The RMIT Graduate School of Business and Law, such a beautiful site. I am well aware that I am incredibly biased, given that RMIT University is my alma mater and not to mention that I'm also on the board of the RMIT law school, but at the end of the day what I say is true, so that's that.

You've probably never noticed the RMIT Graduate School of Business and Law and I can guarantee that if you live in Melbourne then you've almost certainly walked past it.  While it's called the Emily McPherson Building, it's name on RMIT maps and guides is the very unceremonious 'Building 13'.

Building 13 sits on the corner of Russell and Victoria street on the corner of the Hoddle Grid, diagonally opposite Trades Hall, in front of the 888 monument, right next to the Old Melbourne Gaol, opposite the old Russell Street Police HQ and on the same block as the Old Melbourne Magistrates' Court.

Who was Emily McPherson? Why did she have a law school named after her?

Well, she didn't Building 13 was once upon a time the School of Domestic Economy named in honour of Emily McPherson, the wife of Australian philanthropist William McPherson who fronted the money for building the school.

The Emily McPherson School was officially opened by the Duchess of York, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on 27 April 1927.  If that name sounds familiar, it's because the Duchess of York went on to become Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth, the queen consort of King George VI. That's The Queen Mother to you (and the last Empress of India, true story)

King George VI only became king upon the abdication of his brother Edward, so the Duchess becoming Queen was a surprise to many, including her. Edward preferred marrying an American divorcee, Ms Wallis Simpson over assuming the title of the last Emperor of India and last head of the English Empire, he let George VI do that.  Not many law schools in Australia can lay claim to a queen opening its building.

Not only was the Duchess of York the one to officially open the School of Domestic Economy with a golden key no less, she was also its first graduate. Dr Ethel Osborne, the President of the college and a distinguished doctor, hygienist and advocate for women's rights presented the Duchess with the first diploma and claimed that the Duchess:

"had set all Australians an example of home life".

The Duchess, no doubt amused by the whole thing considering that she had probably never even run her own bath ever stated that the diploma:

"... will always be a delightful memento but one of which I am afraid I am not worthy!".

No truer words probably had ever been spoken.

The Duchess opened the Emily McPherson building some weeks before her and her husband, the Duke of York who would eventually grow up to be George VI, would open the brand new Parliament House in the new nation's capital, Canberra.

RMIT law students should be pretty proud that their law school building was officially opened before the national parliament itself!

The royal connection is still there, RMIT is the only university entitled to use the coat of arms of the United Kingdom as it was given royal patronage by Her Majesty The Queen.  If you notice, it's the only university in Australia with the prefix 'royal'.  The Queen saw fit to grant patronage to the institution because of RMIT's involvement in making munitions during World War II, s well as training returned servicewomen and men.

Why law at RMIT?

RMIT has been teaching law students since the 60s.  In fact, RMIT was the second university to offer the study of law after the University of Melbourne, Monash University coming to the party some months after RMIT began training future lawyers.

Before the introduction of the Juris Doctor degree in Australia, to become eligible to practice law you could study an LLB (bachelor of laws) or an LLM (master of laws) or undertake an articled clerks course.

RMIT, true to its roots as a school of technical and practical learning (having been originally established as the Working Men's College in 1887) preferred the articled clerks course as a mode of teaching.  The articled clerks course was a skills based entry into the legal profession.  Would-be lawyers would work in a law firm of barrister's chambers for part of the day and undertake formal tuition at RMIT for another part.  While this method of training lawyers was very hands on it fell out of favour in the late 70s.

RMIT then focused on training future judicial registrars, criminologists, and other justice studies students until 2007 when RMIT began offering the Juris Doctor degree, a post graduate law qualification.

Why retain the name of the building?

If it hadn't been for William McPherson fronting up the thousands of pounds (in today's money would be in the millions) for the building then it would have gone unbuilt, sure the RMIT law school would have found somewhere else in the absence of the building, but the beautifully columned building gives the law school some gravitas despite its beginnings the building has always looked like a law school.

William McPherson went off to fund other very important public works like the Jessie McPherson wing of the Queen Victoria Hospital (now the QV site), Jessie being his good mother. Mr McPherson was a bit of a ruthless, shrewd soul.  He eventually became Premier of Victoria, but before that he was the treasurer responsible for the state's finances.

