Making way for thoroughly modern Melbourne

By Dr Cheryl Griffin - Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV)

This photograph, taken in about 1924, represents a time capsule of Melbourne as it was just after World War One. 

The city was on the cusp of a building revival as a society recovering from the devastating effects of war looked towards its future with confidence and hope for better times ahead.

During this period public transport was transformed with the introduction of electric services on trams and trains, but the last vestiges of the old cable tram system were still in evidence, as you can see here. In February 1924, a new section of cable tram line was opened in Lonsdale St. It had been almost 40 years since cable trams had replaced horse-drawn carriages. That had been a “wow” moment for Melburnians who could hardly believe they were travelling in a vehicle that did not require a horse or an engine. 

Now electric trams were taking over, but it was to be a long period of replacement. The Toorak cable tram closed in October 1926, but it was not until October 1940 that the last cable tram ran in Melbourne and the last tracks were removed years later in February 1962. Here you see a Toorak cable tram with its open sided car (the dummy) on the left and closed carriage on the right. 

This is probably one of the last photographs to capture the streetscape before radical modernising took place in the mid-1920s, largely on account of a huge expansion and building program by the Myer Emporium. At that stage the company was still led by businessman and philanthropist Sidney Myer and under his leadership the company bought up properties between Bourke and Lonsdale streets to realise its vision of a massive retail outlet like no other – a series of interconnected buildings that dominated that city block and whose window displays, especially its Christmas windows, captured the imaginations of Melburnians and lured them inside to spend, spend, spend. 

A newspaper advertisement for Myer published in the Argus newspaper in February 1924 shows the importance of that business in the 1920s when a number of buildings from the goldrush era were being demolished to make way for Myer’s new, imposing multi-storeyed buildings that eventually covered several city blocks. The company was quick to exploit the presence of the additional tram route and proclaimed that “special provision has been made for two New Entrances to Myer’s!” as though the changes had taken place especially with their business in mind.

This is the block between Elizabeth St and Swanston St and the image looks south, as indicated by the sign on the wall behind the tram – “Thru here to the Myer Emporium P.O. Place and Bourke Street.” The large building on the left fronts Swanston St and the advertising slogan “Lux won’t shrink wool” on its rear wall dominates this part of the image. This popular ad for Lux soap from the early 1900s featuring a Little Bo Peep-like figure and some of her sheep, reminds us that this was an Australia that rode on the sheep’s back.

You probably noticed the fire hydrant in the foreground of the image, a common sight on Melbourne’s streets until the 1970s. What you probably didn’t notice was the building just to the right of the tram. It’s the Doncaster Tearooms, 323-325 Lonsdale St, and it was built in 1856 by seed and grain merchant D.S. Hughes. 

The Tearooms (and the Greek Club that rented the upstairs space) came to an abrupt and rather spectacular end early one morning in May 1925, thanks to the Myer excavation work taking place on the adjoining block. It was 5.30am and proprietor John Schaffner had begun his morning routine, preparing for the 200 or so customers who would arrive over the next two hours to have breakfast, when one side of the building collapsed and fell into the excavation hole next door. A dramatic end to a building that had stood there for 70 years and an unexpected further change to the streetscape.

This image, taken some time between February 1924 and May 1925, represents a wave of city demolitions in which the old gave way to the new and many of the buildings of the goldrush era disappeared as society looked towards a new age of modernity and prosperity •

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