Fitzroy

“South Fitzroy, the former Newtown, has had more documented buildings by prominent architects of the 1850s and 1860s than any other locality in Victoria except central Melbourne, but where the early city buildings have virtually disappeared, a very substantial number survive in Fitzroy. This concentration of high quality early buildings, especially in the areas fringing Victoria Parade and the southern part of Nicholson Street, is explicable in terms of the historical development of the area.

The first settlement of Melbourne comprised a small proportion of half and quarter acre allotments within a sizeable town reserve which was intended to allow for future expansion as well as to provide land for public purposes. Much larger allotments suitable for cultivation typically of about 12 hectares (25 acres) were sold from 1839, outside this reserve, that is, north of Victoria Street and east of Hoddle Street – Punt Road. At the first sale of suburban lands, held in Sydney on 13th February 1839 about 1000 acres of what are now Fitzroy and Collingwood were sold in lots of from 12 to 28 acres, at an average price of 7pounds 11 shillings an acre. The government reserved from sale the roads which bound South Fitzroy: Nicholson Street, Alexandra Parade (formerly Darebin and then Reilly Street), Smith Street and Victoria Parade (formerly Simpsons’ Road) but within the area the only road reserve was that of Johnston Street.

Of all this suburban land, the prime site was the one closest to the town, lot 48, at the corner of the present Nicholson Street and Victoria Parade, and this was bought by the partnership of John Terry Hughes and John Hosking of Albion Wharf, Sussex Street, Sydney, a prominent firm of merchants who maintained an agency in Melbourne for discounting bills. Hughes and Hosking bought in all five of the twelve lots which now comprise South Fitzroy.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 6)

The original purchase of land was:

Jika Jika
Victoria. Surveyor General’s Office.
Stages in the Subdivision of Fitzroy and East Collingwood 1838-1842. Sourced from B Barrett – The Inner Suburbs: The Evolution of an Industrial Area M. U. P. 1971.

“Thomas Walker, another Sydney merchant bought, (partly on his own behalf and partly on that of his uncle’s firm of William Walker and Co., of which he was a member) lots 49 and 70, the next best land to lot 48 which adjoined it to the east along Victoria Parade and to the north along Nicholson Street. Walker had previously ridden overland from Sydney to Melbourne and had published his journal as ‘A Month in the Bush of Australia’ in 1838; in 1843 he was elected one of Port Phillip’s representatives in the Legislative Council of New South Wales. The remaining lots in Victoria Parade were bought by the London based ship owner J.T.E. Flint and by Thomas G. Gore, and elsewhere by Gordon Sandeman and R.H. Way.

Lot 48 and its neighbours, apart from being the closest to the town, were also on a pleasant wooded hill, so that they were subjected to conflicting demands for dense subdivision and for fashionable villas. Lot 48 very soon became a canvas town inhabited by tent dwellers on leased lots. Next along Victoria Parade Thomas Walker’s lot 49 passed to Captain Benjamin Baxter in July and was subdivided and sold as early as October 1839 to become the village of Newtown.

Richard Howitt in 1839 described Newtown as being on higher ground and cleaner and healthier than Melbourne, and R.D. Murray named it as “the chosen resort of the principal inhabitants, whose residences are dispersed throughout the many lovely spots with which it abounds. Certainly nothing can be more romantic and secluded than the sites of many of their villas.” Here in the 1840s, lived the city merchant Charles Payne, the solicitor J.W. Dunbar, the barrister Eyre Williams, the public magistrate Major St. John and the Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court, J.D. Pinnock.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 6)

“The denser and more ephemeral development, which began with the tent settlement on lot 48 and continued with shanties further north, can be attributed largely to the beginnings of assisted immigration with the arrival of the ‘David Clark’ in 1839, and to the economic recession which built up from 1840 to 1842 and left the migrants unable to afford proper migration: Bunches of cabin residences leaped up … formed of sods, brick, wood, canvas, or any other sort of material available; and down about where Brunswick and Moor Streets now embrace each other, there gathered a conglomberation of huts, which offered a harbour or refuge for the worst half of the rascality of the town.

