A few days ago, we calculated that we have lived in North Melbourne for more than half a century. We thought to ourselves, what's changed in that time?
The street we first moved into had a massive gasometer at its end. In those days, most people sat down to a Sunday roast after church - so by the middle of the day the gasometer that had started out full had subsided to half its height. The same gasometer gave its name to North's Arden Street Oval, which then filled with barrackers every other Saturday.
Simpson's ‘For Sale' sign on the house that we eventually bought lay face down and over-grown in the front garden. The agent had only the vaguest idea of how far, if at all, the backyard extended beyond the lane. The price was so low that we grabbed it, without attempting to bargain the figure down. This surprised the agent. However, he knew, of course, that there were no other buyers for it, or indeed for any house in the street.
The street was tree-lined and handsome. Its unpopularity was explained, not by its character, but by the fact that the Housing Commission was active in the area. The high-rises of Melrose Street were already going up and the timber cottages of Haines Street at the other end were set for demolition.
Our street (Shiel Street) looked threatened. Already old tenants were moving out of this traditionally working-class suburb and new owners had started moving in. We were among the very first. It is likely that the building of the landmark Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral spared our block from demolition. The flats, as we called them, were still something of a novelty. Public housing, up until then, was not accustomed to high-rise development and many people looked askance at these vast concrete and pebble towers. There was a sense that the poor were being stacked vertically out of some sort of austerity.
In fact, the standard of the Commission blocks today looks good in comparison to the private high-rises going up now. Inside these old ones, there were relatively spacious. Outside, the towers were surrounded by plenty of open space.
Apartment buildings have now replaced much of the Abbotsford Street shopping centre of 50 years ago. Nevertheless, the area is still characterized by essential shops within walking distance. In just a short ride you can get to the supermarket, hairdresser or fish and chip shop – on the corner of Haines and Abbotsford – as well as a substantial set of shops in Melrose Street. Butchers and greengrocers have gone. And no shopkeeper, however agreeable or eccentric, has replaced, or could possibly replace, Horrie McEwan, the butcher of Abbotsford Street.
Horrie managed to know everyone, by the simple expedient of calling everyone by the same, barely articulated name. His range of off-colour jests about meat somehow avoided giving offence. If a mate arrived, he closed the shop and got a beer out of the cool room.
A North man many years ago once said to me that he could not bear to live without seeing the town hall clock. Fortunately, the town hall is on one of North Melbourne’s hills and can be seen from almost anywhere around here. Multiplying apartment towers might one day change this but for the moment it is our landmark and the chief pride of our heritage Victorian buildings. The same architect, George Johnson, also did the noble Meat Market.
It has been said at times that north Melbourne owes its unusually wide and graceful streets to the droving of cattle from Newmarket to the Meat Market. A bit far-fetched but a nice story nonetheless.
Neither the North Melbourne Town Hall nor the Meat Market have quite the presence they had 50 years ago. The town hall was more open to the community and the Meat Market hosted first butchers, then craftspeople. Once the Meat Market stopped having meat, we shopped for a time at Reynolds, who had had one of the principal stalls at the market.
Meat and greengrocery continued for many years to be sold in Errol Street. They too have gone. Today the Queen Victoria Market, which keeps going seemingly against the odds, and other, newish supermarkets are the sources of fresh food. The big newcomer in those 50 years has been coffee. Errol Street now has an abundance of cafes. Melrose Street, for all its small scale, has three coffee bars. Fifty years ago, you mostly had your tea or coffee at home.
Perhaps one of the stimuli to coffee drinking came from North’s immigrants. In our early years on Shiel Street we were one of a few English-speaking households. The majority were of Italian, Maltese, Ukrainian or Yugoslav descent. They too mostly moved on as the area’s house prices climbed.
What seems to have changed little is the graceful pace of local life, which despite the heavy traffic of Flemington and Macaulay roads survives in North’s quiet, spacious streets.
by Bill Hannan, - member of the Hotham History Project and frequently writes articles on local history for the News, 2017.