The Battle for Local Government: The Severance of Mordialloc from Moorabbin in 1920

When Melbourne was founded in 1835 the government of the new settlement rested in the hands of a local military officer who in turn was responsible to the N.S.W. Governor appointed by the British Government. La Trobe was an early example of this arrangement and he had the title of ‘Superintendent’. By 1850 Victoria had achieved independence with its own elected parliament. Melbourne also began to expand outwards with smaller settlements developing away from the town’s centre. Brighton was an early fringe town and after the gold rushes many more small hamlets grew, including Cheltenham, Moorabbin and Mordialloc in our district. The settlers in these places accepted that major government decisions would be made by the Colony of Victoria’s parliamentary representatives in Spring Street, but dissatisfaction grew about the multitude of smaller matters that affected each local area. Decisions relating to local roads, drainage, safety of buildings, disposal of waste materials and other small community matters were not made effectively by a central parliament. In due course local councils were established as they had been in England.

In 1862 the Moorabbin Roads Board was established and it adopted a local government role by taking responsibility for roads in a large area stretching south from Brighton down to and beyond the Mordialloc Creek. It levied tolls for vehicles and stock that crossed the narrow bridge over Mordialloc Creek, the funds being earmarked for road building. This modest beginning to local government developed into a much wider responsibility than simply road building. By 1871 the Roads Board had become the Shire of Moorabbin, a local council that controlled a sprawling district from the Bentleigh area in the north to points south of Mordialloc, and from the bayside town of Sandringham in the west to the open country around Heatherton in the east. Moorabbin, like many other districts around Melbourne’s outskirts, had its own decision-makers and for the last few decades of the nineteenth century that system remained in place. But it was not to stay that way.

Local government is meant to live up to what its name says. It has to serve the needs of the householder in each street in each small community. As time went on there were groups of citizens who began to question the service that they received from the councillors who made decisions in their Moorabbin Council Chambers near the South Road-Point Nepean Road corner.

The first problems arose in the west of Moorabbin Shire. The early settlements of Gipsy Village (later Hampton) and Picnic Point had gradually attracted more dwellers along a very attractive coastal strip. The latter place soon changed its name to the rather royal-sounding Sandringham. Many of its citizens lived in the town, were professional in their careers, and travelled to Melbourne for work. They had lobbied successfully to have the railway extended to Sandringham in 1887 and this brought many new people into the town as well as making it most accessible to holidaymakers in the summer months when the beach was extremely well-patronised. Residents of Sandringham began to crave for independence from Moorabbin. The area of Moorabbin Shire’s West Ward had a much smaller percentage of its residents who were in primary production, so it was obvious that a council in the centre of a market-gardening district would be seen by them to be more sympathetic to the interests of farmers than to those of the people in the seaside town. In the years before World War1 the pressure grew to split from Moorabbin and ‘Severance’ was the top issue on Sandringham minds for years. After deputations dating back to the 1880s the State Government finally allowed the creation of the Borough of Sandringham in February 1917. A coastal strip from Hampton in the north, through Sandringham and Black Rock to Beaumaris in the south, became a new municipality. Interestingly, Cheltenham did not join in the rush to sever although it was closely allied to Beaumaris, part of its area once being known as the ‘Beaumaris Estate’.

The success of the Sandringham Severance supporters was observed by other groups in Melbourne’s southern bayside towns. There were already discontented ratepayers in the Mordialloc and Chelsea areas. The people living south of Mentone all the way to the creek felt remote from their Moorabbin council, while the Chelsea dwellers were very remote from the Dandenong centre of their local government. Both of these areas housed aggrieved citizens who were emboldened by the Sandringham independence victory.

Some people in the South Ward of the Moorabbin Shire had been restless over this issue for some time before Sandringham won its severance. When the overt campaign began, however, it was not the long-established Mentone or Mordialloc centres that pushed the hardest. The newcomers of what was to become Parkdale were the loudest in demanding independence. People had begun to settle in the Parkdale area in the time just prior to World War 1, and in1913 a large slice of land called the ‘Dover Slopes Estate’ went under the hammer. This stretch between Parkers Road and Moorabbin (Warrigal) Road, beach side of the railway, attracted new residents who built homes in the midst of the ti tree wilderness. It was not long before they began to make a fuss about their treatment by the aldermen at Moorabbin. There were no made streets, drainage was dreadful, and in general the area had primitive facilities. But it was the transport issue, particularly the lack of a railway station, that united them most. At this time the trains steamed straight from Mentone to Mordialloc and the people who lived in South Mentone, as it became known, had a long trek if they wished to catch a train. In 1912 people put up a proposal for a station at Parkers Road and arguments began about what to call it. ‘Ramsgate’ was suggested by someone with an English background, but others said there were already too many English names and original ideas were called for. The new station quest was put on hold when Australia went to war in 1914, but the campaign for an independent identity did not die.

