Why is Smith Street important? A history of one of Melbourne’s most diverse streets

This evening I’m going to discuss the historical significance of Smith Street, the street that forms the border of Collingwood and Fitzroy, one of Melbourne’s most important and diverse streets. This presentation borrows from heritage work I did a few years back before the development of the site over the road, which is now the Smith and Co. apartments. As a disclaimer, I have lived in the area on-and-off for a good deal of my adult life and presently live less than 200 meters from here (although I have on occasions gone to other suburbs!). In this presentation, I’ll give a brief historical overview of Smith Street from when it all began the mid- 19th Century up until the 1970s.

The 19th Century

  • Street founded in 1837 on an irregular track from the top end of Bourke Street that went to Heidelberg
  • Between 1837 and 1865 the street made the transition from a thoroughfare to a manufacturing and shopping centre
  • Boom in the 1880s saw the building of the Post Office and Foy and Gibson’s Collingwood Store
  • Cable tram arrived on Smith Street in 1887 and expanded the retail population

• Smith Street is one of Melbourne’s oldest thoroughfares dating back to the first suburban land subdivision in Melbourne in 1838. Smith Street forms the eastern border of Fitzroy, and the western border of Collingwood. At first, Smith Street split the suburb of Collingwood in two but then the eastern half of the suburb was named Newtown and then later, Fitzroy (Melbourne’s first suburb).
• Smith Street originally formed part of a winding dirt track that went to Heidelberg. And it was the only road out of the city into the northeastern district of the fledgling Victorian colony. Smith Street was later straightened when the area was surveyed for the city’s first subdivision and became Melbourne’s first suburban shopping strip. In Victorian times, it was one the busiest and most important shopping centres in all the Australian colonies and in Melbourne it was only rivaled by Chapel Street in Prahran.

Foy and Gibson's, Smith Street, Collingwood
Foy and Gibson’s, Smith Street, Collingwood, 1890s

Establishment of Foy and Gibson’s
• Between 1837 and 1865 Smith Street underwent a transition from a thoroughfare to a manufacturing, service and shopping centre.
• One of the most important manufacturing and retail outlets of the time was the Foy and Gibson’s complex which had at the time the largest factory in the Southern Hemisphere.
• This is perhaps the first example of a purpose built department store in Australia and was completed during the boom years of 1891.
• Most of the Foy and Gibson buildings were built by the renowned Melbourne architect William Pitt who was responsible for many well-known buildings including the Federal Coffee Palace (that got pulled down), the Melbourne Stock Exchange, the original Rialto building, St. Kilda and Brunswick town halls, and the Victoria brewery in Victoria Parade. He also designed many theatres and re-designed the Princess Theatre in 1888
• And this image is on the Collingwood side of the street where the Smith and Co. development is being built at the moment.
• And these images (postcards etc.) can be found at Yarra Libraries or the State Library and some of them are online in the Pictures Victoria project.

Picture2
Foy’s ‘ladies store’, opened in 1912

Fitzroy side of the street (and this is the Ladies store)
• Foy and Gibson’s was the first modern department store in Victoria and was a Smith Street institution for over one hundred years. Founded by a dour Scot, William Gibson, the store rapidly expanded so that by the early 1890s Foy and Gibson was present on both sides of Smith Street and its factories sprawled across three entire blocks of Collingwood.

• And this immense emporium or ‘ladies store’ on the Fitzroy side of Smith Street was opened in 1912.

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Recent picture of Foys Ladies Store, Smith Street, Fitzroy

And this is a fairly contemporary shot of the building (with the Union Bank of Australia Building on the corner). And Kathmandu is housed in part of the old Foy’s emporium building at the moment.

Picture4
Macs Hotel occupied 168-172 Smith Street from about 1860 (on the Collingwood side of the street).

Macs Hotel
• And directly over the road was Mac’s Hotel, which also played an important role in the history of the district. It occupied the site of numbers 168-172 Smith Street from about 1860. Macs hotel was the focus of many of the agitations by which Collinwoodites were renowned. It was the headquarters of Stumperdom (or political stump speeches) and there was a large open space for gatherings.
• Perhaps Macs also played a role in the 8-hour movement that came out of the pubs of Fitzroy and Collingwood in the mid-19th Century.

