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.

Picture3
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)

Picture6
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).

Picture10
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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