In July of 1916, despite the war gloom, a meeting was held at a private home in The Corso to form a Mentone South Progress Association, the aims of which were to advance the interests of those living around the general area known as Dover Slopes. There was obvious tension within what was then Mentone, because Mentone already had its own Progress Association. This body had achieved some improvements in street lighting, paving, tree planting and other facilities, but most of this was near the Mentone shopping centre. Even some Mentone residents and shop owners, the likes of H.P.Peterson, thought the Mentone body was lazy. It did not even meet as often as monthly. The people in the ti tree scrub further south were certainly unimpressed. Their response was to form their own ‘ginger group’ to push for improvements.

During the next couple of years the Mentone South Progress Association put the heat on the Moorabbin Shire and achieved a little success, with money being spent on a horse trough, a walkway to the beach at Monaco Street and other facilities. The group began raising funds for the building of a hall in this general area; it was built eventually and called Progress Hall, a focus for community events. And they revived the push for a railway station.

By 1917 some of the Mentone South agitators joined with other activists in Mentone and Mordialloc to from a ‘Severance League’. This body wanted a new borough, initially thought of as the ‘Borough of Mentone’. The movement gradually gathered strength with meetings and private discussions winning over more people to the cause. In late October 1918, at a large public meeting at the Skating Rink in Mentone, details were tabled about the new borough including its proposed boundaries, its projected rate revenue and other matters. It was suggested that Mordialloc and Mentone should be ‘free to develop their attractions as seaside resorts’ but also be ‘free of the wild forces of relaxation that make some suburbs by the bay objectionable’. Whether this was a slur on Chelsea or St Kilda, or some other place, is not recorded. The diehard opponents of severance would have been displeased by the appearance of Mentone notable, W.T.C. Kelly, as chairman at this meeting. He was reported as saying that independence had been good for Sandringham, where he was on the council, and it would be good for the southern part of Moorabbin Shire as well. Kelly lived in Childers Street on a property that later became the site of the Catholic Church.

Cr W.T.C.Kelly.

With the end of the Great War the Severance League and the South Mentone Progress Association stepped up the pressure. Some residents were in both movements. Just prior to Christmas, 1918, the State Government announced that £2410 had been allocated for a new station at Parkers Road and people rushed to suggest a name. There was no shortage of ideas, with ‘Dover’, ‘Rosella’, ‘Bowong’ and others eventually being passed over for ‘Parkdale’, chosen because it resembled the name of Parker, a local landowner. The station opened on September 1, 1919 amid great celebration and renewed vigour for the cause of independence.

In May 1919 there had been another very large meeting at the Skating Rink in Mentone to discuss the severance issue. Members of the Severance League and the South Mentone Progress Association argued their cause detailing neglect by Moorabbin Shire of its southern section. They said that Mordialloc was at a standstill and councillors were accused of ‘not knowing where The Corso was’. Hugh Smart, an accountant, proved that rate revenue would support a separate council, while Kelly, Kroger, Nicholson, Sibthorpe and others forcefully put the case for severing. Petitions with over 500 signatures were referred to. Moorabbin councillors, Dave White, Frank Scudds and J.J.Rogers, argued just as strongly to resist change and the whole scenario was repeated later in May when representatives of both sides went before the Minister of Public Works. This time, despite the petitions containing 800 names, the Minister refused to grant severance to the deputation that sought it.

Throughout 1919 and early 1920 the arguments flew back and forth as the ‘Combined Severance League’ continued to agitate. Initially the Mentone, Parkdale and Mordialloc sections of the Severance League had been separate, but in June 1919 they combined to add weight to the cause. The supporters of independence fielded a Mordialloc man, Gilmour, in the council elections of August 1919 and succeeded in getting him on to the Moorabbin Shire Council. This indicated to all that there was wide and serious support for severance despite some comments by councillors at his first meeting suggesting that he adopt a not too aggressive approach. A meeting in Mentone Recreation Hall gathered the opponents of severance in May 1920 but their last ditch stand, and the fact that they were now a minority, could not prevent the inevitable.