Picture5
168 Smith Street Collingwood showing the remains of Mac Hotel, Circa 2003.

Until recently, the only surviving part was number 168, the southern third of the original building, but was torn down a couple of years ago.(and there is the Grace Darling Hotel just up the road from Macs is also an important hotel for the area and is one of the oldest, continuously licensed pubs in Melbourne, built in 1854)

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Cable trams operated in Melbourne right up to the 1940s.

Cable Tram
• And of course, before electric trams, there were cable trams. And this is what a Melbourne cable tram looks like in case you haven’t seen one (and they are beautiful and they operated in parts of Melbourne right up to the 1940s).

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Cable tram on Smith Street, circa 1906

And in this picture, you will see a cable tram on Smith Street. And this is looking down Smith Street from Johnson Street with the Birmingham Hotel on the right there.

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Cable tram on Johnson Street, Collingwood, circa 1906

And this is looking down Johnson Street from the corner of Smith Street: Does anyone notice anything unusual about this image? Johnson Street has trams!

1900 to 1970
• The period of 1900 to 1970 was an important period in the history of Smith Street. There was the expansion of Foy and Gibson’s (and its eventual closure), a tunnel was built under Smith Street for lady shoppers, and Coles opening its first store in Australia. But World War II saw the fortunes of Smith Street decline, due to a number of factors.

Picture9
Foy and Gibson Factories, 1906.

Foy and Gibson at its height
• I love this Image this is a picture of Foy and Gibson at its height in the early 20th Century. And remember Foy’s manufactured as well as sold their goods which would be incredibly unusual today (so they had a lighting factory and a furniture factory and a toy factory and a bedding factory I believe).

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Foy and Gibsons, Collingwood, 1906.

And this is a postcard of Smith Street with the large Foy and Gibson store dominating. There is an elaborate trellis facade built over the veranda, with blinds drawn against the sun, and the signs on every section of the veranda announce the Foy & Gibson Summer Fair. “Women in Edwardian dress cross the manure strewn road, men gossip next to their delivery carts; carriages wait outside the shop and several cyclists proceed along the street”.

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Foy and Gibson’s, Christmas shopping period, circa 1906.

And this is Foy’s during the Christmas Shopping period.

“…Trams go in both directions, elegantly dressed women hurry back and forth across the road and the kerbs are lined with horses and carriages”

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Larrikins and Ladies on Smith Street, Fitzroy, circa 1906.

And this shows Foy and Gibson’s at the time of their summer fair. The shot is angled so that more of the Fitzroy side of Smith Street can be seen, including the Union Bank of Australia. And importantly, a number of larrikins stand on the road, hanging about; while ladies in elaborate Edwardian hats walk along the footpath or travel in a cable tram. Several covered carriages wait outside Foy and Gibson’s.

And what do you do to keep the Larrikins away from the ladies?

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Picture of Foy’s tunnel under Smith Street, picture taken by Professor Miles Lewis, circa 2003.

• You build a tunnel so that women shoppers can travel from one side of the street to the other without being harassed (or this is one theory why the tunnel was built).
• This is the only picture I could find of the tunnel. This shot was taken some years back by the architectural historian Professor Miles Lewis. The Tunnel was opened in 1911, 3.6 Meters wide, and this image shows the pressed metal ceiling, a tiled wall on the right, and a modern brick wall has been built in the centre on the left at a later date (and I am not sure if this tunnel is still here, it was directly underneath Kathmandu a few years back).

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Foy and Gibson’s during a toy fair, circa 1906.

And these are shoppers at Foy’s so you have some indication of how busy the street was and how fashionable a place it was to shop (and this is during a toy fair perhaps explaining a large number of children dressed in sailor suits and straw hats).

• But Foy’s, like many businesses along Smith Street, suffered during the 1920s with the drift of retailing to the city. In 1955, the entire retail business of Foy and Gibson was sold and in the 1960s, the Collingwood side of Foy’s was demolished.

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The first Coles store, Smith Street, Collinwood, 1914.

The Establishment of GJ Coles

• In 1914, the first G & J Coles variety store opened in Smith Street employing six staff. The store opened on 9 April 1914 with nothing over a shilling. It marked the beginning of a major change to retailing as Coles displayed merchandise for customers to see and handle without any obligation to buy.(so this was the first modern supermarket in this sense, and of course, Coles is celebrating its 100th year this year)

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An artists impression of the first Coles Store, April 1914.
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The Interior of the First Coles, Smith Street, Collingwood, 1914.

