Friday, November 9, 2012

Melbourne's Oldest Buildings

Melbourne was founded in 1835 as a commercial venture. Tasmanian settlers, frustrated at diminishing opportunities in that rapidly developing colony, sent an expedition to Victoria to ascertain the viability of the area for farming. Expedition leader John Batman established a modest colony on the banks of the Yarra, where the Western end of the city is today, and negotiated a land purchase from the local indigenous population. The original city buildings were made mostly of wood and many were considered only semi permanent.

The life of the city would change forever in 1851, when gold was discovered on a farm near Clunes, an event that triggered Victoria's gold rush. As money and people poured into the city, the original colony would stretch and burst, as Melbourne expanded in every direction. After 1851, the city would be almost entirely rebuilt, and in a much grander fashion than originally.

Very little remains of what had been constructed prior to 1851, to the point that there are now only 8 buildings in Melbourne's CBD that predate the Gold Rush (and are in their original location). What follows is a short history of these early colonial fragments:


5 Bank Place

The city's oldest remaining building dates from approximately 1837, when it was built in a more simplistic fashion as a private residence. It remained as a dwelling until 1867, when Henry Thompson bought the property and turned it into a tavern. As well as providing food, drink and accommodation, the tavern in the 19th century also served as headquarters for numerous clubs, including polo, dog, gun and hunting clubs. 

Changing hands a number of times, various owners added the building's distinctive decorations over the first few decades of it's existence. In 1930, the tavern was put up for auction and a large crowd turned out to watch it sell for 22 000 pounds. It was purchased by the Royal Insurance Company, who intended to demolish the building and use the land to expand their office building on an adjoining block on Collins St.

Up for auction in 1930.
But the company management had a change of heart and the expansion plans were scrapped. The hotel was sold back into private operation in 1937 and has remained as a public tavern till the present day. Also of historical note is the story that the hardware chain 'Mitre 10' was named after the tavern. The founding members of Mitre 10, five independent hardware store owners, used to meet at the pub in the 1950's to discuss their incorporation plans over a few beers. Their new company's name was coined at one of these meetings.


326 Lonsdale Street

Fr Patrick Geoghegan was only 35 when he arrived in Sydney from Dublin in 1838 as a missionary. Initially based in Sydney, he was soon sent to Melbourne and provided Catholic service from a wooden church hastily constructed from old floorboards and construction offcuts. 

Fr Geoghegan proved an adroit lobbyist and fund raiser however, and within two years had raised funds sufficient to start building a permanent Catholic Church on Londsale Street. Construction began in October 1841 and the first mass was conducted in May 1842, although some construction work would continue until 1845.

A drawing of the new church shortly after completion, by Thomas Ham.

In 1850, Mary McKillop took her first holy communion at the church, the same year that Ned Kelly's parents were married there. And in 1854 the St Vincent de Paul society commenced operations in Australia, originally based in the church. While there have been many changes and additions to the church buildings over the past 150 years, most notably a new bell tower donated by the Grollo family, the basic church building appears very much as it did when first built.


174 Collins Street

The first Baptist congregation in Melbourne had only 16 members and took their services in a tent on vacant land on Collins Street, where the Regent Theatre now stands. As the congregation expanded along with the city's population, money was secured to build the first proper church across the street, which was completed in 1845. A substantial expansion of the original building was undertaken in 1862, from a design by famed local architect Joseph Reed (designer of Melbourne Town Hall), although much of the original construction remains in the present building.

The Church in 1914.


300 Queen Street

John T. Smith was a self made man of the sort who seem to thrive in newly founded towns and frontier environments. He arrived from Sydney in 1840 and his first job in Melbourne was teaching the local Indigenous population at a government mission. Smith soon left this job to go into business for himself, starting as a grocer and then a publican. 

Within the space of a few years, Smith owned a string of hotels and had earned a sufficient wealth to allow himself to build the grand premises pictured above. Built mostly in 1848, some additional work was done in 1849 and the third storey was added in 1858. By this time one of the wealthiest men in the city, Smith then turned to politics. Elected to the city council in 1851, he would subsequently be elected Lord Mayor and serve seven terms in that office, before moving into the state legislature where he would sit for more than twenty years. 

After his death the house would change hands several times, before being purchased by the State Government. The Government put the premises to a variety of uses throughout the first part of the twentieth century, most notably as offices for the state Treasury and then the Health Department.

The building as government offices in 1963.

In the 1970s the building would be taken over by RMIT, who would also put it to a variety of uses. Most recently, it served as their Graduate School of Business and Law. In 2010, RMIT relinquished their lease on the building and it was reinvented again, moving into private hands and leased as law offices.


