Thursday, July 23, 2009

Molesworth Street, by Winsome Roberts

This is volume three of the Hotham History Project, Hotham being the original name for the suburb of North Melbourne. I’ve walked up and down Molesworth Street several times, and thought it quite a pretty street, but wondered why on earth they put those ugly commission houses on one side of the street. What a mistake that was.

This short history by Winsome Roberts details some interesting aspects of North Melbourne’s hilly terrains. Anyone familiar with North Melbourne will know that to get to Molesworth Street you have to travel up hill. This area, which included the posher parallel street of Chapman Street, used to be known as Hotham Hill. The real estate was a bit more expensive in Chapman Street, and Molesworth Street property prices were just a step down from that.

When you travelled down the hill, the accommodation in the valley became more congested and cheaper. Some sections of the valley were notorious.

In 1887 the North Melbourne Advertiser lamented the poor conditions in areas such as Arden Street:

‘…when the state of the area extending from Arden street to where the ground rises in the direction of Hotham Hill is taken into account, a question for serious consideration is at once opened up. This part of the town is composed for the most part, of small and ill ventilated cottages, whose inhabitants are to be seen in filthy deshabille at all hours of the day, while the swarms of dirty children thronging the right of ways and alleys, form an unpleasant reminder of how our costly Education Act has failed in reaching juvenile waifs and strays of society.’

Indeed, not much has changed. I know of one pub in the Arden Street area that retains this rather unsavoury character. Recently I saw one pub patrons happily urinating in the Arden Street with little regard for common decency. I also know of one marauding Arden Street cat who likes of terrorise the locals, and in fact caused one woman to be held hostage in her own home.

Ms. Roberts’ history concentrates on the period between 1840-1905, and is fascinating for the portrait it builds of the smalls businesses and local identities that lived and worked in the area. Most interesting to me was the social stratification, of the well off and well to do in Chapman Street hobnobbing at Melbourne Town Hall, to the resentment of the hoi-polloi down in the valley, living in their cheap timber houses and suffering floods and the horrible filth of household effluent running through the streets.

There is one charming story that Roberts tells of how people in the valley would let out their livestock at night, once the Inspector of Nuisances had gone to bed. This would allow the local goats to make their way up Hotham Hill and feast on the ‘succulent blooms’ of the richer gardens.

Amazingly, there were lots of businesses that were run in Molesworth Street, although many of these were short lived. Women ran a lot of businesses as well.

While this book is only a history of one street in North Melbourne, it is enormously helpful in building up a picture of Hotham life in the late nineteenth century. How different things were then to now. Where once North Melbourne was a busy area of small businesses, making things and providing services, now most of the businesses in the area are trendy food places, and a large proportion of the population students, preparing to enter professional life.

Now I may complain about the noise of North Melbourne, with cars passing and apartments constantly being built, but at least it doesn’t stink. The descriptions of North Melbourne without sewerage, of turds floating down laneways, is enough to turn the stomach.

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