Melbourne Then and Now

I have a great fondness for the city of Melbourne. I recall travelling to the city by train frequently as a child, though back then, it was always called ‘town’, a term I still like, akin to the Italian concept of ‘centro‘. ‘Town’ back then meant the centre of Melbourne, particularly the commercial hub from Flinders street through to Bourke street via the arterial network of wonderful dark lanes and arcades. The route, chosen by my mother, usually included various shortcuts underground then along Degraves St, crossing over to the ornately tiled and arched Block Arcade where she spent time as a teenager working in a florist shop. My father spent his working life in the Customs House, a grand old colonial building in Flinders Street, which now houses the Immigration Museum. If he knew beforehand which train we were on, he would wave to us from his second floor window, not that we could see him, but my mother would know. ‘Wave to Dad’, she would say as we passed by. Going to town was part of our upbringing and education: train travel was central to where we lived. It became my escape route from bland suburbia. The grid layout of the city was the key map and we learnt to draw it at an early age, along with learning by rote the names of the stations along the line. The train trip grew in excitement as the view of the industrial docklands appeared to the right, a warning that we were nearly there, followed by the frightening proximity of a dark grey Dickensian looking building to the left, the deeper shadows and grandeur of the city’s architecture, Dad’s Customs House, and the final arrival at Flinders Street station, with subways lined with white and green tiles, spittoons, people in a hurry and men in hats. The highlight of a trip to town would also involve lunch, usually at Coles Cafeteria. Lining up with a tray, and being permitted to choose from an array of pies, cut sandwiches in points and a jellied sweet was the only time we ever ate away from home.

To this day, I’m still very fond of trips to the city, though my train journey is much longer and doesn’t trigger any flashbacks of looming ancient buildings and the scenery of my childhood. As I’m not an avid shopper, I’ve found a new excuse to visit the city more often, or at least I did until the Melbourne lockdowns began. The Melbourne City Library is conveniently located in Flinders Lane, the most vibrant library in Melbourne. By ordering books on line, I had a wonderful excuse to travel along the pulsating lanes of Melbourne, which are memory lanes for me. Of course this library is now closed for browsing, and during lockdown, closes completely. 

I’m not sure why Mr Tranquillo suddenly produced a book from our overflowing and somewhat shabby home library: perhaps I had been reminiscing about these times. He found the book in an op shop some years ago, though I have never laid eyes on it before today, which is a good enough reason not to clean out or prune the library. Edwardian Melbourne in Picture Postcards ¹, includes a wonderful selection of old postcards held at the State Library of Victoria. One page is devoted to each, with details of the location, the printer of each, and a transcript of the letter on the back. I now have another legitimate reason to visit the city, to capture the modern equivalent of each photo, taken from the same location. Standing in the middle of the road, and attempting to photograph above a sea of people may present a few problems.

Below, a selected photo postcard from the collection, taken in 1913 and printed in three colours in Germany, followed by my photo taken in November 2020, when the city of Melbourne, post lockdown, was still very quiet. And the book which inspired this post.

Flinders Lane, Melbourne 1913. This view of the busy intersection of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street was taken a little way up Flinders Lane, looking west. Collotype with three colours. Printed In Germany. Shirley Jones Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Little Collins St, Melbourne. November 2020. View looking north towards Bourke Street. Taken when Melbourne first opened from the second hard lockdown and was still deathly quiet.
Edwardian Melbourne in Picture Postcards, Alexandra Bertram and Angus Trumble. Melbourne University Press, 1995.

19 thoughts on “Melbourne Then and Now”

  1. Francesca – thank you so much for your wondrous story of your ‘town’ and your relationship with it . . . a personal walk down memory lane I have now read three times myself smiling, nodding, understanding and so enjoying. I may have been an immigrant Sydneysider for most of my life but for two decades just slightly before you it was my favourite town also ! Well basically its size was measured about three blocks every way from the Southern Cross Hotel . . . but that took in some of the best restaurants and boutiques in Melbourne. I do not think you would have been impressed 🙂 ! You may have heard of Clark Rubber and Nylex . . . well, the bow iconic firm begun by my marital family in Sydney made most of their stuff and that meant a FIFO situation at least weekly, oft just for the day but oft for a week . . . it was the time Australia awoke to food and Melbourne always was and is the best 0 and business was never done in offices but at 4-hour business lunches and dinners . . . Maxims of course and Florentino’s and beloved Fanny’s . . . oft a 9am plane south and a 5pm one back to PU the kids from grandparents . . . what a fantastic theater scene, what wonderful art shows . . . and fantastic Dandenong lunches on many, many Sundays. Well, life evolved differently and it has been years since I have walked thru’ the laneways and browsed in the arcades . . . but I dream of your town more than most overseas destinations yet unseen . . . see where you have taken me whilst you yourself remembered . . .

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    1. Ah but I would have been impressed Eha. Between my childhood and becoming a radical university student, I had a spell of working in the city in the Department of Health, in that very ugly green toilet block building, since demolished, on the corner of Russell St. You may remember it. My income was good enough to be able to splurge on boutique clothing then, a little Prue Acton here and there, before the life of poor student took over. And if I want to meet an old friend, or an OS visitor, I would choose a grand city restaurant over any suburban equivalent, especially Florentinos or Grossi’s equivalents or the Flower Drum. I’m envious of your life back then. How amazing to have had these times in the grand old dame, Melbourne.

