Good days in old North

We came to North Melbourne to live in 1965. Basically, we have lived here ever since and oddly enough, because I can remember shifting into Shiel Street, I still think of myself as a newcomer and seem to know an increasing number of people and families who lived here in North before I came. What I only half realised when I arrived was that the area was in the midst of its greatest change since settlement in the 1850’s.

My friend Rae who grew up on Hotham Hill likes to remind us all that many people have a connection with old North Melbourne and it is just a matter of finding it.

That proved to be the case for us too. Bill had grown up in St Kilda but found he had an uncle who had lived in Provost Street at about the time of Federation, married and had his children baptised at St Mary’s Star of the Sea, which is in West Melbourne, but he had settled on North as the football team to follow.

Subsequently a cousin, Jim Harman, was treasurer of the club for more than a decade and his son the time-keeper.

For my part, my father, Mathew Hogan (Mathew being spelt in an Irish way with one ‘t’), had been head master at the Errol Street State School in the 1950s. The presence in the school of so many children from Camp Pell — a military camp turned into a kind of slum re-housing — was a potent symbol of the upheaval that was underway.

As soon as Mathew heard we were moving he was anxious to introduce me to Horrie McEwan, the Happy Valley butcher.

Horrie had been the treasurer of the school committee. Horrie and his mate Brockie used to take several new footies down to the school each year, a gift of the footy club, donated so that the kids would have something decent to kick round at lunch time.

All round us “the North Melbourne” we moved into was emptying of one population and becoming home to another. Some families and young couples were moving out to new suburbs and bigger back yards. As they left, new people were moving in — migrant workers and families from Italy, Malta and the various parts of what we then called Yugoslavia and the Baltic States. Houses and schools filled up; some shops sold salami, some stuck to slices of German pork sausage.

But although there were changes, some things stayed the same and I think we believed they always would. The milkman came round in the early morning, clink-clink-clinking down the street. Bread was delivered and was there alongside the paper when you opened the front door in the morning.
We put out the milk bottles in the evening and tied string round the newspapers and took them down to the greengrocer who used them to wrap the veggies.

Of course we had the Vic Market, but it had not killed off small shops the way supermarkets one day would. Bill often noted that S.E. Dickins had started up self-service in Chapel Street years before, but proper house-keepers and young boys sent on messages relied on shopkeepers to find and package those items that were not delivered.

Today, some call that period of change the clearances, echoing the political and social campaign for slum clearance that had built up before World War II and got underway seriously in the 1950s under the authority of the Housing Commission of Victoria.

Its greatest symbols, the high-rise blocks of apartments, are still commonly known as Housing Commission towers though the Commission itself no longer exists.

The clearances and rebuilding saw an old population move to outer suburbs and a new population of low-income families replace them. Sociologists, however, wondered whether as one “slum” vanished another grew to take its place. The difference, it was said, was that the new slums were vertical.

Although high living, as Anne Stevenson and Judith O’Neill called it in their study of family life in the Melrose Street flats published in the 1960’s, was confined then to public housing, private developers were also replacing old streets with new apartment blocks, generally about three storeys high so that lifts were not needed. When we moved in, the upmarket Hotham Gardens were already in Haines and O’Shanassy streets and the high-rise Commission blocks were beginning to occupy Melrose Street where empty shops waited to be demolished and replaced by more towers.

Later, the old cottages in Haines Street that our kids walked past on their way to school would themselves give way to medium rise blocks built by a Commission that was having a change of heart about high-rise public housing. Finally, the charming old shopping centre of Happy Valley in Abbotsford Street gave way to a ruthless and ugly commercial development of apartments.

Some of this history has been recorded in the superb photographs of F. Oswald Barnett, who documented the old slums of North Melbourne, Carlton and Fitzroy and in the official reports and studies of the campaigns for the clearances and of the work of the Housing Commission.

But it is fair to say that people living today amid the monuments of the clearances have little knowledge of a remarkable period that irrevocably changed the face of inner Melbourne and still lies just beneath the surface waiting to be rediscovered.

Oswald Bamett’s photos can be seen at:

by Lorna Hannan, chair of the Hotham History Project, 2012. (story first published in the North & West Melbourne News.)

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