The transformations of Collingwood

To walk around Collingwood, more than perhaps any other suburb, is to be made aware of change.

Changes in society, architecture, industry. Changes in where we live, what we wear, what we drink.

There used to be dozens of factories here. Boot and shoe manufacturers. Wool carders, spinners and scourers. They’ve gone, to be replaced by fashion wholesalers selling imported threads.

The massive Foy and Gibson buildings on Oxford Street are home to apartments and coffee houses, rare and fine wine merchants.

Spaces get reinvented, sometimes imaginatively. Those trains on the roof of an Easey Street building? A hip new burger bar, paying homage to graffiti culture. (Here’s how the trains got there).

Shops and factories are recycled into art galleries and independent radio stations.

There are nostalgia shops where you can buy bits of old industrial signage and footy cards with long-moustached footballers.

Massive construction sites mean more apartments to come. Who will occupy them?

There’s Victorian England in the street names, signs perhaps of the Anglo settlers’ nostalgia for home. Streets named after Wellington (war hero), Peel (prime minister), Waterloo (battle) and Byron (poet). Oxford Street and Cambridge Street. The original Collingwood was an admiral in the English navy.

More traces of Victoriana linger in 19th century houses, with the fancy patterned polychromatic brickwork that the Victorians loved. Like many inner suburbs, there was a building boom here in the 1880s, as the Melbourne dream of home ownership took hold.

Foy and Gibson was one of Victoria’s largest employers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its activities can still be seen in signage around the top of the Oxford Street buildings: ‘Wool scouring’ ‘Engineering machine shop’ ‘Wool spinning’ ‘Wool carding’ ‘Dye house’ ‘Bleachery’.

Foy-and-Gibson Foy-and-Gibson_mill-2 Foy-and-Gibson-3

Mark Foy was an Irish draper who set up a drapery business in 1870 in Smith St.  In 1882 his son Francis took over the business, and William Gibson came in as Francis’ partner. Francis left for Sydney where he set up the famous department store, Mark Foy’s. Back in Melbourne, Foy & Gibsons expanded to include extensive manufacturing as well as retail – they had a department store in the city, on the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets, in the mid-20th century.

Workers at Foy and Gibson, 1922

Women working in the ‘Whitework and Underclothing’ section of the Gibsonia Mill at Foy & Gibson, 1922. Source: University of Melbourne’s Foy & Gibson archive.

Foy & Gibson was taken over by Cox Brothers Australia Ltd in 1955, which in turn was liquidated in 1968. (There’s a Cox Brothers ghostsign in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.)

There’s a ghostsign on Greeves Street with layers of names. ‘Kent Equipment’ appears to be the most recent. Below it you can make out the words ‘Sturtevant pneumatic tubes and cash carriers’. There’s an old phone number: 11200 Central.


Pneumatic tubes were a popular way of sending messages over short distances in the mid-20th century. You would put your message or article into a small cylindrical container, and send it off via a network of vacuum tubes. Do any readers remember them? Many department stores used to use the pneumatic tube system – perhaps Foy and Gibsons. Here’s an advertisement from 1936, but they continued to be used well after that. I’ve heard they’re still in use in some hospitals and banks.

Collingwood was notorious in the early 20th century for characters like John Wren, who made a fortune running an illegal betting operation, or tote, off Gertrude Street. It was described by The Argus as “a mammoth and marvellous machine for meeting the needs of a large portion of the community, and at the same time evading the law.”

Wren’s activities live on in the name of one of Melbourne’s most famed music venues, The Tote Hotel. There are various rumours of connections between the venue (which used to be called The Ivanhoe) and Wren’s activities, and if you want to know more you should read Frank Hardy’s novel, Power Without Glory. What is certain is that The Tote has been one of the best places to see punk bands and the like since 1980. In 2010 it was announced that it would close, but a popular rally saved the venue, and you can still see many a proudly non-mainstream band there. It’s safe to say that Guy Sebastian won’t be on the bill any time soon.

Bands at The Tote, Collingwood

While the walls of Collingwood are heavily populated with reminders of the suburb’s industrial past, there are loads of more recent additions in the form of street art, some of it spectacular.  The most famous is the Keith Haring mural on the wall of Collingwood Tech.

Keith Haring mural, Collingwood tech

Keith Haring mural, Collingwood Tech

Collingwood street art rainbow-face

Collingwood is one of Melbourne’s richest areas for suburban exploration.  Many traces remain of its various incarnations and fascinating layers of history – photos of a few of them appear below. Hopefully the new developments will not obliterate them.

Leaving the suburb and heading home, on Victoria Parade I was delighted to see the faded remains of an old friend – a ghostsign for Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills. I have also seen the good (but non-existent) doctor’s pills advertised in North Melbourne, and wrote about them here.

Indian Root Pills ghostsign

An old friend. Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills.