• Before this type of retailing customers would have to go to the shopkeeper and ask him or her to get the goods from the shelf for them; sort of like how a milkbar works.
• There is a café in here at the moment, it is next door to the Seven Eleven near up the Johnson Street intersection).

Picture18
The Art Deco Coles on Smith Street, Collingwood, redesigned by Harry Norris in the 1930s.

And Coles has had a long history with Smith Street with two other stores built on the strip (most notably an Art Deco Coles built on the Macs Hotel site). This building was built in 1919 and re-designed by Harry Norris in the 1930s. Norris was amongst the most prolific and prominent architects of the Art Deco era in Melbourne and designed a range of commercial, industrial and domestic buildings such as the Nicholas Building on Swanston Street.(and this stopped being a Coles in the 1960s at a similar time that Foy’s ceased its operations).

Picture19
This is a picture of the demolition in progress to make way for the Atherton Gardens Estate in Fitzroy in the early 1970s

Recent History: 1970s to the Present
• By 1970s, Smith Street was pretty much in decline and there was a lot of demolition in Smith Street and the Collingwood and Fitzroy areas. There was the replacement of what was seen as ‘slum housing’ with high rise apartments and of course, there has been much gentrification of the street in recent times (or you could even call it re-gentrification). And I will quote from a report by John Fitzgerald et.al on the heroin trade in Smith Street in the early 2000s that was produced for Vic Health and The University of Melbourne.

• (tensions in Smith Street) “have changed little in the past 120 years. It is an area that socially and physically houses tension between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Smith Street, as a main central thoroughfare operates as a conduit for these physical and social changes. That is, people and classes move through it and out to other places. This is a key to understanding the inherent tensions in and around Smith Street, located as it is in the centre of what has always been a set of rarely harmonious, always changing, contested spaces”.

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The Smith and Co. development that now sits on the Foy and Gibson site with the re-build Art Deco Coles store.

This is the present building (above) being built on the Foy and Gibson’s site, Smith and Co, with the re-built Art-Deco Coles façade (on the site of Macs Hotel).

But in some ways, Smith Street has always been Smith Street, eclectic and contradictory, as a border not only between Collingwood and Fitzroy, but also between Melbournian classes and is perhaps one of the most honest depictions of the urban Australian experience.

27 Replies to “Why is Smith Street important? A history of one of Melbourne’s most diverse streets”

  1. Fascinating information thank you — especially about Foy and Gibson and the ladies’ store. I had heard that in its heyday an orchestra played in the tunnel on Friday evenings — from the photograph the tunnel doesn’t look wide enough to fit an orchestra — have you heard anything about that?

  2. Hi. Really enjoyed the article Especially the theory surrounding the tunnel.

    I am currently apart of the team that is building the development for smith and co.

    Thanks.

  3. I enjoyed reading this Most of it i know as i lived in one of the houses in Atherton St. that were reclaimed to make way for the high rise i live about a 5 minute walk from Smith St. & absolutely love reading anything about Fitzroy My son had a book published in 2006 about growing up in Fitzroy (Tony Birch ) My Grandmother lived in Young St & she took me through the tunnel one time i was only little so don’t remember much about it & my aunty worked in one of the Foys factories I’m sure there was an S.E. Dickins store there in the 40’s

  4. Thanks for the history lesson I’ve lived in the area for all my life and still do with my family

  5. The tunnel is still there – a friend explored it two years ago, when its east end was exposed during the building works for the new apartment complex on the Collingwood side of Smith Street.

  6. Many thanks for the article. When we married in 1966 we rented a small flat in East Melbourne and I taught at North Fitzroy Primary School. So Smith Street became my main route to work and my local shopping street and I loved it once I was finally accepted by the shop keepers as I only spoke English. I can still remember niave me at the fresh fish shop when I had to pay for the whole fish and then they gutted it and chopped of the head. Why did I have to pay for the bits I didn’t get? Then there was the butcher boy who used to rush to serve me and spoil me with great but mysterious meat cuts for lower prices. One afternoon in broken English he finally asked me out. I simply held up my hand with my wedding ring. Never again was I served by him or get a bargain from him. It was quite embarrassing at the time as I wanted to shop there. Then I can remember the new Coles Supermarket. On and on I could go. Thanks once again.

