Bourke St at the turn of the 20th century

By Cheryl Griffin - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

This sweeping view up Bourke St was taken from the General Post Office (GPO) Tower around the turn of the 20th century and is one of the many images that capture the changing face of the CBD in the Royal Historical Society’s collection. The photographer, Henry Cooper, is looking out from one of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings towards the south-east corner of the city. 

The image first came into the RHSV’s collection in 1919 when the society’s honorary librarian Cecil Harper, who was keenly interested in photography, bought a small collection of city streetscapes at Hanley’s Book Exchange which was located not far along the street at the Eastern Market site (corner of Bourke and Exhibition streets), where the Southern Cross Hotel stood from the 1960s, before it made way for office blocks in the early 2000s.

There is so much of interest here that it is hard to know where to start. The dominating feature is Bourke St itself and the first thing I noticed (after the low height of most buildings) was the verandas that reached out from the buildings across the footpath to the street. Then there is the lack of traffic and the stillness of the scene. There are three or four horse-drawn trams and pedestrians can be seen walking along under the verandas, but it is the buildings themselves that tell the story of this major city thoroughfare that leads the eye inexorably up to Parliament House.

On the north side of the street it is the Sutton Brothers music store’s advertising that first catches the eye. The company had moved into these premises only five years earlier and the brothers, who were cycling enthusiasts, took advantage of the cycling craze of the 1890s and found that it was bicycles, not musical instruments, that were their biggest selling item at this time. You might also have noticed that a photographic studio is advertised on their west-facing wall – that was the Vanderwyde Photographic rooms run by Charles Birkin, who had previously run the Vandyck Studios, also in Bourke St but a little further west next to the GPO.

For me, though, the heroes are on the south side of the street, none more so than that phenomenal success Cole’s Book Arcade, dubbed the “Palace of Intellect”. It seems that few could resist its advertising addressed “To the intellectual”: “When you have had your tea, and don’t know what to do with yourself until bedtime, jump into the bus and go to Cole’s Palace of Intellect for an hour or two.” And they came in droves, old and young alike, to be amazed by this collection of two million books. 

Reputed at one time to be the world’s largest bookstore, it covered two city blocks and was a magical wonderland, a mixture of the bizarre (think monkeys in cages), the exotic (staff dressed in scarlet jackets, a giant rainbow over the façade), entertainment (a pianist played to the crowds every afternoon), delight (toys, funny mirrors, a confectionery department) and all those books. Bliss! 

A little further up the street was the Palace Hotel, the tallest building in this streetscape and truly a symbol of the “Marvellous Melbourne” of the 1880s. An advertising brochure for the hotel dated 1889 highlighted its luxury and modernity. It boasted electric lighting, a refrigerating room, an aerated water manufactory and even two specially designed (and upholstered) Otis elevators. Among its many facilities there was a dining and banqueting hall, a ladies boudoir and drawing room and a gentleman’s reading and smoking room, as well as a billiard saloon with 13 billiard tables. Accommodation included private suites and apartments. Servants could also be accommodated – at a fee, of course. 

Off in the distance the spires of Scots Church, on its opposite corners of Collins and Russell streets, rise high above all the other buildings in this photograph. Built in the 1870s, they continued to dominate the skyline for some years, but are now dwarfed by the office blocks that have risen around them •

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