This sort of development was both encouraged and accentuated by two critical factors. Firstly the subdivision o fhte land to residential allotments was entirely at the discretion of the owner and there were no prescribed minima for the sizes of sites or the widths of streets. Secondly, prior to 1850, there was no control over materials or standards of building. The consequence of this is that the humble dwellings were generally not durable enough to survive, while the villas probably sprawled over too much land to have been allowed to remain in the face of development. Today there is but a single building in Fitzroy known to date from before 1850. ” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 8)

Stages in the Subdivision of Fitzroy and East Collingwood 1838-1842. Sourced from B Barrett – The Inner Suburbs: The Evolution of an Industrial Area M. U. P. 1971.

“What survives from the 1840s in Fitzroy is much of the street layout and sub divisional pattern. When Baxter subdivided lot 49 he quartered his block with the two streets which have ever since remained the most important non-government roads in Fitzroy, Brunswick and Gertrude Streets. To the north Brunswick Street was continued by R.S. Webb, who had bought Walker’s other allotment, no. 70 running in from Nicholson Street. In the 1840s Gertrude Street was continued west to meet Nicholson Street, so as to provide new frontages in lot 48. This level of co-ordination was not maintained. In some of the smaller subdivisions adjoining property owners sometimes quite ignored the layout developing on each others land.

The process of private subdivision has been examined by Bernard Barrett in The Inner Suburbs, and he makes the point that each owner was generally selling to a man poorer tha himself, who might then further subdivide his land on a meaner scale. A reason for this was the slowness of the government in bringing the residential-sized allotments onto the market, so that only the large suburban allotments, beyond the reach of the normal purchaser, were available outside the town reserve. A man with enough capital to buy one of these large allotments at, say, 4 pound an acre, could be confident of getting something like four times as much when he carved it up. One of Sandemann’s allotments in Fitzroy was originally bought at a somewhat higher rate 168 pounds for 28 acres but sold even without subdivision to John Hodgson for 840 pounds, or five times the purchase price, in February 1840. Next April Hodgson sold 22 acres of it to a solicitor J.W. Thirton for 1,540 pounds, and soon Thirton sold three acres to Anthony Beale for 252 pounds. The price had increased from 6 pound to 84 pound per acre. A modest instance of progressive subdivision is lot 71, bought originally by Hughes and Hosking, sold to Thomas Jeffrey in February 1840, and sold from June 1841 by Jeffrey and later his heirs. Brunswick Street was reserved in this subdivision and the new streets Victoria and Bell were provided. Only in July 1855 did Thomas Mahoney buy a number of allotments which he later subdivided to continue the line of Fitzroy Street, and to create Greeves and Mahoney Streets (see below).” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 8)

Detail of South Fitzroy from “Hobson Bay and River Yarra Leading to Melbourne.. surveyed by Commander H.L. Cox R.N… 1864 (Sourced from South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 10)

“The social status of South Fitzroy is often a cause of puzzlement, and this is mainly due to modern assumptions about large tracts of fairly homogenous suburbs. In Melbourne generally, the housing of the rich and of the working classes was fairly promiscuously mixed in the mid-nineteenth century. The picturesque, high and well drained sites were selected for villas and the lower, more swampy or more barren tracts for cottages. Transport being more of a problem and working hours longer, the poor especially had to be close to their work, sometimes as servants in the villas or as tradesmen servicing them. Frequently the result of continuing pressure for development was that the villas were left fronting the streets but the gardens were eroded to provide meaner development along the lanes and mews concealed from the public gaze. It is today sometimes a cause of surprise that these more primitive dwellings are substantially later than their urbane neighbours. Edmund Finn, a local resident, in 1841 discounted the fashionable image and could find only half a dozen ‘tidyish cottages’ along Brunswick Street between Victoria Parade and Palmer Street, while the street itself was totally unmade. North of Palmer Street were occasional mud hovels and at about the intersection of Moor Street, which was blocked by a queer two-storey brick-nogged rookery planted at the end of the track were seven or eight cabins ‘in which pigs… would hardly condescend to wallow’. This conglomeration of huts ‘offered a harbour or refuge for the worst half of the rascality of the town’.

