I made my way east from Carlton North, and spent an afternoon wandering through the adjacent suburb of North Fitzroy. Or is it Fitzroy North?
Either way, it’s one of those suburbs where you feel a strong sense of the past. It’s a peaceful place of gently curving streets, established trees, Victorian streetscapes – some of them grand and Italianate Boom-style, some of them humble – corner shops, bluestone lanes, and public reserves. Unlike traditionally working class Fitzroy, North Fitzroy is residential not industrial. And it doesn’t seem to have changed all that much – not as drastically as some suburbs, anyway. There’s a bit of a Victorian vibe.
The ghostsigns reflect the suburb’s residential identity. Many of them are for ordinary household or kitchen items – like the faded Uncle Tobys Oats sign pictured above, at 511 Brunswick Street, which seems to be gradually dissolving from the top. In one of the few connections between literature and breakfast cereal, Uncle Tobys Oats were first put on the market in the 1890s, the name being drawn from the character of Uncle Toby in the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – or so the company website says, anyway.
Note the decorative brickwork on the Victorian house next door – there’s a lot of that in North Fitzroy/Fitzroy North.
Some ghostsigns are hard to miss, others hide away discreetly, only spotted if you are on the alert, like this Robur tea sign on a Miller Street milk bar. I missed it at first but it became obvious when I crossed the road and looked from the other side.
Others have faded away to almost nothing – like this advertisement memorialising The Sun, a Melbourne newspaper that was around from 1922 to 1990. The Sun went out in 1990, when it merged with The Herald to form the Herald-Sun.
Close examination reveals that an old shop on Scotchmer Street once sold cakes and confectionery, as well as The Sun‘s rival, The Age.
Another sign on Scotchmer Street is easily overlooked – I think it reads ‘Dairy Produce store’.
This sign on a chicken shop (still open) is of more recent vintage. Someone has put a lot of effort into painting those fowls, clucking around their farmyard, unaware they are about to be flame grilled.
You can tell a lot about a suburb from the shops you find there, and North Fitzroy, like North Carlton and East Brunswick, besides its old milk bars and dairies and chicken shops, is a place with second-hand bookshops. Bookshops of any kind are a threatened species these days, so I support them where I can.
I wandered into the Already Read bookshop on Scotchmer Street to have a look round. As I was browsing in fiction and travel I heard someone say: “I’ll be Pozzo, you can be Lucky.” Quoting Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in public: very Fitzroy North.
I left the bookshop and popped around the corner to the supermarket, where I came across two girls having a deeply serious conversation in the fresh food section:
Serious girl #1: Are we going to make the salad or not?
Serious girl #2: I can’t think about salad right now!
Very North Fitzroy.
Not far away, at the intersection of Scotchmer and Best streets, is a low moderne building, now occupied by Aboriginal Housing Victoria. It’s relatively unusual in Fitzroy North, which doesn’t have a lot of moderne architecture, or not that I saw. It’s also uncharacteristic of the suburb in that it’s a former industrial site, a margarine factory.
While not much has changed in the suburb, there is a new library (and ‘community hub’) planned for a triangle of land off St George’s Road. It’s great that a new library is being built (they like their books in Fitzroy North), although given the amount of time they’ve been talking about it, it doesn’t seem to have progressed far yet.
At 153 St George’s Road you can see one of the finest ghostsigns on glass that I’ve come across. This insurance company ad has survived in very good shape. The gold calligraphy is particularly beautiful, and whoever painted it might be glad to know their craftsmanship is still there to be admired a century or so later.
The Scottish Union and National Insurance Company was a British company with branches all over the world, known by that name from 1877 to 1959. To me the lettering has the look of the late Victorian era.
When I looked up the firm in the Sands & McDougall street directories, the earliest mention in Melbourne was in 1885. The company’s headquarters were not in Fitzroy North, but in Queen Street Melbourne. The premises on St George’s Rd was occupied by a succession of small businesses, including estate agents. It appears that one or more of them also acted as the company’s ‘local agent’.
A little further down St George’s Road you come to Edinburgh Gardens, a pleasant reserve where North Fitzrovians go to have picnics, kick the footy, fly kites and throw frisbees. It’s flanked by another Victorian street, Alfred Crescent, with several fancy houses, Italianate and Gothic, almost mansions in some cases. I assume this would have been one of the most desirable addresses in this part of town. The owners probably took out policies with the Scottish Union and National Insurance Co.
A short distance away, I spotted this sign advertising ballet shoe manufacturers, partly obscured by creepers:
Books and ballet shoes: very Fitzroy North.
I walked across Edinburgh Gardens as far as Brunswick Street, where I spotted the Uncle Tobys sign; while a little further along, at 497 Brunswick Street, just around the corner on York Street, on the side wall of a Victorian shop, is an ornate blue sign that intrigued me. You can also see an old street sign, ‘York St’ bottom right.
The shape of the lettering and the ornamental border suggest the Victorian era; it seems to read ‘T.J. … T Jr.’
I consulted the bible of Melbourne street directories, Sands & McDougall, and found that the building was occupied by Thomas J. Pinsent Jr, sign writer, from 1897. His name appears on this sign, and if you look very carefully, the words ‘sign writer’ can be deciphered in the blue circle above and below his name. He remained at the address until the early 1920s.
The sign is interesting not just because of its age – Victorian ghostsigns are rare in Melbourne – but because it is one of very few where we can be reasonably confident of the artist. Presumably Pinsent painted the sign himself, not just to advertise the business, but to demonstrate his skill as a sign writer.
It raises the interesting possibility that Thomas Pinsent was responsible for other ghostsigns around the neighbourhood from the period 1887-1920. Perhaps, even, the insurance window?
Here’s another photo of the sign, taken by ghostsign guru John Hunter in 1983, when the sign was in better condition and much more legible. The ornate scrollwork is clearer too.
Here’s my hand drawn map of the suburb, with key locations marked. Or, if you prefer, you can follow the walk on Google Maps.
your cover shot shows the house my grandmother lived in until the 1980s. I spent every Christmas day in that house and a few more besides! I remember that sign fondly…. It was a lot clearer 60 years ago. I wrote a story wrapped around that house…. it is now a part of this anthology. https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/red-wheelbarrow/id1057869033?mt=11
Thanks Terry. I’d guess the sign was probably already pretty old, even 60 years ago, but yes clearer for sure.
I lived at 483 Brunswick st. Nth Fitzroy as we called it…My house is still there next to a smaller one and surrounded by shops.Moran & Cato on Alexander Pde end.In a laneway off York there was a Button Factory and an Upholsterer. My Dad had a metal spinning Factory at the back of our house. It lead into York st.
Thank you for those memories Jennifer.
This was an enjoyable ramble through a gorgeous old suburb. I particularly loved the gold-painted window sign – it really is in amazing condition and it evokes up a sense of how the streets and shops would have looked at that time. It’s incredible how much you can learn about a suburb from the ghost signs left behind.
Thanks Katie, yes it’s rare to see an old sign so well preserved – especially on glass!