It seems that the constant lobbying wore the councillors down. Though one said it was ‘mid-summer madness’, a majority of councillors began to feel that it was not worth the bother fighting the independence movement in the South Ward. Statements suggesting that Moorabbin would still be viable without the section south of Cheltenham began to be heard in council and a feeling grew that ‘we would be better off without them’ among the Shire representatives. Councillor Brownfield, the Shire President, summed it up in April 1920 when he said, ‘If they thought they could do better on their own he would say – “Let them try, and good luck to them”. That district did not seem to have anything in common with the rest of the shire, and until they have their own municipality they would not be satisfied’.

Cr G Brownfield, President of Shire of Moorabbin 1919-1920.

The constant agitation had succeeded. In May 1920 the Moorabbin Shire Council voted not to oppose severance and shortly after the Minister granted independence to ‘The Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc’ as well as ‘The Borough of Carrum’ to its south. In the fight for a separate council people from all three suburbs of the new entity came together. They included Smart, Sibthorpe, Downe. Imes Gilmour, Kroger, Blanche and a whole lot of residents who did not make it into the reports from the times.
The group from Parkdale, initially agitating for their new station, were very important, but they were joined by residents and business people from the other two towns who wanted the district to develop in the hands of locals with a more immediate interest than the men at Moorabbin. It should be noted that Cheltenham once again opted to stay with Moorabbin Shire, and later in the 1920s it again rejected an approach by Mordialloc power-brokers who wanted Cheltenham to join them. The wise heads at Cheltenham feared that their rate money would be spent in the towns and not in the market garden ‘back blocks’ they saw as Cheltenham’s heart.

First Council of the Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc - Top Row: Crs Cornall, Gilmour, Bradshaw (Mordialloc Ward) Centre Row: Crs Edwards, Sibthorpe (Mayor), Rogers (Mentone Ward) Bottom Row: Crs Kroger, Blanche, Mr F A Jenkins (Town Clerk) Cr Imes, (Parkdale Ward).

The granting of severance did not end the disputes. There was an immediate argument about boundaries. Moorabbin wanted the northern boundary of the new Borough to be at Balcombe Road. This caused a huge outcry as many people who lived on the north side of Balcombe Road, or close to it, would have been left in Moorabbin despite living only a stone’s throw from Mentone shops. Eventually Latrobe Street was chosen. There were further arguments about the eastern boundaries near Mentone racecourse and Woodlands Golf Course, but these raised less ire because in 1920 they were open scrub or grazing properties.

Finally, another argument raged about the assets of the Moorabbin Shire that were located in the new borough. Of concern was the Mentone Recreation Reserve with its Skating Rink and Recreation Hall, but an even bigger dispute took place when the Moorabbin Gas Works in Brindisi Street, Mentone, was considered. The new situation brought complications. For instance, Mentone ratepayers had been levied a special rate for the Shire to buy the Recreation Reserve after a loan raising back in 1905, so they considered that they had a legitimate stake in its ownership. On the other hand the gas works had been part of the Moorabbin Shire’s infrastructure, so Moorabbin felt aggrieved at handing the plant over without compensation. The two councils were not up to the business of making a compromise and in 1922 a State Government minister had to arbitrate on these matters, inevitably causing howls of disapproval from both bodies. For instance the Mentone folk were angry at the terms given to Cheltenham consumers for their gas supply.

Gas Works in Brindisi Street, Mentone 1928. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society.

Soon all the enmities died down. Some of the opponents of severance stood successfully for the new Borough Council and served alongside the independence fighters they had argued with a short time before. The Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc became a town in 1923 and a city in 1926, indicating the success of the new municipality. The last of these dates saw the name changed to ‘City of Mordialloc’ and this council with wards representing its three suburbs remained in place until 1994 when the Kennett Government amalgamated local governments all over Victoria. Ironically, the battle for severance, so long ago, was quietly forgotten as the City of Mordialloc became enveloped in the sprawling City of Kingston.

Leo Gamble
27 June 2018
  • Moorabbin News.  Issues of 1917-21 deal with the disputes that took place.  See especially articles on November 16 1918, April 5 1919, May 3 1919, May 26 1919, July 26 1919, September 6 1919, April 24 1920, May 15 1920, July 31 1920.
  • Margaret E Glass, Sandringham Breaks with Moorabbin, Kingston Historical Website.
  • Weston Bate, History of Brighton, M.U.P., 1962.
  • John Cribbin, Moorabbin, A Pictorial History, City of Kingston, 1995.
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