When Southbank was a canvas town!

By Robin Grow - President, Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society Television news regularly confronts us with images of large refugee camps around the world. We are also reminded of the plight of the homeless in Melbourne. But in the mid-19th century, Southbank was the site of a “canvas town”, regarded as the site of the first housing crisis in Melbourne. It all started with the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851. Thousands of fortune seekers flocked to Melbourne before heading to the goldfields in regional Victoria. But where would they sleep after they disembarked? The short-term answer was a Canvas Town, running from St Kilda Rd to the west, and laid out in streets with shops, residences and pubs – but mainly tents. Families desperate for accommodation could obtain a licence from the colonial government and would rent a tent. New arrivals paid half-a-crown to the government for the first week, and five shillings for every week afterwards. Life was rough in the Canvas Town. Tents (between 600 and 700) varied in quality and durability and were erected haphazardly, often just tarpaulins strung up between trees. When it rained the tents were saturated: at other times the sand and the dust were intolerable. Streets were given names like Bond St and Regent St and were populated with stalls where touts would spruik their wares. Some eating places featured ostentatious titles such as London Coffee Rooms or the European Dining Rooms. Water could be purchased from carts that patrolled the streets (the option was to retrieve it from the Yarra), as was timber foraged from nearby bushland. There were tailors, butchers, bakers, shoemakers, ironmongers, blacksmiths, hardware and crockery-stalls, with many tents selling books, cabin furniture or utensils. Many sold ginger-beer, or lemonade, and there were two physicians’ tents, occupied by surgeons, dentists, corn cutters, and apothecaries. There were auction sites, as many new arrivals were reduced to selling off goods that they had carried from their home country. Children were able to attend an “infant school” in one of the tents, and church services occurred each Sunday. Overall, the area contained about 5000 souls – not surprisingly, it quickly deteriorated into a slum, compared by some to the worst back streets of London. Among the tenants, some of whom only stayed for a week, feelings of disappointment, privation, and misery were common, and many felt that they landed on the most inhospitable shore on the face of the civilised globe. There was massive resentment of the actions of the government in enforcing rules, which was sometimes arbitrary and perhaps similar to the behaviour that led to the Eureka Stockade a few years hence. But its duration was short-lived. The first land sales at Emerald Hill took place in 1852 and by 1854 Canvas Town was dispersed, as licences were revoked, immigration slowed down and proper housing became available •

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