  7. Marvellous exploration of this area, thank you.
    Do you have much info on Brunswick St, Fitzroy? We’re interested in 141-145 Brunswick St, which was a draper’s store. The facade has just been restored.
    Happy trails!

  8. Like a stroll down memory lane. Both my auntie & grandmother lived in Collingwood in Gold street & Mater street respectivelv. Auntie had a SP Bookie operating in her lane and I used to collect the m/t beer bottles and get 10d a dozen. Many a shopping trip I accompanied both of them and of course something from Coles for lunch. Thanks for the memories.

  9. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to get a history of the employment opportunities that surrounded Smith St. MacRobertsons, G N Raymonds, British Shoe Machinery Co and or course Coles and Foys. The history of that era includes the Collingwood and Fitzroy Football clubs, John Wren and his Tote and Collingwood Tech. They may not necessarily have been the good old days but memorable just the same.

  10. Street life was such apart of living in Fitzroy through 70 and 80s. I grew up in George and Gore Streets and worked at the Last Laugh in Smith St. Thank you for some wonderful research.

  11. Just glorious detail about ‘my’ shopping street. I grew up in Gore Street between Gertrude St and Vic Parade in the 1950’s to 1970’s as part of the migrant influx. Colourful times, and yes, I would agree that today there is a re-gentrification after the upswing in the 70’s. Well done Craig – nostalgia and education all in one for this reader!

  12. For me it is great to hear the history and see the images. You can still get a sense of yesteryear if you have a look up and around the blue chemist in smith street (chemist warehouse?). I feel a large part of history is missing from the sixties and seventies with the greek shops and shoppers all crowding the street on a Saturday morning. The latest No.1 track from Greece blaring out of shops on the left side and right side of the street. Stopping to chat, taking more than an hour to walk one block with my mother due to crowds and friend encounters. Fun memories.

  13. Thank you. This has brought so many memories flooding back. I grew up in Keele Str. Collingwood in the 60’s. Smith St. was our shopping centre. Loved going to Coles and Woolworths on a Saturdays. Smith Str. was then packed with shoppers. I remember so many of the shops like Ladners, Adams Cakes, Hortans etc. etc. I used to attend St. Joseph’s Collingwood which was just off Smith St. Memories, Memories.

  14. Smith Street, Cable Cars etc were part of my boyhood. My Grandfather was a ‘grip’ man on Cable Cars. I enjoyed this reminder of part of my past.

  15. George, you may have have been born in the same era as my elder brothers 1926/32. I was born in 1940 and used to love hearing their stories of the cable trams. I do remember the lines being torn up in the mid 50s and taking home the redgum blocks (covered in tar) that supported the lines. They burnt for hours.

  16. What wonderful memories. I grew up in Mater Street Collingwood in the 60’s and went to Gold Street primary. I too used to go to Saint Joseph church with my mum and I was baptised there and had my first holy communion there. I still go and shop in Smith street and walking there makes me feel like I never left. Thank you for the wonderful pictures and information.

  17. My great grandmother shopped at Coles during its opening week. She told me she purchased a card of 300 sewing needles for a penny. I remember her story because she complained about the cost of sewing needles in the 1970s.

  18. i lived at 171 johnston sy from 1938 until 1947 and went to cromwell st state school and used to try to get the coins from the cabletram slots in the middle of the road in front of our shop and have a lot of memories of old Collingwood but i am having an argument with an old mate about which side of the post office was Coles and which side was Woolworths in the1940s i say it was Coles on the north side,,, can anybody help with a photo

  19. Thanks to your site I was able to recall the Coles store as I remember it from my childhood. It always struck me as funny that Fitzroy had all these big shops-now I know-Ta.

  20. Hi, I work in the building at 145 Smith St (only been in Melb 4 years, from Bendigo) and love this place and reading about it’s history. Is 145 part of Foy and Gibsons shopping area?

  21. This brings back many memories when I used to live on Campbell St Collingwood and shop in Smith st. in the 1940s. I remember going under the tunnel at Foy and Gibson especially at Christmas when they had the toys down there and Father Christmas. Loved shopping at Treadways also with my Grandmother.

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