For itch

Some ghostsigns are simply inexplicable.

Brewers grains the dairy farmer's friend

Brewers Grains, the dairy farmer’s friend.

Trains on the roof in Easey Street

Trains on the roof in Easey Street.

Collingwood Technical School

Collingwood Technical School, a fine example of streamlined moderne architecture, designed by Percy Everett in 1945. A few weeks ago I walked past another of Everett’s educational buildings, the former Essendon Tech.

Polychrome bricks on a Victorian terrace

Polychromatic brickwork on a Victorian terrace.

Tresur knitting mills

Former Tre-Sur knitting mill.

Mannequins on Langridge Street

These days the fashions are imported, not manufactured here.

XSAL here

You could get –XSAL here. But what was it? Any ideas?

construction site

Construction site with surviving Victorian tower.

For more on Collingwood, check out the excellent Collingwood Historical Society.


  1. Re the -XSAL sign. Could that be DEXSAL, an antacid? It’s still available I believe. If this is correct, it would suggest that shop was once a chemist. There’s a photo of an early DEXSAL bottle here:

  2. Lived at 76 Perry Street, went to school at Saint Josephs, and Saint Thomas Clifton hill; taught at Collingwood Tech. Was a part time telegram boy at the Clifton Hill Post office. Have enough material for a book about old Collingwood. Lord Admiral Collingwood was Nelson’s Hero and saved his bacon a number of times; He was highly decorated by the British Parliament who gave him more gold than Nelson! He changed the face of the British navy and his sailors loved him for it.
    Old Collingwood died the day that Saint Josephs burned down. Barry Ponchard 3WBC 94.1 FM

  3. Hi Nick as always an excellent post. I believe the history of Collingwood is peppered with many, many anecdotes’ of cunning and crafty people who mostly survived without ever striking a laborious blow of any description. What a wonderful journey it would be if somehow we could go back in time and visit Collingwood 1930-1950, a square mile of fantastic tales
    The Ivanhoe Hotel cr/ Wellington and Johnston streets was adjacent to the Collingwood Boot and Shoe Trade School, the building In your post designed by Percy Everett in 1945. I attended this establishment during the years of 1950 -1954, one half day per week, for the purpose of “Technical” training which enabled me to qualify as a “Bootmaker”. The building remained in use as the footwear industries apprentice training center until the mid 1970’s, about the time of the beginning of the demise of the Victorian Footwear Industry.
    John Wren’s “Tote” was situated at 145-147 Johnstone Street Collingwood, the north side of Johnstone street approximately oporset Campbell street, at the time there was a lane that ran between the shops in Johnstone street and the houses in Sackville street whereby the patrons of the Tote could escape the hand of the Law whenever there was a raid on. I believe John Wren started as an SP Bookmaker in Gertrude Street Fitzroy, as you described, but as the situation was prone to too many surprise raids from the constabulary the operation was transferred to Johnstone Street.
    Once again many thanks .

  4. Fascinating detail, as always, including in the comments! I’m working on a post that includes the Yorkshire brewery tower, in your last photo. And I really want to know what was ‘for itch’ 😉

  5. Thanks for this wonderful blog (which I’ve only just discovered) – really inspiring! Re the -XSAL sign, I immediately thought of Dexsal, too – there used to be a lot more Dexsal signs still visible before many of the old, run down shop facades around the inner city suburbs were renovated. Here’s the link to an old newspaper ad for Dexsal salts, from the National Library of Australia’s Trove database:

      1. My pleasure. Also, I had forgotten to mention that I remember using pneumatic tubes when working in the head office of the State Bank of Victoria building at 385 Bourke St. in the city (which later became the Commonwealth Bank of Australia head office). It was mainly used to send correspondence & other paper documents/vouchers from one department to another, so with the edvent of email & scanning, I doubt that it’s still in use, but the infrastructure is probably still there.

        *Just a bit of triviia – at the time that it was built, in 1983, 385 Bourke St. was (for a brief period) the tallest skyscraper in Melbourne.
        If anyone’s interested, you can follow the link to the ‘List of Tallest Buildings in Melbourne’ wikipedia page, but the page has been edited and no longer mentions this bit of detail re the State Bank of Vic building – although there is a table with a list of the tallest buildings further down the page.

        As araneus1 mentioned in a comment above, I do believe they are still in use by Safeway/Woolworths stores – I once noticed a cashier put something in a canister and then push it into a space under the counter, which I guessed must have been a pneumatic tube.

  6. Up until now I never knew Percy Everett was the architect of the Essendon Tech as well as the Collingwood Boot and Shoe Trade School but when you look at the two buildings it is plainly evident.
    You know I had the misfortune to have attended both schools and there is somewhat of a story there.
    May I reiterate that John Wren’s “Tote” was in Johnstone Street Collingwood exactly across the road from the Vine Hotel.

Leave a Reply to Carringtonia Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s