively capitalize on the haunted gothic associations of convicts, prison labour and executions. The famous Victorian bushranger Ned Kelly plays an important role here. Kelly spent time at Pentridge and the Melbourne gaol, where he was executed. He also spent time on the prison ship Sacramento, anchored in the port of Williamstown, the site of another bluestone quarry. Tourist guides at Williamstown claim that Kelly would have broken many of the bluestones used on the foreshore and in other buildings there. Of the millions of bluestones used in Victorian buildings, laneways and streets, it is irresistible to think of just a few of them bearing an individual touch. In the same way, I am regularly told the story of how certain bluestones, carved with prisoners’ initials, were taken from the old Melbourne gaol in 1930 as part of a project of building a sea wall at Brighton beach, as a depression-era work project. One of these stones is said to bear Kelly’s initials, too, though it is no longer visible.

Bluestone is often associated with the gothic, with penal culture, or the haunted past. But it is also linked to the prosperity of the state of Victoria in the gold rush and the flourishing of Melbourne in the second half of the nineteenth century. More recently it has become a sign of heritage culture and the symbolic value of the past. Bluestones carry a strong affective charge, and have the capacity to tell an intriguing story about a city’s sense of itself. They are regularly recycled and used in modern gardens and other projects, like the labyrinth made of bluestone according to an ancient design, made by local residents along the Merri Creek in Collingwood, and now become a site both for meditation and all-night parties.

A bluestone maze frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.
A bluestone labyrinth frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.

What can this particular stone tell us, then, about our relationship with our own environment, and our own history?
Over the course of this year, I am blogging my research into the affective history of bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria at http://stephanietrigg.blogspot.com.au/. Everyday I post a picture, or discuss an image or a reference to bluestone. CHE readers are warmly invited to follow this blog and send images and stories of bluestone by email to Stephanie Trigg or on Facebook or Twitter @stephanietrigg using #BluestoneCHE.

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