54 - 62 Bourke Street

The row of shops located at this point on Bourke Street were built together in 1848, and then leased or sold separately. Though rundown, the buildings remain much as they were when constructed and are a good example of the simple Georgian school of design prevalent in early Melbourne. 

The Western end of the row, numbers 60 - 62, were initially occupied by William Crossley, a butcher who ran a shop on the street front and had his own small slaughterhouse at the rear. Crossley's shop was successful and he trained and apprenticed many of early Melbourne's future butchers. The small side street at that end of the block, originally called Romeo Lane as it housed several brothels, now bears his name. The noted landscape painter Eugene von Guerard, Austrian born but lured to Australia by the gold rush, also lived in the block in the 1850's.

A painting by Guerard, showing the view from
Mount Franklin north of the city (1864).
By the turn of the century, this end of Bourke Street had largely been taken over by manufactured goods production, particularly in the apparel industry. A number of tailors and dressmakers set up shop either in the Job Warehouse building or on Crossley Street, a relic of which can still be seen on the building's edge today (all of these businesses are long gone):

The old butchers shop is now occupied by a bookstore while the rest of the shops have, since the 1950s, been a fabric and material shop. This business, started in 1952 by Jacob Zeimer and continued by his son, is set to close presently (on the day of my recent visit there were 'Closing Down' signs in the windows). The future of Job Warehouse remains unclear.


33 Little Lonsdale Street


44 Lonsdale Street

These two buildings, both built in 1849, sit on parallel streets and are all that remain of one of Melbourne's most notorious slum areas; a district known for a hundred years as 'Little Lon.' Little Lon's boundary was marked by four main roads; La Trobe, Lonsdale, Exhibition and Spring, and within this boundary lay a rabbit warren of laneways and sidestreets, each full of run down houses, brothels, small factories and taverns.

Little Lonsdale Street, circa 1875, looking west from Spring Street.

Almost from the founding of the city, Little Lon provided cheap, basic accommodation for the poorer among the working class, and towards the end of the 19th century had become home to many of the city's immigrants. This map from 1895 shows the honeycomb of narrow streets that made up the area, each crammed to overflowing with individual premises:

While living conditions in Little Lon were poor, it did provide a small glimpse of Australia's multicultural future as Chinese, Lebanese and Italian immigrants (predominantly) lived in close proximity with the local population. In 1948, as part of a 'slum renewal' program, the Federal government compulsorily acquired Little Lon and began a wholesale demolition program.

Over a period of a few years, the block was slowly leveled and replaced with modern high rise buildings, to serve as Commonwealth Government offices. As two of the oldest buildings on the block, The Black Eagle and Oddfellows were spared for heritage purposes, along with a handful of small buildings on Little Lonsdale St. The new buildings that were erected have been redeveloped, and even replaced, since the 1950s and while the block still features some Government offices, it is now mainly used for corporate suites and upmarket apartments and shops. The former Black Eagle Hotel is now a gift store, while Oddfellows is still a pub, although not one that the original patrons would recognise:

The opposite side of the Oddfellows hotel, to one shown above.


328 - 330 King Street

Another simple, Georgian style building, this combined shop and residence was built in 1850 and has been used for those two purposes ever since. Across the life of the building, the downstairs area has been used as; a newsagent, pharmacy, laundry, haberdasher and is currently a cafe, while the owner/proprietors have usually lived above. 

The present owner, Lola Russell, inherited the building from her father, and the building  has been in the Russell family since 1899. Lola was born in the building and has lived there all of her life. It is the oldest private residence, continuously occupied, in the CBD.

A photo taken from Flagstaff Gardens in 1867. The Russell Corner
Shop is clearly visible near the exact centre of the image.


  1. Excellent stuff. I can find plenty of examples of late 19th century Marvellous Melbourne architecture, but up till now I have not thought too much about Colonial or mid century examples that might still exist.

    Do you have any photos of Georgian warehouses in Queen St?


    1. I had a look at Macs, but the info I have indicates this was built in 1853. So, in this post I was trying to tackle the buildings that pre-dated the Gold Rush. But Mac's is the longest continually operating hotel in town, so probably worthy of a post of its own.

  3. More project we see the pipe is must for all construction for more check the pipe threading machine manufacturers.

  4. Great article, good information but you neglected to mention St James Old Cathedral. Foundation stone laid in 1939, operating parish by 1942, originally built on the corner of Williams & Little Collins, it was moved in 1914 stone by stone to King St opposite Flagstaff Gardens where it still stands today.