South Melbourne – From Humble Beginnings to Celebrating 150 Years as Melbourne’s Oldest Market.

Emerald hill or ‘Old South Melbourne’ has an amazingly mixed pedigree. Originally the site of Melbourne’s first major orphanages and expansive network of workers cottages – some quite innovative as we shall see, it was also home to some grand residences and public buildings. But there is a no doubt that the original estate housed many workers for the industries located along the Yarra River – and some of these were the famous prefabricated Iron Cottages shipped from England for quick and effective assembly – one remains in the area. It is located at 399 Coventry St, South Melbourne (Two more have also been added from other locations).

Over 100 of these portable buildings were eventually constructed in the State of Victoria. These were simple constructions and almost anyone could complete the assembly. Consider that people at the time were living in so-called ‘Canvastown’, in tents and were paying five shillings per tent per week.

The Iron House was deemed permanent so it was far more desirable than living in a tent. The portable cottages were commissioned by Governor Latrobe to provide accomodation urgently needed to house the Gold Rush arrivals who were flooding into Canvastown and other transient overflow tent cities around Old Melbourne.

The Coventry St Iron Houses are located at 399 Coventry St and are maintained by the National Trust. They are tiny. One sits upon its original allotment, the other two were removed from North Melbourne and Fitzroy to this site, to save them from demolition. The rear house at Coventry St is in fact a Bellhouse, one of only two remaining from the Bellhouse Iron Foundry. The other is situated on the Queen’s Balmoral Estate in England, originally ordered by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert as a ‘royal studio’ (perhaps it was his ‘man shed’).

Another portable cottage – this time timber (and now a private residence) is located across the road in Coventry Place at number 17. These timber cottages were known as ‘Singapore’ cottages and this one is now listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.


Find out more about Melbourne’s Iron Houses on the National Trust website

So where did one shop in these bygone days? Where did you seek food – fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, and general merchandise? In 1856 local householders petitioned the then Emerald Hill Council for a market. It took a further 11 years for the market – established on crown land in what was then the Borough of Emerald Hill – to be finally opened to the public in 1867. Situated on 10 acres it was bounded by the St Kilda Railway line, Coventry, Cecil and York Streets.

Initially it was leased under contract to private operators, but in 1904 the South Melbourne Council – as it had become – reclaimed control and the payment of Market Dues by stallholders.

It is Melbourne’s oldest continuing market celebrating 150 years of operation this year. The first sheds were erected in 1866, it featured a five and a half ton weigh-bridge purchased in 1872 and was lit up with electric lighting by 1924.

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The market was virtually destroyed by fire in 1981 when the A and B sheds on Coventry St were lost at a cost of $150K. Two bombs were exploded in the same year damaging several stalls (there was something a-going on!). Gelignite bombs were set off at a take-away food stall and dress shop. 80 sticks of Gelignite were planted along the Cecil St facade although only 2 bombs of twenty sticks each exploded. Apparently no-one was responsible. Unbelievably no-one was hurt and damage was restricted to around $30K.

In recent times the market has seen some remarkable architectural initiatives. Original elements of the Victorian style facade remain in the Coventry St entrance and the full verandahs on the surrounding Coventry, Cecil and York Streets. Until around 2013 the market was covered by a rather dreary but necessary carpark roof constructed in 1972. Concrete, it was leaky and a heat trap for the market beneath.

In 2012 a new multifaceted rooftop was added to the carpark, providing shelter to shoppers, capturing rainwater, generating electricity from solar and regulating temperatures inside the market. Designed and implemented by Paul Morgan Architects it is a melding of Architectures, both past and present, sustainability and functionality.

It is seen as a sophisticated addition to the urban landscape. Does it work? You be the judge.

Find out more about the historic South Melbourne Market here

Next week we will continue our exploration of Emerald Hill. There are still treasures to come, and more from a very rich history.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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