While one would not expect to find many substantial villas as early as 1841 the rapid decline in the standard of accommodation as one moved north along Brunswick Street remained a characteristic. There were for a long time many paddocks and semi-rural sites such as dairies in the more northern and more easterly parts, but the housing was more uniformly humble and is predominantly single storeyed to the present day. In the eastern part of the suburb the occasional detached dwellings of the 1870’s like the ‘Captain’s House’, 300 Gore Street, still preserves an almost rural air amongst the close set cottages which have surrounded it not very much later.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 9)

“It was in the northern part that batches of migrants of the 1840’s settled often in large groups from the same ship, such as those who arrived on the ‘Argyle’ in March of 1841 and in later trips and gave the ship’s name to two streets and many cottages.

In 1842 the Melbourne Municipal Corporation Act was passed in Sydney, and in recognition of the urban character of Newtown it was included as part of the municipality which consisted otherwise of the old township reserve. The town was divided by Bourke and Elizabeth Streets into four wards, so that Newtown became part of the more northern one, Gipps Ward. this was to encourage substantial development in that area, which grew from a population of 600 in 1841 to more than 3,000 by 1851, and it further trended to distinguish it from neighbouring East Collingwood. LaTrobe had written to Sydney in January 1842 the request that the name of Newtown be changed to Collingwood, and with instruction for the proper alignment of the streets, for buildings had been put up haphazardly out of line, facing in different directions and encroaching upon the streets. The problem of straightening out the streets was not finally attended to until the 1850’s and in the meantime the town council’s neglect of the Newtown / Collingwood roads gave rise to a petition for it to be created a separate ward, resulting in Fitzroy being created in 1850.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 9)

“The next two or three years were the critical ones, and they also produced the oldest of the buildings surviving today. In 1849 the Melbourne Building Act was passed, to take effect from 1850, and it enforced fireproof construction in the city and in Fitzroy ward, which immediately tended to direct the more gimcrack developments to the adjoining suburbs. In these areas it because a positive incentive to speculation that there was no control over building, and this was to be a critical factor when the tide of gold rush immigration set in in early 1852. There was no way that enough brick and stone houses could be built in conformity with the legislation, and there were arguments advanced that the Act should be suspended in Fitzroy Ward. Instead, however, the government deliberately placed on the market new land in North and South Melbourne, outside the scope of this Act and fairly isolated to minimise the threat of fire spreading to the established areas. T. G. Gore’s lot 51 in Victoria Parade, was subdivided early in 1850 by F. R. Gore and consequently developed entirely under the provisions of the Act. It was provided with a respectable street down the middle and a reasonably generous subdivision (although some later extension of the lanes was necessary) and occupied by fairly wealthy people from the first – hence the substantial character which is has retained to the present day.

In Melbourne, including Fitzroy Ward, building virtually stopped for a full year between March 1852 and March of 1853, when only 41 buildings were put up. Building activity was confined to the new land in North and South Melbourne, and in East Collingwood and Richmond, where as early as September 1852 William Howitt found ‘thousands of little tenements, and almost every one of them only one storey high.’ In the following year, however, the number of buildings within the municipality nearly doubled, and this is the beginning of Fitzroy’s great period of bluestone buildings. There seem to have been some infringement of the Act, or some sort of limited dispensation, for a few prefabricated wooden houses are known to have been put up in East Melbourne and likewise in Fitzroy, a teak house said to be from India was put up at 46 Moor Street in 1850 (and demolished only in recent years). The act was not clear about iron buildings which either had not been envisaged or were erroneously thought to be fireproof, so that some were put up in the city and in Fitzroy before they were finally prohibited. Two surviving examples are All Saints Hall in King William Street and the Manchester-made cottage from 40 Moor Street which the National Trust has re-erected in South Melbourne. Thomas Kidney’s iron house or shop in Napier Street was demolished only in recent years.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p. 11)

