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The place to be seen in Melbourne in the 1880s and 1890s was 'The Block' (just up from 'The Lane'). A colourful description can be found in Fergus Humes' novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

"It was Saturday morning, and fashionable Melbourne was "doing the Block". Collins Street is to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris.

It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk. The same thing no doubt occurred in the Appian Way, the fashionable street of Imperial Rome, when Catullus talked gay nonsense to Lesbia, and Horace received the congratulations of his friends over his new volume of society verses. History repeats itself, and every city is bound by all the laws of civilisation to have one special street, wherein the votaries of fashion can congregate.

Collins Street is not, of course, such a grand thoroughfare as those above mentioned, but the people who stroll up and down the broad pavement are quite as charmingly dressed, and as pleasant as any of the peripatetics of those famous cities. As the sun brings out bright flowers, so the seductive influence of the hot weather had brought out all the ladies in gay dresses of innumerable colours, which made the long street look like a restless rainbow.

Carriages were bowling smoothly along, their occupants smiling and bowing as they recognised their friends on the side walk. Lawyers, their legal quibbles finished for the week, were strolling leisurely with their black bags in their hands; portly merchants, forgetting Flinder's Lane and incoming ships, walked beside their pretty daughters; and the representatives of swelldom were stalking along in
their customary apparel of curly brimmed hats, high collars, and immaculate suits. Altogether, it was a pleasant and animated scene, which would have delighted the heart of anyone who was not dyspeptic, or in love--dyspeptic people and lovers (disappointed ones, of course) being wont to survey the world in a cynical vein."

S.T.Gill also left us a wonderfully evocative painting of the scene some 15 years earlier.

It was fashionable to "do the Block" between 2.30 and 4.30 - particularly if you were on the lookout for any eligible beau. On Saturdays, this took place somewhat earlier because of the footy.

The queen of the block is undoubtedly The Block Arcade.

From 1856 to 1883 the site was occupied by Briscoe's Grain Bulk Store. This later became the site for George & Georges Drapers until the catastrophe of 14th September 1889. A fire swept through the building. Three firemen died fighting the fire and 200,000 pounds damage was caused.

George's (until its recent closure Melbourne's most exclusive department store) was forced to move further up Collins Street.

A group of businessman, realising the value of this site in the middle of The Block, commissioned the architect David C. Askew to construct a shopping arcade on the site. The L-shaped structure with identical facades in Collins and Elizabeth Streets was loosely based on the Galleria Vittoria in Milan.

Like many Melbourne buildings, the previous grain store was built on bluestone foundations. Melbourne could well be described as 'the bluestone city'. The disastrous fire could not destroy the bluestone foundations, and the lavish new arcade grew on top of the old foundations despite the deepening economic depression. It was built in two sections between 1891 and 1893.

The result represents the apogee of fashionable and cultured shopping in Melbourne.

Today, window shopping in the Block Arcade (and not spending a cent) is one of the 100 Great Things to do in Melbourne for under $10.

Block Arcade
280-286 Collins Street, Melbourne

You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.