Intersection of Swanston and Flinders streets, looking north, 1890s

By Dr Cheryl Griffin

At first glance there is little that is familiar about this street scene taken some time in the early 1890s.

The traffic is dominated by horses and carts. The pedestrians cross without streetlights to guide them. Public transport consists of cable trams, a relatively recent innovation. The roads are in poor repair, especially where the pedestrians cross and at the gutters.

The photographer is standing in Swanston St looking north. It is a busy intersection, but there are no traffic lights to impede his view or to regulate the flow of foot and vehicular traffic. That is the task of the policeman, glimpsed in his white hat on the left of the image, next to the streetlight.

Only just visible in the left-hand corner is a veranda. The photo has been taken before Flinders Street Station as we know it was built. That came a decade or so later. This is the site of the Old Fish Market, and the old train station is just south of it, out of view.

It is probably spring or early summer, as the women are wearing straw hats and light outfits and there are some puddles on the road. Men are dressed formally, and it seems strange today to see a tram passenger wearing a top hat and frock coat as the man on the right edge of this photo is doing. A businessman or member of the legal fraternity, perhaps? He is sitting in the open carriage of a south-bound Prahran-Balaclava tram.

On the north-west corner of this intersection is a Melbourne institution – Young and Jackson’s Hotel. Originally called the Princes Bridge Hotel, it was built during the Gold Rush days – the 1850s – but since 1875 it had been run by Young and Jackson, Irishmen from Dublin, and the hotel has been known as Young and Jackson’s ever since.

Several doors down, a tall building with scaffolding draws our attention. This is the six-storey M.A. Alexander Building, built in 1888 and demolished in the 1950s. Although to today’s Melburnian it is decidedly low-rise, at the time it is one of the tallest buildings in the area. You could be forgiven for thinking its principal tenant was Hair & Gill, the auctioneers whose advertising you see on the wall, but in fact that company occupies the ground and basement floors only. For several years after it is built, there are few other occupants, a sign of the disastrous economic depression that gripped Australia, and particularly Victoria, in the 1890s. Soon, though, it is home to a number of small traders and companies.

On the other side of Swanston St, the east side, you can glimpse the Town Hall with its distinctive portico and dome in the distance. The two big buildings south of the Town Hall are gone now, but are testimony to the great advances made in the 1880s, the era celebrated as the days of “Marvellous Melbourne”. Closest to the photographer, partly obscured by the cable tram, is St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, which looks both familiar and unfamiliar. It is built in the English Gothic Revival style. English architect William Butterfield designed it and building began in 1880. The initial building work was completed in January 1891 when the cathedral was consecrated. You will have noticed that the building is without spires. They followed many years later and were built between 1926 and 1931.

What you might not know is that the cathedral site has been in public use since the first days of white settlement and in 1836 was the site of the first public Christian service held in the new village, a village that grew to become the vast metropolis we know today. Until 1848 it was a busy corn market, but in 1852 a bluestone church was built on the site. (The cathedral at that time was St James Cathedral, then on the corner of William and Collins streets, but now in King St opposite the Flagstaff Gardens.) The bluestone church was demolished when the current St Paul’s Cathedral was built.

There are signs in this image, too, of a society in transition. Yes, it is the middle of a devastating economic depression. Yet electric light poles run down the western side of Swanston St, a new technology that is already threatening the profitability of the gas companies. Cable trams have replaced horse trams on this route and a major new public building has emerged – St Paul’s Cathedral – to dominate this southern edge of the CBD.

Out of sight, behind the photographer, is the Yarra River and Princes Bridge which leads you to the wide, tree-lined beauty of St Kilda Rd and takes you out of the busy city atmosphere to the green oasis that is the Botanic Gardens or on to the beach at South Melbourne or St Kilda.

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