Art & Design


Who Was Melbourne?

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We all have our own ideas about Melbourne as a city and a home, but what about the man whose name the town carries? After being variously known as Batmania and Bear Brass, the settlement John Batman discovered was named Melbourne in 1837, after reigning British PM, Lord Melbourne. There are at least another two Melbourne’s out there, one in Florida (known as birthplace of Jim Morrison) and another in Canada, which isn’t known for anything much. So who was this Lord Melbourne people keep naming towns after?

William Lamb was born in London in 1779 to an aristocratic family, studied at Eton and Cambridge and was  planning to practice law until the death of an older brother altered his life dramatically. Suddenly the heir to the family name and fortune, William, aged 26, acquired the title Lord Melbourne. His new social status enabled him to marry sultry socialite Caroline Ponsomby, a torrid union that would end badly for both. Caroline conducted a string of affairs, including one with lad-about-town Lord Byron (who bizarrely used the incident to befriend Lord Melbourne’s mother). Caroline then published a best-selling novel documenting her love liaisons (the 19th century equivalent of confessing on Oprah), publicly humiliating her husband. The couple eventually divorced, Caroline suffered a psychological breakdown and died soon after.

In-between all this Lord Melbourne entered politics, and was by most accounts an uninspiring leader. A staunch supporter of aristocratic government, Melbourne was known for cracking down on trade unions. While serving as Chief Secretary of Ireland he enjoyed a romantic relationship with Lady Branden of Dublin, and was sued by her husband for ‘criminal conversation’. Later, as Prime Minister, Melbourne had a fling with the granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan (payback for Byron?) and was once more sued by the fair lady’s husband in a well-publicised trial that was later satirised by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers.

Melbourne was Prime Minister of Britain twice, and oversaw a largely conservative agenda. He pushed through the penny postage system, a major democratising event, whilst opposing universal suffrage. His greatest moment came when his eighteen year-old niece, Victoria, ascended to the crown. Schooling the young Queen in politics and protocol, Melbourne became one of Britain’s most powerful politicians. However when Victoria married Prince Albert, Melbourne’s influence was usurped and he was gradually pushed aside by the Queen’s new coterie of advisors.

Melbourne resigned from politics and faded from public view, dying unheralded in 1848 from the effects of stroke. He never visited the city that bears his name.