Smith Street is one of Melbourne’s oldest thoroughfares dating back to the first suburban land subdivision in Melbourne in 1838. Smith Street originally formed part of a winding dirt track that went to Heidelberg.
It was the only road out of the city into the north eastern district of the fledgling Victorian colony. Smith Street was later straightened when the area was surveyed for the city’s first subdivision and land sales and became Melbourne’s first suburban shopping strip. In Victorian times it was one of the busiest and most important shopping centres in all the Australian colonies and in Melbourne it was only rivalled by Chapel Street in Prahran.
Establishment of Foy and Gibsons
Between 1837 and 1865 Smith Street underwent a transition from a thoroughfare to a manufacturing, service and shopping centre. One of the greatest manufacturing and retail outlets of the time was the massive Foy and Gibson’s complex which had at the time the largest factory in the Southern Hemisphere. This is perhaps the first example of a purpose built department store in Australia and was completed during the boom years of 1891. The Foy and Gibson’s Ladies Store was constructed in 1911. This building was linked to the Men’s Store (since demolished) on the Collingwood side by a pedestrian tunnel under Smith Street (today this tunnel is not publicly accessible). The premises were converted to a specialist furniture store in 1928 and in 1955 the entire retail business of Foy and Gibson was taken over by Cox Brothers, another retail firm with origins in Fitzroy (Brunswick Street).
The Establishment of GJ Coles
In 1914 the first G & J Coles variety store opened in Collingwood, Victoria, employing six staff. The store opened on 9 April 1914 with nothing over a shilling, and marked the beginning of a major change to retailing as the store displayed merchandise for customers to see and handle without any obligation to buy. It was also the beginning of a major empire of 900 stores throughout Australia. In the mid-1930s, the building was re-modelled to the design of Harry Norris.
1930s to the Present
World War II saw the fortunes of Smith Street start to subside. By the 1970s Smith Street was pretty much in decline and there was much demolition in Smith Street and the Collingwood and Fitzroy areas. There was the replacement of what was seen as ‘slum housing’ with high rise apartments and then there has been the recent gentrification of the street. The most significant feature of the history of Smith Street is the role that it has played in the history of retailing and also that it has always been at the cross roads of some of the extremes in Melbourne between the haves and have nots and this is one of the most important factors in what makes up the diversity of the district.