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Fitzroy stories part 2: The story of Smith Street

Running along the border of Collingwood and Fitzroy, Smith Street is one of Melbourne’s oldest thoroughfares. This bustling street, made up of wine bars, vintage stores, record shops and galleries, looks worlds apart from its humble origins. It used to be part of a winding dirt track that headed to Heidelberg and was the only road out of the city into the north-eastern part of the Victorian colony. 

Founded in 1837, Smith Street used to split the suburb of Collingwood in two. Back then, the eastern half of the suburb was named Newtown and then later, Fitzroy – Melbourne’s first suburb. Between 1837 and 1865, Smith Street transformed from a thoroughfare into a manufacturing, service and shopping centre. In Victorian times, it became one of the busiest and most important shopping hubs in Australia and Melbourne, rivalled only by Prahran’s Chapel Street. Cable trams ran in and out of the street, bringing customers straight to the  many shopping destinations.

In 1891, the first example of a purpose-built department store in Australia was built and completed on Smith Street. The Foy and Gibson complex became one of the most important manufacturing and retail outlets at the time – it manufactured and sold its goods (which would be hard to find today).

Most of the Foy and Gibson buildings were built by William Pitt, who is the architect responsible for iconic buildings like the Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne Stock Exchange, the original Rialto building, St Kilda and Brunswick town halls, and the redesign of the Princess Theatre in 1888.

Foy and Gibson became the first department store in Victoria, continuing to grace Smith Street for more than 100 years. From 1900 to 1970, Smith Street saw even more growth – Foy and Gibson expanded (and closed), a tunnel was built under Smith Street and Coles opened its first Australian store. Why was there a tunnel built under Smith Street? One theory is that it was built for female shoppers so that they could travel from one side to the other without being harassed.

By the 1970s, Smith Street was in decline with lots of demolition occurring in the area. High rise apartments replaced what was seen as ‘slum housing’. In more recent times, gentrification has swiftly changed the streetscape and the street was named the coolest street in the world in 2021.

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