“Within the provisions of the Act brick could be used, but locally-made bricks were scarce and very unreliable at the height of the gold rush so that bluestone came into its own. Bluestone is very hard to work and was scarcely used except for foundations in the 1840s, but provided it was left rough faced the labour component was not prohibitive, and it was known to be extremely durable. The first documented use of bluestone in Fitzroy is the Wesleyan Sunday School off Brunswick Street of 1849, now known to have been designed by George Wharton, though hitherto attributed to James Webb, and demolished in recent years by the Housing Commission. This had some details in brick and was obviously intended to be cement rendered in due course, which was the usual approach because apart from the excessive cost of dressing bluestone to an acceptable finish, it was thought too dark either to be attractive or to display to good effect any sort of decorative cutting. Most of the exposed bluestone walls in Fitzroy are evidence of failure to fulfil the original intentions rather than any love of the material.

In Fitzroy buildings of the early 1850’s, therefore, we can expect to find exposed bluestone, more rarely exposed brick and both materials finished in cement either at the time of construction or later. The other requirements of the Act prevented wooden eaves and balconies overhanging the street, and required separate occupancies to be separated by fire walls rising through the roof. These requirements applied to most suburbs by the 1870’s, so that they now seem less distinctive, but in the early Fitzroy (and central Melbourne) examples, they gave a character more resembling that of colonial Sydney than other Melbourne suburbs, particularly in the hands of classically oriented architects like John Gill.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p.11-12).

“The earliest identified house in Fitzroy is the two storeyed central section of Osborne House constructed in 1850 for John McPherson. There were however other houses along Nicholson Street (then known as Western Government Road) at this date, as evidenced by early ratebook searches, but these have not been matched with surviving houses.

The next earliest house we know is the one in Brunswick street designed by Laing in 1851 for John Mickle, and it now seems an anachronistic survival of Newtown’s period of villa development; however it would have had many comparable neighbours, especially in Victoria Parade, and it was by no mans the last to be built even if we exclude its neighbour, the two storeyed Dogshun House. However the more distinctive form of development of the period is the terrace house, of which Fitzroy is effectively the cradle.”(South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p.12).

“The first example seems to have been a group of three houses designed by Gill and built for J.P. Bear in 1851 in Victoria Street Fitzroy (by which Victoria Parade must surely be intended). The next was a group of seven houses designed by Gill in April 1853 for William Splatt, M.L.C., on his land on the East Melbourne side of Victoria Parade. The third was a group of six two-storeyed bluestone houses by James and Charles Webb in an unspecified portion of Newtown early in 1854.

None of these terraces appears to have survived, though the three houses in Victoria Parade recently demolished (1979) by I.C.I may be part of Splatt’s Terrace (as they are on one of his blocks). What is clear is that the desirability of Newtown – Eastern Hill because of its rising site an its proximity to the town, made it in demand for town residences even during the gold rushes. It also appears that John Gill was the architect most responsible for developing the terrace house form.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p.14).

“Newtown or South Fitzroy, as has been said was the site of more documented work by the prominent architects of the 1850’s than any other place in Victoria, except central Melbourne , an din Fitzroy a remarkable proportion of this work survives. We can name amongst architects who contributed to the area “Austin & Co., Chifsen Bagge, James Blackburn, Button, Crouch & Wilson, James Dickson, John Gill, Charles Laing, Newson & Blackburn, Robertson & Hale, David Ross, Russell & Thomas, Russell, Watts & Pritchard, Patrick Scanlan, AT Snow, Lloyd Taylor, Leonard Terry, James & Charles Webb, Webb & Taylor, Wharton & Burns and F.M White – in short almost ever significant architect in private practice other than Joseph Reed, whose first work in the area is 1860. ” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979).

