An early Melbourne home in Bourke St west

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Dilapidated, abandoned and unfit for human habitation, this decaying single-storeyed building was photographed in August 1915 just prior to its demolition. 

Located in Bourke St west not far from the corner of William St, it was one of the few buildings left standing from the CBD’s earliest days. Built in 1841 by Dr Farquhar MacCrae, brother-in-law of the diarist and artist Georgiana MacCrae, it was occupied for most of the 1840s by that legal luminary Redmond (later Sir Redmond) Barry until Dr Arthur O’Mullane bought it in 1852 and set up his practice there. Years later it was used by the Cameron Tobacco Factory and its most recent use had been, according to the Australasian newspaper, as a “humble, battered appendage to the Metropolitan Mission in Bourke St” where “old people … engaged in mending chairs and doing other light work”.

Dwarfed in 1915 by much more substantial structures, such as Goldsborough, Mort and Co’s wool store (just visible here to the west of the house) and the Supreme Court building (behind it in William St), in its day this was a substantial five-room home. It was built of brick covered with plaster, as can be seen in the crumbling chimney wall in this photograph. Roofed in slate, there was no veranda, as was the fashion of the day. 

You have to use your imagination to picture the pleasant, shady garden that fronted on to Great Bourke St, as Bourke St was known then. It had trim lawns and flower beds, rather than the patches of weed and rubble you see here. In 1912, one newspaper described the one remaining remnant of that garden – “a fine old mulberry tree, whose gnarled and twisted trunk is as thick as a man’s body”. So, it must have been a picturesque setting once the garden was established, a testimony to the settlers’ determination to bring a touch of “home” to the fledgling settlement.

The house faced south and in its earliest days had an unimpeded view over yet-to-be-built-on common land to an unpolluted Yarra River that snaked its way through clumps of eucalypts and other native vegetation – more the ever-flowing Birrarung of the Wurundjeri people than today’s muddy old Yarra. 

All this is hard to picture as you look at this image, but if you use your imagination and you read accounts of Melbourne in those very early days and look at contemporary artwork, it’s not impossible to believe in the beauty and the almost rural nature of Melbourne in the 1840s. 

It might be harder to believe that just 74 years before this photograph was taken, this little falling-down house on bustling Bourke St was one of a small number of permanent structures built along what was then one of the city’s unmade and difficult-to-negotiate streets. Georgiana MacCrae, who visited this house on her first day in Melbourne in March 1841, wrote of wading through mud and clay in her fine London boots as she made her way from Flinders St to her brother-in-law’s Bourke St residence. By the time the photograph was taken in 1915, the streets teemed with pedestrians, horses and carts, cabs and horse-drawn carriages. The residents of 1841 may well have heard parrots and other native birds in the surrounding eucalypts and the wind soughing through the grasses and trees, but by 1915 these had well and truly been replaced by the more familiar sounds of a busy city – feet on pavements, wheels rolling along tram tracks, horses making their way through the bustling main thoroughfares. Gas street lighting made way for electricity. Telegraph poles appeared like modern-day trees along streets that were now sealed with tarmac rather than the rough roads (often with tree stumps still in the middle of them) of the 1840s, little better than bullock tracks. And old houses like this one gave way to other, grander buildings •

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