Little Flinders St East, looking east, corner of Swanston St, 1870s

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Looking at this photograph taken in the 1870s, it is hard to believe that the photographer was standing on the west side of Swanston St just opposite the St Paul’s Cathedral site. His camera is pointed up Flinders Lane and if he walked up the street far enough he would end up at the Treasury Gardens.

On the right, just out of view of the camera are the schools associated with St Paul’s, which was still St Paul the Apostle Church in the 1870s. It was not until 1891, years after this photograph was taken, that St Paul’s (Anglican) Cathedral was consecrated.

Robert Owen, whose shop dominates this scene, was a tobacconist and greengrocer. He had the advantage of being located on a corner lot, and his shop is listed in the directories of the day under two addresses – 2 Swanston St and 51 Flinders Lane. The shop had probably been there for years, but Owen was the proprietor for most of the 1870s. He moved to nearby Little Collins St in the early 1880s where he died in 1882 aged 68. He had run the businesses with his wife Rebecca and they lived on the premises.

Situated towards the southern boundary of the Hoddle Grid (set out by surveyor Robert Hoddle in 1837 and denoting the central area of the city), Little Flinders Street housed factories, wholesalers, warehouses and businesses. Next door to Owen, for example, was William Pyle’s plumbing business and further up the street were importers’ warehouses, an iron merchant’s premises and a brass foundry. Such businesses were typical of Melbourne’s “little” streets. And Flinders Lane was an ideal location, given its proximity to Queens Wharf and Flinders Street Station.

Owen’s building is dwarfed by the nearby towering warehouse of McArthur, Sherrard and Copeland, importers and clothing manufacturers. Within a decade, trade in soft-goods dominated the street’s activities as more textile traders and manufacturers moved in. The east end of the street, in particular, became a thriving centre for the “rag trade” for the better part of a century. Not only were there cloth importers but down every little lane you’d find tailors, dressmakers, sewing machine repairers and other textile workers, calling to mind one of my favourite childhood stories, Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester.

Robert Owen’s corner store, with its corrugated tin roof, bricked-up windows and rather old-fashioned exterior would not look out of place sitting next to Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. It’s a little wonky, looks as though it’s past its prime and is a reminder of earlier times. Its near neighbours, on the other hand, remind us of the wealth the gold rush brought to all of the colony, but especially to its business heart, Melbourne’s CBD.

Owen’s business catered not only to the workers who came and went from their places of work each day, but also to those who lived in nearby streets and lanes and who needed to provide food for themselves and their families. The sign “Tobacco and Cigars” dominating the front window may have beckoned to male passers-by but the window display is dominated by a sign for “Groceries” near shelves of goods in glass jars and on the right of the display is a bowl of eggs and a sign for butter, two important staples of any home. A list of money Robert Owen owed when he died in November 1882 gives a further insight into the goods sold in his shops. Those waiting to be paid were biscuit manufacturers Swallow and Ariel, makers of confectionery and flour merchants, cheese merchants, wine and spirits merchants, as well as a local baker and a paper bag maker. Like corner stores everywhere until well into the 1970s, his was a one-stop shop. They were the convenience store of their day.

The shop is surrounded by much bigger concerns housed in much grander buildings. Its door opens onto one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares which is still not surfaced well enough to withstand the constant toing and froing of horse-drawn carriages and carts carrying heavy loads, as its churned-up state attests. There are street lamps a few doors up along Flinders Lane, a reminder of a time when a man was employed to light the gaslight every evening at nightfall and return much later to extinguish it.

This photograph is part of the extensive images collection of the Royal Historical Society dating from the earliest days of photography to recent times. An ever-growing number of these images can be viewed online through the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s (RHSV’s) online catalogue. The RHSV has also published a coffee table book, Remembering Melbourne 1850-1960 and a more recent visual journey through the city’s past in Melbourne’s Twenty Decades. Both books are available for purchase through the Royal Historical Society’s Bookshop (historyvictoria.org.au/bookshop/)

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