Historical Maps of Melbourne

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Night School: Historical Maps of Melbourne, a free event by Melbourne Library Service. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was curious about both the event and Boyd Community Hub. I was delighted with the Hub, the relaxed vibe, the enthusiasm and humour of the hosts Natalie and Ivy, and the open dialogue with the others in the audience. And pleasure of pleasures: all of the presented material is available online and free to the public! Not just a list of maps, but high res maps and in some cases even interactive map tools and full scans of map books. Oh, the joy!

The first thing I learned is that for at least some of the branches of Melbourne Library, there are staff members who are passionate about and specialise in local history, and who’d love to help you on your hunt for historical treasures of facts and material. It turns out that our hosts are such specialists: Natalie is at Southbank Library and Ivy is at Docklands. So if you’re trying to track down historical info, maybe consider talking to these guys as well as the usual suspects like the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

If you’re reading this Ivy and Natalie: thanks for organising and hosting the evening. Thanks for being so pleasant, welcoming and informative, and thanks for the hot tea <3. To Melbourne Library: great work with your events calendar, keep it coming!

For the rest of us who love online data and maps, here’s the run down on what we can get our little hands into online.

State Library of Victoria’s Online Maps Collection

The session included presentation and discussion of a small collection of maps all available online in the State Library of Victoria’s Maps search tool (Homepage header > Search + filter to Maps). Here’s an example of online Melbourne Maps from before 1957

Another way to explore some of these digitised map resources is via SLV Maps collection, and in particular the Melbourne Fire Insurance Plans. These are fascinating. They were originally big books of detailed hand-drawn maps, created by an insurance company for various cities in Australia. The idea was they’d be used by fire departments when responding to fires: better response to fires = less damage = fewer / smaller payouts by the insurance company (who’d’ve thought!). The side effect for us looking back is that we’ve these beautifully detailed maps snapshotting that point in time, describing not only each building, but often its materials and the name of the business located there.

Part of the Melbourne Fire Insurance Plans, freely available online thanks to the State Library of Victoria. http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/explore-collections-format/maps/maps-melbourne-city-suburbs/fire-insurance-plans

Part of the Melbourne Fire Insurance Plans, freely available online thanks to the State Library of Victoria.

Interestingly, it appears there was only one master copy of these volumes, and they were updated by pasting small bits of paper over the old map when parts of it changed. It means we can really only see the latest version of the city, and whether change has occurred – but little info about when the change happened, if it was perhaps a mistake in an earlier version, or what the building was like before the change.

City of Melbourne’s Online Map Tool (CoMMaps)

Let the fun begin! This is your interactive map tool of super fun times, ComMaps. Head to http://maps.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ and enjoy yourself exploring the tool and its content. If you’re after historic maps, expand that section on the right – things like “1945 Aerial Image”.

There’s a lot more info in here than you might expect. By clicking on an item on the map, you’ll be presented with more info: business on that plot of land: businesses, dining and residences there, planning applications, crown tenure information and a collection of undated images of the location.

CoMMaps showing details of the Melbourne Zoo plot

Some of this info can be mind-blowingly specific – the team maintaining the maps have added every tree maintained by City of Melbourne, including information on each tree. If you’ve ever wanted to know what type of tree you’ve been reading poetry under on the lawn of the State Library, it’s only a few clicks away.

CoMMaps Information on a single tree at the SLV front lawn.

You’ll want to play with the sliders at the bottom of the screen. The first slider “Map” controls the gradient between the drawing map and a modern aerial photo Map. When that slider is scrolled all the way over to the right (so 100% faded to the aerial photo), a second drop down appears allowing you to pick a secondary aerial map. You can then use a second slider to control a fade between your base and this secondary. Super fun to see changes, like the one below: a US Military camp in 1945 Royal Park!

CoMMaps tool looking at Royal Park – this is a modern day aerial image partly faded into a 1945 aerial image, showing the ghost US Military camp in full swing.

Melbourne Library Service

Melbourne Library’s site has a nice little shortlist of historical resources across a range of services, including links to CoMMaps and the Fire Insurance Plans at SLV as well as non-map assets. These are resources carefully curated by those local history librarians we spoke about earlier.

Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Unfortunately not a heap of the Historical Society’s assets are digitised (yet?) but there are some great Discovery Series brochures online that you can check out, including one which is a map of Melbourne centre explaining why each street is named the way it is [PDF, ~2MB] (cooool).

Open Data and More Online Resources

This wasn’t covered in the session, but one of the reasons I got so excited about it all was how much of the data is openly and freely provided. Open data in government is growing, for both end users (like the CoMMaps tool) and for developers to build tools and products to inform, assist and entertain the community. Historic data in these collections can be hard to come by, but some treasures are out there. Here are some resource you might find useful – a mix of free Australian open data and spatial resources for devs as well as online tools for the curious non-techies.

City of Melbourne has an Open Data portal where developers can find things like the full, maintained dataset of all the trees maintained by City of Melbourne which was used to feed tree info in CoMMaps, and to build the Urban Forest project. There aren’t many historic data sets there (yet?). I imagine current data sets will be prioritised as they’d be considered more relevant to data consumers.

At state level, Victoria’s Open Data Portal is happily growing and includes a reference to the Victorian Heritage Database, maintained by the Victorian Heritage Council which I did not know about until today, and which seems worth exploring.

Victorian Heritage Database Tool has a lot of information about Heritage locations across Victoria.

The Vic Open Data Portal also has a Register of Geographic Placenames which “may have historical information attached”, and is also available as an interactive map.

The Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet has a Heritage Tools section in their Aboriginal Culture and Heritage section, and a page listing various Heritage Map resources.

The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has a Researchers and Community page in their heritage section, which may include resources of interest. It looks like this heritage section might be the new home for Heritage Victoria (?).

The Australian Federal Government’s Open Data Portal contains things like the State Library of Victoria’s data sets among many, many others, and a smattering of historic data sets across the country. And we can’t forget Trove and its online map search, from the National Library of Australia.

Finally, there’s the super interesting National Map tool by the Australian Federal Government, which seems to roll a lot of other open data sets into online geo tool with 3D and tilt support, and allow you to layer these maps on top of each other for contrast and exploration. While it doesn’t have too much in the way of historic data (because it’s fed by Aus Gov’s open data sets), it’s fantastic and I can’t believe I only just found it. It’s almost like ARCGIS but for Aus Government Open Spatial Data.

NationalMap tool showing 3 overlays on a tilted 3D map of Melbourne: overland flow routes, historical water bodies and historical creeks

Not only is this automatically fed by spatial data sets on data.gov.au, it’s also built using open source software produced by the CSIRO’s Data61 team! You can use and contribute to the NationalMap source code here.


I can’t have a spiel mentioning Open Data and Government without also mentioning GovHack, an open data hackathon for Australia and NZ, using those types of Government data sets I mentioned above. It’s held in July in a major city near you – and I think remote teams can participate in some cases (?). It has prizes and glory and fun and civic participation feel-goods, and registrations are open around now. If the sort of stuff above is exciting and interesting to you, you might enjoy participating, even if you’re not a coder. Jump on the website to find out more.

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