History of the City of Yarra

Local History

The City of Yarra and its suburbs developed as a residential enclave to house first the Colony’s assisted immigrants from 1839 and then the major 1850s gold seeker influx.

Although 12 acre and 28 acre lots in Fitzroy (formerly Newtown) and parts of Collingwood and Richmond had been sold in 1839-40 from Hoddle’s plan, few were fully subdivided into residential town lots until the gold discovery in the early 1850s.

The establishment of industry along the Yarra River, and in other parts of the city, serviced the needs of the new arrivals as well as those of overseas importers in the same period of rapid population growth. Industry and commercial life grew and centralised around these early vantage points up to the interwar period and eventually, in their continued growth, displaced some of the housing and householders that they had served.

As former suburbs of Melbourne Town, many of the localities of Yarra are now removed from their companions (North & West Melbourne, South Yarra, East Melbourne and Carlton) but share their history as dense and distinctive, mainly Victorian & Edwardian-era residential areas, with the common architectural character of single and double storey terrace houses interspersed with occasional larger detached villas. The street layout was typically a grid with 20m wide thoroughfares and 30m wide boulevards.

The next identifying factor in the formation of Yarra's suburbs was that of government or private land subdivisions. Private development (Richmond, Abbotsford, Collingwood) was often irrational and mean in terms of vision whereas government subdivisions were regular, with provision for public life in buildings and landscape, and education or religion (North Carlton, Princes Hill, Clifton Hill, North Fitzroy). Each subdivision type has generated its own distinctive built form within the Victorian & Edwardian-era urban pattern. To compound the effects of subdivision type, Collingwood, Abbotsford and Richmond evaded the effects of the Melbourne Building Act. This Act provided basic amenity and fire-proofing standards for new buildings and determined a specific built form, siting and choice of materials. Those suburbs outside of the Act developed their own urban persona with a preference for cheap timber construction and detached house forms, in preference to the masonry terraces developed under the Act.

Considered together these inner suburbs form part of one of the great Colonial Victorian-era cities in the world where development was concentrated into a small span of time, mainly by the wealth brought by gold, and generated a remarkably homogenous built character. As a group they have no equal in Victoria and are only matched nationally by localities in inner Sydney such as Woolloomooloo and The Rocks.

Beyond the creation of distinctive building stock, there is rich social history brought by the housing and employment of successive waves of immigrants, from Asia, Europe and Britain. Yarra’s suburbs allowed dense residential accommodation of many races to serve as transitional homes close to evolving public transport and employment. Like other inner suburbs, in other municipalities, Yarra’s localities have absorbed many cultures and diverse income levels.

As a further wave of possession the gradual residential gentrification of the City has demanded expansion and sometimes destruction of those modest and simple 19th century homes but also offered opportunities for rebuilding in contemporary ways that has in some cases created distinctive architectural prototypes for new styles and forms used across the State and Australia in the late 20th century.

Bowling Green and Church

What is important about the heritage of the City of Yarra?

Plan Form

  • The plan form of the city is important.  The city is of mid Victorian-era urban design and is of the aesthetic of colonial urban planning for orderly development and suburban amenity within Melbourne’s 5-mile township reserve (North Carlton & Princes Hill, Clifton Hill, North Fitzroy), with wide streets and intersections, typically laid out in a rectangular and regular grid, providing a superb framework for the ornamental, highly cohesive built form of the this part of Melbourne, with its intact 19th century terraces, corner shops, hotels, and provision for public and religious buildings and the classic Victorian-era gardens squares of Darling Gardens, Edinburgh Gardens, Barkly Gardens and Curtain Square, as enhanced by the adjoining public landscape of the Melbourne Cemetery and Princes Park, and residual cultural landscape of the Inner Circle Railway;
  • For the association of two suburban layouts (North Fitzroy, Clifton Hill) with Andrew Clarke, head of the Lands and Survey Department from 1853-7, who designed a number of innovative and grand circus and crescent street forms within his Melbourne subdivisions, based on recent successful British estates, but with perhaps only parts of North Fitzroy, Clifton Hill and the St. Vincent’s Place subdivision in South Melbourne realised in the clamour for more development;
  • For the distinctive remnant of Edwin Trenerry’s 1870s Abbotsford estate, seen in the curving streets around Victoria Park, reminiscent of the Clarke legacy;
  • For the association of some of the City’s suburban plans (North Carlton, North Fitzroy, Clifton Hill) with Andrew Clarke’s protégé, Clement Hodgkinson, the next head of the Lands and Survey Department (from 1857), the City of Collingwood’s first honorary consulting engineer, and an important figure in the development of Melbourne’s inner-urban suburbs, parks, and 19th century infrastructure;
  • For the evidence in the City’s residential architecture of the homogenising effects of the Melbourne Building Act 1849 (applied to Fitzroy, and North Carlton 1872) as well as an indication of historical links with Melbourne Town and prevailing architectural theory of the 1850s espoused by the Victorian Institute of Architects president, JG Knight (1856-61)12, who sought collective and uniformly designed streetscapes, making up an idealised townscape;.
  • For the representation in the City’s subdivisions of the conventions of everyday Victorian and Edwardian-era life where utilitarian features such as coal sheds, privies, stables/garages, rubbish containers, vehicular entrances or driveways, were concealed off rear lanes, away from public view.


