The Emily McPherson College was originally known as the College of Domestic Economy, opened in 1907. By the mid-1920s, the old college building was becoming too cramped and new premises were required. The warden’s residence at the old Melbourne Gaol on the corner of Franklin and Russell Streets, Melbourne, was demolished and a new college was built on the site. It was named after the wife of its benefactor, Sir William McPherson, the then Victorian State Treasurer. Sir William donated £25,000 ($50,000) towards the cost of the building, with the remainder financed by a government grant.
The first principal of the new Emily McPherson College was Miss Rowena Chisholm. Little seems to have been written about her, although in March 1927 she did regale the women’s section of the Victorian Farmers’ Union (Country party) with an account of her experience in domestic college centres in England, Scotland, Canada and France.
The college accepted its first students in February 1927 but the official opening occurred in April when the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) was presented with a golden key with which to unlock the gates. The Duchess then unveiled a memorial tablet and was presented with the college’s first diploma “which was enclosed in a beautiful blackwood box”. The presentation was made by Dr Ethel Osborne, the President of the College Council.
The college was seen as a training ground for domestic servants as well as for housewives. In 1928, on her return to Britain after a visit to Australia on behalf of the British Women’s Patriotic League, wrote to the Edinburgh Scotsman:
It is one of the first colleges of its kind in Australia, a country whose domestic problem is even greater than our own.
In 1935, the Emily McPherson college was offering courses in dressmaking; ladies’ tailoring; patterns for underclothing, frocks and coats; millinery; needlework; children’s garments, soft furnishings and the various courses in cookery. Over the decades, the curriculum evolved with the addition of more vocational courses and as enrolments expanded there was a need for more space. A new three-storey wing was constructed in 1949 and expanded in 1964. As the demand for extra space became more acute, the college began to share some facilities of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) offering tertiary and non-tertiary training in Foods and Food Service, Dietetics, Nutrition and Food Science and Fashion Design and Production.
Plans were made to replace the original 1925 building with a high-rise tower, but this did not go ahead. In 1976 the decision was made to merge with RMIT, an amalgamation that was completed in 1979. The original Emily McPherson college is now known as “Building 13” of RMIT.