“Alderman Greeves was elected magistrate for the year 1850, when an important Building Act was brought inter operation, and measures were drafted for establishing abattoirs, forming private lanes, and regulating hackney carriages. A new ward, that of Fitzroy, was called into existence… When Fitzroy was laid out, a spacious reserve was made between Moor and Johnston Streets for a public square, the only one of the kind in Melbourne, but by some strange oversight, or worse, on the part of the municipal authorities, this reservation was allowed to pass into private hands, and is now irrecoverably lost”. (The Cyclopedia of Victoria, 1903-1905 Vol. 1, p297)

“The 1850’s was also the period in which the street pattern was largely finalised. The Town Council’s Public Works Committee made an attempt to unravel the tangle of discontinuities and cul-de-sacs and resultant recommendations by the City Surveyor were dealt with by the Corporation in May of 1851. Brunswick Street was proclaimed for its full length between Victoria and Rielly Street (Alexandra Parade), Moor Street opened from Nicholson to Smith Streets and others were opened or proclaimed but not widened or lengthened in accordance with he Committee’s recommendations, presumably for want of money. Nor did anything come of the recommendation for a public square on a tract of desolate swampy land between Greeves, St David, Brunswick and Napier Streets. A Fitzroy Ward Streets Bill does not seem to have been passed in the 1852-1852 session of parliament, but both the urgency and the funds available increased as a result of the gold rushes. In 1854, the Fitzroy Ward Improvement Act (17 Victoria No. 31) was passed, promising 50,000 pounds for improvements in the ward, although this seems to have been cut off after the first 10,000 pounds due to Hotham’s austerity drive. The Act provided that twenty-six street and squares were to be driven through, and for additional capital to be raised by means of a betterment tax.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study 1979, p.17).

“By the end of the 1850’s the pattern of land use as well as the street layout had been determined. The Municipality of Fitzroy was created in 1858 to incorporate the old Newtown area. The main retailing areas were established, except that while Smith Street was still little more than a dirt track (and the main route from town to the Heidelberg Road), Brunswick Street is said to have been almost as populous as Bourke Street. Today the position is reversed. Many of Fitzroy’s hotels, especially in Brunswick Street, were established or rebuilt in the 1850’s and some of these like the Rob Roy, the Renown (former Leviathan) and Builders Arms, still survive in modified form today. The directories begin to be specific about property locations in the late fifties and Tanner’s directory of 1859 is helpful by its very incompleteness, for it indicates which streets were substantially developed and urban in character and ignores the sparser and meaner ones, especially to the north. There we find listings for all the main north-south streets – Nicholson, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Young, Napier, George, Gore and Smith – but of the east-west streets only Princes, Palmer, Gertrude, Regent and Victoria Parade. By comparison only two streets, Derby and Peel – are listed in what is now Collingwood. Moreover when we look in more detail at the north-south streets, interpreting the sketchy numbering system and extrapolating from known buildings like churches an hotels it becomes apparent that the gross bulk of listings are at the south end between Victoria Parade and Gertrude Street.

Much building activity in the sixties and seventies was the redevelopment of sites which had been occupied by humble or flimsy structures, but a surprising proportion as well was the completion of terraces begun earlier and the renovation of the stone buildings of the 1850’s by adding coats of cement render, cast iron balconies and verandahs and even extra storeys” (South Fitzroy Conservation study 1979, p.17)

“From 1886-7 cable tram along Brunswick Street and Gertrude Street made it easier for the population to move further out in pursuit of the ideal of a detached villa and garden. North Fitzroy boomed largely as a dormitory area for successful citizens with businesses in the south. At the same time many of the smaller cottages between Johnston Street and Alexandra Parade were built for the not so rich. Here R.H. Way’s lot 83 had been subdivided, probably in the 1850’s, into fairly minute allotments, with the lines of Brunswick and Fitzroy Streets preserved as required and with Leicester, Westgarth and Cecil Streets placed transversely. The estate was known as ‘Theresaville’.

