Victorian architecture of central Melbourne, Australia
Thanks to two economic booms bringing prosperity and people to the growing city, ‘Marvellous Melbourne‘ was the quintessential Victorian ‘boom-town’. Today, the city has the finest collection of Victorian architecture in Australia, and one of the finest in the world, with an abundance of hidden gems to explore.
The traditional owners of the land which is now Melbourne are the Kulin people. At the time of European settlement, over 20,000 Kulin people resided in the area, divided into three language groups – the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Wathaurong. Melbourne was an important meeting place for the Kulin people, and the Yarra River a source of food and water.
Though a penal station had briefly been established at Sullivan Bay (near the present-day beach suburb of Sorrento) in 1803, European settlement of Melbourne began in earnest in 1835 when John Batman, a syphilitic grazier from Van Diemen’s Land, arrived in the area. Accompanied by a group of Aboriginal people from Sydney (who couldn’t speak a word of the local language!), Batman claimed that he had broken a deal with the Kulin people – though, rather suspiciously, the contract was signed three times with the name ‘Jaga Jaga’ – with (even more mysteriously) the same handwriting.
Following Batman, John Pascoe Fawkner, a publican from Launceston, settled in the area. He and Batman would prove rivals, leading to furious bidding wars over allotments of land in the new colony.
Melbourne – given its name to honour the then-British prime minister, Lord Melbourne – became a town in 1842 and a city in 1847. Though the population remained low, this early period saw the establishment of one of the defining features of Melbourne’s urban fabric – the Hoddle Grid. Robert Hoddle, the surveyor-general, disturbed by the chaos he encountered in the new settlement, laid out a plan for a city, with straight lines intersecting straight lines, set to the north of the Yarra River.
The Victorian architecture of Melbourne would have two distinct phases. The first was during and after the Gold Rush. Gold brought immigrants to Melbourne from around the world: in 1851, the city’s population doubled from 25,000 to over 40,000, expanding to over 500,000 people by the 1860s. Melbourne overtook Sydney as Australia’s most populous city in 1865. Gold brought prosperity to the new city, and a number of prominent Victorian buildings were built, including Parliament House, the Treasury Building, the Old Melbourne Gaol, the State Library, Melbourne Town Hall, and the University of Melbourne.
The ‘land boom’ of the 1880s brought further wealth to Melbourne, with consumer confidence, easy access to credit, and a steep increase in the price of land bringing extensive construction to the city. Melbourne reputedly became the richest city in the world, and the second-most populous in the British Empire. This period saw the city dubbed ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ by visiting British journalist George Augustus Henry Sala, a moniker which has stuck to this day. Architecture became ever more ornate, inspired by French ‘second empire’ styles, while coffee houses, theatres, and hotels appealed to the new wealthy of the colony. The boom peaked in 1888, and the 1890s saw considerable economic hardship for Melbourne.
Highlights of Melbourne’s Victorian Architecture:
Odyssey Traveller spends two nights in Melbourne as part of our new tour of Victoria. While we spend much of our time visiting stunning National Trust houses in the suburbs and outlying areas, we also give you plenty of time to explore the city for yourself. Below are some of the highlights of central Melbourne’s Victorian architecture that you might want to visit on an independent walking tour.
This is just a starting point – ask your guide for more off-the-beaten-track recommendations!
Flinders Street Station:
Recognised around Australia, Flinders Street Station is Melbourne’s most iconic building and favourite meeting place (rare is the Melburnian who hasn’t arranged to meet a friend ‘under the clocks’). The station – the first city railway station in Australia – was first established in 1854, but the current building was completed in 1909. The new building is defined by the green dome and ornate facade, while the immediately recognisable clocks date back to the 1860s. Designed to include shops and cultural facilities, the upper floors of the station are now home to an eerie abandoned ballroom and gymnasium.
St Paul’s Cathedral:
Opposite Flinders Street Station, the Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral was built during the Land Boom, from 1880 to 1891, by the ecclesiastical architect William Butterfield – though Butterfield did not visit Melbourne, and instead sent plans from England. Inside, look for the ornate stained glass windows, made from 1887 to 1890.
Collins Street and the Block Arcade:
The ‘top end’ of Collins Street is widely known as the ‘Paris end’, thanks to the grand Victorian buildings, many now home to upmarket designer boutiques. The Block Arcade is a particular highlight, named for the 19th century pastime of ‘doing the block’ – as every Saturday morning, well-to-do Melburnians put on their finest clothing and promenaded down Collins Street. Built 1891, it was inspired by Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II plaza, with etched-glass ceilings and mosaic floors.
The Royal Arcade:
The Royal Arcade is Melbourne’s oldest arcade, built from 1869 to 1870. Inspired by the arcades of Paris’s 2e arrondissement, the upper walls retain much of the original 19th century detail, including the figures of Gog and Magog, striking the hours since 1892.
Old Treasury Building:
On the Spring Street edge of town, the Old Treasury Building was built in 1862. In basement vaults designed to house the riches brought from Victoria’s goldfields, displays tell the fascinating history of the gold rush.
Also on Spring Street, the Parliament of Victoria (built 1856) building offers sweeping views of the city. Australia’s first federal parliament sat here from 1901 to 1927. On a free guided tour, see the ornamental plasterwork and gilt of the interior.
Thousands of Chinese miners moved to Victoria to make it rich in the Gold Rush, and many chose to stay, settling on Little Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD. Melbourne’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in the Southern Hemisphere, and the oldest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world. Learn about the history of settlement at the Chinese Museum before digging into lunch at one of the neighbourhood’s many delicious restaurants.
State Library of Victoria:
Built 1854, the highlight of the State Library is the octagonal La Trobe Reading Room, completed 1913. The library has several exhibitions, including a display of Ned Kelly’s armour, Burke and Wills memorabilia, and a collection of Australian paintings.
Old Melbourne Gaol:
Ned Kelly buffs should also head to Old Melbourne Gaol, where the bushranger was hanged in 1880. Built in 1841, the Gaol was in operation until 1929, and has since been converted into a museum, offering visitors the chance to tour the gaol’s tiny cells. Other exhibits bring to life the dire poverty that caused crime in the 19th century, and explore the Victorian obsession with phrenology that led to eerie plaster castings of criminals’ skulls being made (now on display).
St Patrick’s Cathedral:
Melbourne’s major Catholic church, the bluestone St Patrick’s Cathedral, was built from 1863 to 1939, and is considered to be one of the largest and best examples of Gothic Revival architecture anywhere in the world.
Known in the Victorian Era as the ‘Grand Hotel’, the Hotel Windsor is the only surviving grand city hotel of the Victorian era in Australia. Established in 1883, it epitomises the opulence and grandeur of ‘Land Boom’ Melbourne. Pop in for afternoon tea, or a drink at the bar, to see the grand staircase and lobby piano.
Dating back to the 1830s, the Athenaeum (named after the Greek Goddess, Athena, who sits on the facade) is a rare example of restrained neo-classical architecture in central Melbourne.
This grand second-empire theatre was established in 1854, but today’s lavish facade dates to the late-1880s.
Royal Exhibition Building:
In nearby Carlton Gardens, the Royal Exhibition Building was built in 1880 for the International Exhibition. UNESCO World Heritage Listed in 1880, the building epitomises the scientific and industrial confidence of the Victorian era, and the exuberance and economic might of Marvellous Melbourne. The grand building was the first to fly the Australian flag, and hosted Australia’s first parliament in 1901.