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Old Undertakers Lives On

The old undertakers at 329 Burwood rd, circa 1992

Death amongst Victoria’s earliest, mostly criminal colonies was unsurprisingly common given the cruel and unusual conditions of our first prisons. It goes without saying that in those tenuous times, the business of undertaking quickly became a necessity.

As with many such trades throughout history, one of Victoria’s oldest ‘dispatch’ firms soon became a family business. Descended from early colonial undertakers, former Richmond Councillor, Herbert King grew his inherited burial business from his main premises in Richmond to include a branch at 329 Burwood Road, Hawthorn around the beginning of the Edwardian era (1901-1910).

The undertakers circa 2024

Fashioned to compliment the near-by Hawthorn Catholic Immaculate Conception Church and its associated buildings, King’s building was designed in the Gothic Revival style, notable for its chapel-evocative arched windows. Standing in place of a cross, a decorative period weathervane remains prominent at the peak of the building's façade.

King’s in Burwood Road was established as a ‘one-stop shop’ for all your funeral needs. Aside from serving as an office, undertakers and embalmers, the premises even stabled several black horses for use in processions, as well as housing mourning coaches and glass-sided hearses. Although an Anglican, King’s particular trade saw him in strong alliance with his Catholic neighbour. Upon his death in 1913, King even left considerable benefits to various churches he had associations with.

Ultimately, his descendants got out of the funeral trade and his business was eventually bought out by Tobin Brothers Funerals who remain in operation today at other locations. By 1975, the building was under the ownership of the Roman Catholic Trusts Corporation for the Diocese of Melbourne and was being utilised by the neighbouring Immaculate Conception Church. At this time, the late Fr Paul Cleary ran craft classes out of the building, teaching candle making and macrame.

After Fr Cleary passed away, the building fell into disuse and was finally put on the market in 2002, reducing the Immaculate Conception Church’s footprint. Some locals might also remember Manresa Kindergarten, founded in 1929, and located in the grounds at the rear of the undertakers. During its time at the site, Manresa made headlines when in 1989, a crazed individual placed the kindergarten under siege by taking children hostage, pouring petrol over them and threatening to ignite the fuel. The situation was brought under control by police with no fatalities and the kindergarten remained in operation until the site was sold by the church in approximately 2010. The modest kindergarten was demolished and developed into 50+ apartments at 80 Lynch Street. 329 Burwood Road survived such a fate and its dark history has been more readily embraced.

A heritage study was conducted on the building in 1992 by Conservation Architect Meredith Gould, when it was identified as part of a ‘notable group of buildings’ and an example of 'Edwardian prosperity’. Although exactly when the undertakers departed from its Burwood Road address was not reported.

Stairway to the dark past

The first business to occupy the building since King’s undertakers was a bar/restaurant appropriately named The Undertaker, opening in 2005 followed by Beer DeLuxe from around 2013. During the building's revival as a bar, the dank undertaker's cellar was converted into an inviting, cosy, space, no doubt serving spirits with a good dose of gallows humour. Rumours of the space being haunted circulated for years as ‘campfire stories’, with one owner even claiming to have had the place ‘blessed by a priest... just in case’.

Emanuele and Lana from Amazon State

Long after the last horse-drawn hearse pulled away from 329 Burwood Road, the façade still proudly wears its Edwardian-era title. Yet, today the space is occupied by a new Italian restaurant called Amazon State, which largely dispenses with many notable ties to the building’s dark past. General Manager, Ellias is a little superstitious after all. Once a place of quiet reflective mourning, a lively, ultra-modern ground-floor dining room now welcomes customers, while upstairs function rooms brim with coloured lighting, plant-life and garish artwork. The echo of the building's dark past is all but faded from its interior, yet its protected facade still beautifully honour's the passing of a family trade dating back to the first prison colonies.

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