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  2. What wonderful memory trip… I was carried along with you… partly in remembrance of my own childhood delight at trips into “town” from the far western suburbs of Sydney where country kid me holidayed in summer with my aunt & uncle, and partly because although I’ve never been able to spend as much time there as I’d like, Melbourne is one of my favourite places. I love your plan of photographing the now-days equivalent of each photo.

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    1. Did you go into ‘town’ by train Dale? I think those childhood memories form our relationships with places and they stick with us forever.
      Even today, I find things in Melbourne quite exciting. New walks along the river, as well as old bar haunts like Young and Jackson. Can’t walk past that pub without dropping in for a Prosecco and a view of Flinders St Station from upstairs.

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  3. They did a wonderful job with the coloured photos of Melbourne – German photography can’t be beaten! They just have a knack for technology. I remember those trips with mum as well. We had to leave home by 9:00 am mum would say – no dawdlers – to catch the early train to town. Loved passing the old silos around Kensington on the way and the old Animal Husbandry building along with the dilapidated Railways building with it’s smashed glass windows – so exciting. I also remember those cafetaria lunches with mum and going to Myers all the time to buy clothes, sometimes down the bargain basement but often upstairs because mum loved the finer manchester. The lift operators with their floor spiels were superstars. They were fun times and it would be nice to have them back!!

    I prefer old Melbourne to the more modern looking Melbourne with it’s ritzy paintings on walls etc. One or two lanes are okay but there is the danger it could become gawdy if we don’t watch out. All the graffiti gets to me as well. I must admit I prefer the spooky lanes in Melbourne to so many frescos everywhere. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy duddy.

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    1. I forgot about the smashed windows and the myer lift operators.
      Yes, all the lane ways and arcades are interesting, not just the graffitied lanes. I go to the city fairly often and now enjoy walking along the river, or taking photos or sipping prosecco upstairs in Young and Jackson. Can’t wait for my favourite library to reopen properly.

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  4. Nice memories and old photo. I’m not a fan of graffiti, though, particularly by the hand of gang members. Growing up in New Jersey about 20 miles from NYC, we called it “the city.” My town bordered Newark, NJ, a city in its own right, but Manhattan got the nod. I never thought anything of the name until I was at university in Boston and “the city” came out of my mouth and I realized that no one knew what I was talking about.

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    1. It’s an odd thing how we refer to the centre of things in our respective geographical imaginations. The city in your case meant THE city, Manhattan, but obviously not to Bostonians at your university. No one refers to Melbourne as ‘town’, now a quaint 1950s term for the city of Melbourne at the time, a term I probably learnt from my grandparents. Now a mega city of 5 million people, it’s hard to find that historical Edwardian layer but it’s still there.

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  5. I remember visiting New York in 2004 and we stayed in New Jersey 2 nights – I think it was Newark actually at Days Inn. I’m pretty sure that was it’s name. It was after 911 so everyone was a bit nervous going through tunnels etc. I was with my husband on a working project in beautiful Montreal where we stayed for 3 months. It was an 8-hour trip by bus down to New York. Fantastic experience.

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  6. Thanks for the wonderful memories Francesca. I loved travelling into town, we generally exited via Campbell arcade and up into Degraves Street. I still love the arcades and prefer this exit though Campbell Arcade is a bit sad these days.
    We also enjoyed lunch at Coles cafeteria where I always enjoyed a spider drink and assorted sandwiches – it was generally a holiday treat and something I really looked forward to.

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    1. I was trying to recall the name of that underground arcade, so thanks for reminding me Liz. Yes, that’s the way we went too. Campbell arcade is now blocked off as part of the new extensions to the underground rail network. A spider, lucky you. Hope it was a lime spider.

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  7. Your memories seem to be about a much more distant and different past than I would expect, though the downtown areas of American cities have also changed radically in one or two generations, and now have very little commercial life to attract either residents or tourists. You did a wonderful job showing what a child would experience.

    I mentioned you on my blog post today.

    be safe… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  8. When we were little my mother and my aunty would take all eight of us to the city once every school holidays, it was like a “Big Day Out”. This week after 11 months of working from home I am finally (partially) returning to the office, and last night it felt like I was getting ready for one of those Big Days Out. I think these snap mini lockdowns will be the norm for some time yet.

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    1. Those big days out with your siblings and cousins must have been exciting. And I guess this one will be too, with a bit of extra personal grooming and clothing preparation involved. That is certainly the case for me when heading into the city, for books, the dentist or a restaurant.
      Strangely enough, I’m enjoying this current lockdown, knowing that it’s a short one. Even though I’m retired, and in theory not really inconvenienced by lockdowns, I’m often stressed by the business of life. A five day lockdown is an excuse to step back from it all. I hope the vaccine makes a difference.

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  9. How familiar all that was, but we did not get the jellied dessert, just a pie and two or three veg, AND GRAVY. We went in on the tram from Brunswick. The number one or fifteen. Wearing a little pillbox hat, white gloves and sox. I loved those days. My mum remarried and moved us to North Blackburn. I thought my throat had been cut when I lost my connection to the city and my beloved Brunswick. Now our city place is in Carlton North and our country place 100km out. An unbelievably privileged life we lead, but we miss the very long holidays we enjoyed in Italy for so many years before covid struck. We are just so grateful we had so many when others we know have missed out on their long planned trip of a lifetime.

    How is the research going on the Ottolenghi recipes? In Italy a couple of years ago in Asti or Alba, or similar, we walked down a small street called Ottolenghi.

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