On Halloween 1923, some 29 Victoria Police constables at Russell Street Police HQ, across the road from the building featuring his wife's name, walked off the job.  Their grievances were many but they focused around management using a network of spies to keep an eye out on Victoria Police officers.  The officers were also calling for pay commensurate with their fellow officers across the country.

Constable William Brooks spearheaded the strike,  the police union at the time was not even involved.  The good people at Trades Hall (which is diagonally opposite the Emily McPherson Building and almost next to the old Police HQ) offered to bargain on behalf of the police, which the Victorian Premier and his recalcitrant treasurer did not particularly appreciate.

The Premier ordered the police to return to work, but they didn't, because while the Premier ordered them back to work with the promise that there would be no retaliation, he did not promise to meet their conditions.  If you live in Melbourne you know that early November is Spring Racing Carnival season, and things were about to get uglier.

Halloween 1923 fell on a Wednesday, by Friday half of the Victoria Police force was on strike. Come the weekend, Melbourne's  criminal element sensed an opportunity and went on a massive looting spree.  Shops were broken into, trams were overturned, three people died and police constables on duty were publicly jeered and mocked. Victoria's finest were hounded into the Melbourne Town Hall where they were dared to come out by the baying crowd.  In the absence of a police force off duty sailors assumed some of their duties, because someone had to.

During the whole turmoil, the Premier asked the Commonwealth Government to release the defence force to help control the city, to which the government responded: LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL, no.  What they did instead was a true act of trolling, they stationed commonwealth military officers out the front of military facilities to keep themselves safe.

What to do when your police force is on strike? Well, you get volunteers in. Thousands of volunteers under the command of the great Sir John Monash were sworn in as volunteer police constables over the weekend, they even got special armbands so the public would know that they were not full blown police but rather, wannabe police with training wheels on.

By the time the whole affair was over, a third of Victoria's police force had been sacked, never to return again. Mr McPherson would probably have been pleased not to have to pay all those people from the treasury coffers.

From home economy to economics and law

On 30 July 1979 the Emily McPherson School became a part of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which RMIT University is officially called, but the university didn't become a university until 1992 well over 100 years after it was founded. Eventually, the institute would see less people signing up for classes in textiles and cooking so it turned over the building for refurbishment, where students could learn about textile design trademarks and textile manufacture patents instead.

The old legal precinct is new again

The Emily McPherson Building, Building 13, the RMIT University Law School, whatever you want to call it sits on an old legal precinct of sorts.

Not only is it next to the old Melbourne Gaol, the place of Ned Kelly's execution, but also the Old Magistrates' Court which is now a part of RMIT University too, the Vice Chancellor has his offices there and RMIT law students practice court advocacy skills under the canopy which covered Sir Redmond Barry when he sentenced Ned Kelly to death.

As mentioned above the old Victoria Police HQ is across the road, the Old Magistrates' Court, the Emily Mac and the Old Melbourne Gaol still have some scars visible from the Russell Street bombings that all three buildings were witness to.

The law and order connection doesn't end there, the courtyards behind and next to the Emily Mac were exercise yards for the old Melbourne Gaol that are now incorporated into the RMIT Law School gardens.

As Ned Kelly was originally buried in a yard of the Old Melbourne Gaol, legend had it that Australia's most infamous criminal was still buried under the pavers that Melbourne's future lawyers were having their skinny flat whites over. Sadly this legend is just that, it appears that Kelly's body was exhumed and reburied in an unmarked grave at Pentridge Prison and there rediscovered in the early 00's.

The Old Melbourne Gaol closed, and moved elsewhere, Victoria Police long ago left their HQ to set themselves up elsewhere too and the Old Magistrates Court found a new home on William Street, but with the opening of the RMIT Law School in the refurbished Emily McPherson Building an old legal precinct is new again.

Sources

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Parliament_House,_Canberra
  • https://www.rmit.edu.au/about/our-heritage/historical-buildings/building-13-emily-mcpherson-college/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Murray_McPherson
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMIT_University
  • http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/osborne-ethel-elizabeth-7925
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monash_University_Faculty_of_Law#Foundation
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1923_Victorian_Police_strike
  • http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcpherson-sir-william-murray-7440
  • http://www.rmit.edu.au/about/our-heritage/history-of-rmit/
  • http://www.rmit.edu.au/about/our-heritage/history-of-rmit/
  • http://www.rmit.edu.au/about/our-heritage/historical-buildings/the-royal-connection/

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