  • For the early engineering and infrastructure such as the strict grid formation of street, lane and allotment layouts, boulevard planning as in Queens Parade and Pigdon St, the dressed bluestone kerbs, pitched bluestone guttering, lanes and crossovers, asphalt footpaths and roads, and the presence of formally planted street trees, providing an important setting for a fine collection of residential, community and commercial buildings

Cultural landscape

  • For the rich and significant cultural landscape offered by the City’s waterways (Yarra River, Merri and Darebin Creeks) as physical boundaries to the City and, their banks, as the seedbed of industrial development in Victoria (Dights Mill) and the evolution point of massive industrial riverside complexes that took their products far across Australia (Bryant & May, Rosella, Pelaco, Sutherland), together with the offer of self-reliance and subsistence, as in the Convent of the Good Shepherd, or quiet isolation (Old Colonists complex, Fairfield Hospital) and the aura of high amenity residential development for gentlemen’s river-side farms, from as early as the 1840s; also the diverse bridging structures that were erected to span the streams and survive today;

Industrial background

  • For the major, mainly late Victorian-era, industrial complexes that located away from the river on low-cost flat lands in Collingwood, Clifton Hill and Richmond (Tanner St), and drew heavily from the worker population around them and the transport opportunities of railway and road, yielding a collection of pre WW2 era industrial buildings, superior to most other municipalities in the State (see former City of Footscray);
  • As, once, an important source of Melbourne’s bluestone, with Curtain Square and development patterns in North Carlton evoking the former stone quarries in that area and the bluestone cottages (for example in Ford Street and Clifton Avenue, Clifton Hill), the remaining quarry faces on the Merri Creek, and the adjoining Quarry Park owing their existence to the important Melbourne and Collingwood Council quarries;

Public transport connections

  • As evidence of the effect of changing public transport modes from early commercial centres on horse drawn vehicle routes of the 1840s (Queens Parade, Brunswick St, Swan St & Bridge Rd, Johnston St) to the effect of cable trams in Queens Parade, Nicholson, Rathdowne, Bridge, Swan, Smith & Brunswick Streets, and the Inner Circle Railway, typically inaugurated in the late Victorian-era and as improved by electrification in the Edwardian and inter-war period, with their tracks, engine houses and car sheds: promoting dense, rapid development of the visually distinctive commercial shopping strips spanning from late Victorian-era to the 1920s as typically continuous two-storey shop rows, and in the case of Smith St, creating a metropolitan shopping centre with unequalled pre WW2 commercial infrastructure in the form of the vast Foy & Gibson complex;

