North Carlton and Princes Hill heritage walk

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View the North Carlton and Princes hill Heritage Walk

The original development of North Carlton and Princes hill is a story of boom and bust.

The 1880s were a time of extraordinary optimism and confidence. Gold and wool made Melbourne into a wealthy city. There seemed to be no reason why the growth of Melbourne’s first fifty years should not continue, and so Melbourne speculators built with money borrowed from London banks. The resultant boom gave Melbourne many of its best buildings and ensured the rapid development of North Carlton and Princes Hill. But in 1890, the London banks lost heavily on loans to Argentina and began to call in their Australian loans, triggering a depression in Melbourne and a halt to building from about 1892.

Depression of the 1890s

Life for many people was miserable, and the identification of the inner suburbs as slums began at this time. When the depression was finally over and Australia’s confidence was restored, partly by Federation of the separate colonies to create the Australian nation, building began to pick up again. Most of the remaining vacant land in North Carlton and Princes hill was developed before the First World War brought an end to another chapter of optimism.

North Carlton’s late development

There were a number of reasons for North Carlton’s late development. Princes Hill was not subdivided until 1876-79. North Carlton in its early days was a very unattractive place. Princes Street, then called Reilly Street, was an open drain, about 6 metres wide which serviced the cemetery. In its early days the cemetery was a stinking place with adult paupers being buried three or four to a grave. The living were treated little better at the prison stockade on the site of Lee Street Primary School, where the convicts quarried bluestone from what is now Curtain Square.

Streetscapes are consistent

Because North Carlton and Princes Hill were built in two short bursts of activity, the streetscapes are remarkably consistent with one or two storey dwellings often built in terraces of nearly identical houses. The strong sense of pattern and order is reinforced by the wide streets laid out by the government when it sold the land. The re-subdivision of the original government subdivisions into smaller, more profitable lots created long, narrow house sites. Many of the houses are a similar design, even when they are not part of a terrace.

The Victorians used their industrial skills to develop new decorative techniques, or to make old techniques cheaper. Mass-produced cast-iron lacework, plaster ornaments and polychrome bricks were used in such abundance that by the early twentieth century, they were all dismissed as tasteless. Tastes have changed again, and now we recognise that the Victorian solution to providing medium density housing was a good one, and have come to enjoy the Victorian sense of style.