In the south, correspondingly families tended to give way to boarding houses, and this is reflected in the number of largish houses in the southern part between Brunswick and Nicholson Streets which are listed as owned by women. Some however, may have been brothels for the clearance of the city’s red light area in Stephen Street (now Exhibition Street) and Little Bourke Street from 1880 caused many brothel keepers to migrate to Fitzroy, notably to Marion Street.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study, 1979, p.18).

“South Fitzroy was now a more explicitly working class area. Industry, which had barely existed in Fitzroy in the 1850’s, but had grown considerably by the 1870’s, is thought to have begun a slow decline. However there is still much evidence of individual factories being built and extended up to the Great War, with the famous MacRobertson Confectionery factory which started in Argyle Street in the 1880’s. Retailing prospered in Smith Street, where some large buildings were put up from Wood’s ‘Victoria Building‘ of 1888 through to the Great War. By contrast the trade in Brunswick Street was sapped away by the tram service and the street was in decline. Gertrude Street was also becoming seedier as much because of the brothel and underworld population as the trams.

Not much of the twentieth century development in Fitzroy is of great architectural merit or historic interest, but it did change the face of the Suburb by its selectivity. The large villas, especially along Victoria Parade, have been virtually eliminated by the pressures of development. Less obvious is what happened to the humblest dwellings. Many shanties of goldrush or pre gold-rush days, sometimes with earth floors, survived to the twentieth century only to be eliminated by Council pressure and the Housing Commission.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study, 1979, p.18-19).

“The Government Inquiry into Housing in 1913 was told by Bert Mafferzoni, a plainclothes policeman, of numerous inferior houses: 26 cottages in Little George Street were ‘some fairly good, some fairly bad’ whereas of 33 small cottages in Little Napier Street, both north and south of Gertrude Street, none were fit to live in. Mafferzoni named a mixture of properties in Atherton Street; 44 cottages in Marion Street, a number of very old houses in Young Street, of which some, especially near the Victoria Parade end, were not fit to live in; and many others. Before 1900 the Council had condemned 41 buildings, and between 1900 and 1913 another 316 of which only 115 had actually been demolished. Fitzroy attracted more unfavourable notice by the Royal Commission on Housing Conditions of 1917 and by the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board of 1937.

It is interesting that many of the inferior buildings seem to have been the later back street developments, like those put up in Little George Street by John Falconer subsequent to his ‘Falconer Terrace’ on the Napier Street frontage. Areas like Marion Street attracted attention as much because of the undesirables as the buildings, and the area known as ‘The Narrows’ between the south side of the Town Hall and Webb Street, seems to have escaped the attention of the enquiries despite having few houses wider than three metres and being in the 1920’s, ‘probably the most fetid spot in Australia’. It was cleared by Council initiative in the 1930’s.” (South Fitzroy Conservation Study, 1979, p.19).

“Alderman Greeves was elected magistrate for the year 1850, when an important Building Act was brought inter operation, and measures were drafted for establishing abattoirs, forming private lanes, and regulating hackney carriages. A new ward, that of Fitzroy, was called into existence… When Fitzroy was laid out, a spacious reserve was made between Moor and Johnston Streets for a public square, the only one of the kind in Melbourne, but by some strange oversight, or worse, on the part of the municipal authorities, this reservation was allowed to pass into private hands, and is now irrecoverably lost”. (The Cyclopedia of Victoria, 1903-1905 Vol. 1, p297)

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