A stroll along Collins St, 1900

Dr Cheryl Griffin

Collins St has long been considered Melbourne’s most fashionable street and these smartly dressed pedestrians reflect the street’s status as a popular place to shop at higher end stores like George’s Emporium, the city’s most elegant store, and at the many milliners, costumiers and glove-makers that lined the street. Collins St was the place to be seen.

Under the leafy trees, away from busier city streets like Bourke and Swanston, you could almost believe you were in the exclusive parts of Paris or London.

A little further west along the street (just beyond the right-hand edge of the photo) is the Block Arcade. In this block between Swanston and Elizabeth streets, anyone who was anyone, and many more besides, promenaded, hoping to be noticed. Fashionistas, courting couples, those who wished to appear part of the elite, were all seen here. The Argus newspaper called it a “vast, open-air club with unlimited membership … a promenade without a band, a carnival without confetti, a Rotten Row without the horses.”

The photographer was standing outside the Melbourne Town Hall looking south across Collins St towards the Queen Victoria Building (later City Square and now the site of the Town Hall Station development). Although the street is renowned for its magnificent “Marvellous Melbourne” era architecture, it is not the buildings that dominate the scene but the people.

Taken on a breezy summer’s day, the photograph shows a woman on the very left of the image hanging on to her hat as she walks westward and the skirts of the woman in the centre foreground billow around her as she walks southward. A man steps up into a tram, heading west towards Spencer Street Station. For the most part, though, there is a stillness here, almost as though the image has been captured on canvas by an artist sitting outside the Town Hall rather than a photographer. The painterly details are all there: the canopy of shade trees, the dappled light, a little girl in a white sun hat walking towards the camera, her adult companion only just visible behind the striking image of the woman walking away from the camera across a sun-bleached pavement.

It is as though this were a time capsule. Here the world proceeds at a leisurely pace with little indication of the new world that is about to open up. It is December 1900 and in a few weeks a newly federated nation will be declared. On January 1, 1901, the colony of Victoria will become one of the six states in the new Commonwealth of Australia. Months later, in May 1901, the Federal Parliament will sit for the first time at the Exhibition Buildings at Carlton. The city will be abuzz, huge crowds of holidaying Victorians enjoying the federation arches that appear all over the city. There will be illuminations, firework displays, parades, bands playing in city streets, sporting events and displays by school children to keep people entertained.

There is no sign of that here. Nor of the motorised vehicles that will soon dominate Melbourne’s streets. A new, modern, bustling world will eventually emerge, but for now the unhurried pace of the street is celebrated in this image from the Royal Historical Society’s rich images collection •

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