This evening I am 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 will 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 Gibsonâ€™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.
Establishment of Foy and Gibsons
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 Gibsons 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.
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.
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.
And directly over the road was Macs 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.
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)
And of course, before electric trams, there were cable trams. And this is what a Melbourne cable tram looks like in case you have not seen one (and they are beautiful and they operated in parts of Melbourne right up to the 1940s).
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.
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 Gibsons (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.
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 Foys 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).
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 streetâ€.
And this is Foys 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.
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?
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).
And these are shoppers at Foys 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 Foys, 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 Foys was demolished.
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)
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 cafe in here at the moment, it is next door to the Seven Eleven near up the Johnson Street intersection).
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 Foys ceased its operations).
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.
This is the present building (above) being built on the Foy and Gibsons site, Smith and Co, with the re-built Art-Deco Coles facade (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.