Variety of buildings

  • For the individually significant buildings and visually related intact building examples from each development era in the City that together express a rich assembly of architectural design, set within the context of Victorian and Federation-era residential styles and street grids;
  • For the distinctive buildings, building rows and building groups from the early Victorian-era (Fitzroy, Richmond) that are among the oldest group of urban residential development in Victoria, as expressed by their form, scale, siting or the materials used (i.e. stone walls, timber shingles);
  • For the representative building groups and areas that express a range of life styles that have been important in the City’s history, as early worker housing enclaves (Campbell, Charles, William and Rupert Streets, in Abbotsford; Cremorne, Golden Square area, Bendigo Street, in Burnley; Gold St area, in Collingwood) or middle class villas (Victoria Parade and Brunswick St South, Richmond Hill, Erin and Highett St west, North Fitzroy and Princes Hill), or the semi-rural suburban tracts of Alphington where villas set on large landscaped blocks in the Yarra River valley offer a contrast to every other residential area in the City and other inner suburban localities as well as a specific cultural link to important 19th and early 20th century creators or artist groups, such as the Heidelberg School;
  • As the setting for early model village experiments as in the Rev. Joseph Docker’s 1840s estate on the side of the Richmond (or Docker’s) Hill that can be recognised today by its grid formation and residual and tiny timber cottages, being among the oldest residential estates surviving in the metropolitan area;
  • For the discrete areas of inter-war housing development (Californian Bungalow, English Domestic Revival styles) often sited as distinctive cul-de-sacs (for example Brockenshire, Cole, Hollick, Johnson and Kennedy Streets, Fordham Court) or whole estates (Racecourse Estate), often as memorials to past specific land-uses such as John
  • Wren’s Richmond Racecourse (1907-1932) as the site of the Racecourse Estate;
  • For the important landmark buildings and community meeting places in each locality, often within walking distance of population centres, that include public buildings such as State Schools, 19th century churches and halls, corner shops and hotels, and, in the 20th century, assembly places for immigrant groups, including Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox Church communities, Jewish groups, Greek Orthodox Church, and the more recent Moslem communities, as well as community cultural groups, as clubs or pursuit of creative endeavours;


  • For the magnificent ecclesiastical grouping of three major church denominations established in the mid-1800’s at Richmond Hill, being St Stephen’s Church of England (1850-76, Blackburn and Newson); the Wesleyan `temporary’ timber chapel-later the schoolhouse-and bluestone chapel (Wharton & Burns 1853, with extensions by Crouch & Wilson in 1858), schoolhouse (1871) and parsonage (1876); and the most significant of the group, William Wardell’s St Ignatius’ Roman Catholic Church (1867 – 1928)and the bluestone Presbytery of 1872, of State significance as a group and individually;
  • For the views to landmark structures both outside of the City, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Brunswick St), and inside such as the church spires raised across the suburbs (St Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, Good Shepherd Convent), civic spires and domes (Exhibition Buildings, Kew Lunatic Asylum), the commercial spires (Dimmeys), industrial towers (Shot Tower, Yorkshire Brewery) and industrial chimneys, the clock towers of local government halls (Fitzroy, Richmond, Collingwood), and the views into and from the City’s gardens squares, the Yarra valley and the Yarra Bend woodlands;

Town Halls

  • For the massive high Victorian-era City Halls built in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond (later refaced) that spectacular architectural achievements as symbols of the concentration of the inner suburban Victorian-era population and the wealth generated for the construction of its political centres;


  • For the rich cultural history embodied in the Yarra Bend parklands as a place of isolation through the early 19th and 20th centuries (aboriginal protectorate, Yarra Bend lunatic asylum, infectious disease hospital) and now one of intense recreation while offering a form of secondary indigenous habitat and landscape, unseen elsewhere in the inner or middle suburban areas;

Cultural character

  • For the recognition given by the National Trust of Australia (Vic) and other community groups, such as the Carlton Association, to large parts of the City as possessing a special cultural character within Melbourne, as expressed by dense historic fabric and cultural life (Carlton Housing Commission of Victoria battles) or the artistic endeavour apparent in commercial streets such as Brunswick and Smith Streets, and the well-preserved Victorian & Edwardian-era residential enclaves of most of the City’s old neighbourhoods.

Slum clearance projects

  • For the evidence of the powerful and unilateral vision of slum clearance bodies, seen in the Richmond Racecourse Estate and the Slum Abolition Board report of 1936, and post Second War with the Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV), and the utopian application of town planning philosophy, as demonstrated by the vast 1960s-70s tower developments standing now as stark contrast to the comparatively homogenous low-rise fabric surrounding them. Where, before, small communities (public and private 19th century building stock) had lived, voids existed in the 100 year old urban landscape.

Further information
Strategic Planning Branch
9205 5322



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