The lost names of Emerald Hill

The walls of South Melbourne (or Emerald Hill, as it was known in the later 19th century – one of Melbourne’s lost place names) are rich in memories: of people, occupations, products, social movements.  These painted signs, featuring other lost names, are an archive of the suburb’s history, visible in plain sight, though often overlooked.

Take the Temperance Hall on Napier Street. Temperance Halls sprouted all over Melbourne in the late 19th century, built by the temperance movement, which was opposed to alcohol and its malign influence. Given the number of pubs around South Melbourne, it’s safe to say that temperance was never really in the ascendant here. Still, the hall was an important gathering place for those who wanted a sober evening out.


Temperance Hall, Napier Street

The South Melbourne Temperance Hall was converted into a theatre space in the 1980s, and is still used for performances. When you enter through that front door you are reminded of the building’s original purpose.

Another lasting monument of the temperance movement is the coffee palaces, built as alternatives to hotels. Given Melburnians’ current obsession with coffee, we could say the coffee palaces were ahead of the curve, though I doubt you could get a cold drip Ethiopian single origin macchiato there. By 1888 there were more than 50 coffee palaces in Melbourne, supplying not just coffee but also the other amenities of a hotel – though quite a bit of sly grog used to be consumed too, whether they had a liquor license or not.

Not many still survive but I passed one recently, not far away on Bridport Street, Albert Park. With its classical columns and arches and balustrades and pediment, the building (now a hotel) gives a sense of how impressive the coffee palaces were.


The former Albert Park Coffee Palace on Bridport Street

Various friendly societies were active in the temperance movement, and more evidence of their activities can be seen on Coventry Street, where  the UFS (standing for ‘United Friendly Societies’ dispensary still sports its signage. There used to be UFS dispensaries, that is pharmacies, all over the Melbourne suburbs (one of my favourites is in Footscray on Albert Street, now the Dancing Dog cafe). In fact you can still find operating UFS chemists here and there.

The friendly societies – which had marvellous names like Foresters, Free Gardeners, Oddfellows and Rechabites, also gone from our vocabulary today – were co-operative societies of members who supported each other and often operated insurance and benefits schemes as well as dispensaries.


Former UFS dispensary, South Melbourne. Note the saddle maker next door.

But Victorian Melbourne wasn’t just about getting together to drink coffee and think of obscure names for your society. It was very much about making and selling stuff. During the late 19th century the city was developing fast in manufacturing and retailing. One of the most impressive buildings of Emerald Hill is this one on Park Street.


Victorian drapery store (Patross Knitting Mills)

Although the name visible at the top of the building is Patross Knitting Mills, that business only moved here in the 1930s. Patross was established by Benzion Patkin, originally from Russia, a prominent Jewish community leader who arrived in Melbourne in 1929.


The original occupant of this grand, even religious-looking building was ‘Edwin Harcourt and John Parry’s drapery emporium’.  A photograph from the 1880s shows it as it was then.  Not much has changed except the removal of some of the ornamental urns from the tower and the ends of the terrace. The verandah over the pavement has survived, which is relatively unusual, as many were ripped out in the mid-20th century. Harcourts looks like an elegant place to shop.


Source: City of Port Phillip. Photographer: David Wood.

Another prominent Victorian name was Guest’s biscuits, a ghostsign for which survives on the wall of a small shop on the corner of Francis and Coventry streets.


Guest’s biscuits sign in South Melbourne. I haven’t decoded the name at the top of the wall.

T.B. Guest’s factory was in North Melbourne, close to the station – I wrote about it here. That factory is now apartments, with many ghostsigns still advertising the building’s original purpose. Mr Guest himself had a splendid house, ‘The Elms’, on St Vincent Place – one of the most elite addresses in town in the late 19th century.

Guest’s biscuits was a popular Melbourne brand, one of the best-known biscuit makers of the time. Along with its rival, Port Melbourne-based Swallow & Ariell, Guest’s biscuits were on display at the International Exhibition of 1880. They were magnificent biscuits, if the display is anything to go by, but today Guest’s is another lost name.


Guest’s biscuits display at the Exhibition in 1880. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Many other lost names linger on around South Melbourne – insurance companies, estate agents, outfitters – there are literally dozens easily visible, high up on walls. Among them are two newspapers almost opposite each other on Dorcas Street: The Courier and The Record. The Courier was around in 1900, but gone by 1914. The Emerald Hill Record survived into the 1950s.


There is still a record of The Record on Dorcas Street.


Also on  Dorcas Street is the signage of McCauleys furniture store, dating from the early 20th century. By searching through Sands & McDougall street directories, I tracked the development of the business from its origins around 1900, through its gradual expansion until it occupied a whole block between Mitchell and Clarendon streets. However, the business abruptly disappeared from the directory in 1935. Was McCauleys a victim of the Depression?  Nevertheless, the signage still remains, along with the finger pointing back into the past, directing passers-by to a shop that no longer exists.

This faded tailor’s sign, to judge from the lettering (I’m looking at that ornamental ‘L’) might also be Victorian:


Look up above ground level on Clarendon Street and you’ll see the faint lettering of Mitchell and McCabe: ‘Clothier, mercer, hatter, tailor’. However, Mitchell McCabe is not a lost name – the company is still in business, with more modern signage at ground level.


Mitchell & McCabe on Clarendon Street

But perhaps the most interesting Victorian building in South Melbourne is hidden down Raglan Street, tucked away behind Clarendon Street, where we came across a mysterious place behind iron railings and a neat garden. The words ‘SEE YUP’ appear in red Victorian lettering above the gates.


Entrance to the See Yup temple

Getting closer we realised that despite the building’s western classical architecture it is a Chinese temple. At the entrance are stone lions, flowers, Chinese inscriptions.


See Yup temple, South Melbourne

Inside – where photography is not allowed but anyone can wander around – are hundreds of candles, red lanterns, Chinese writing on the columns, fruit piled high on altars, and the aroma of incense.


An old image of the temple’s interior. Photography inside today is discouraged.

The See Yup Temple was built in 1866, financed by discoveries made on the goldfields by Chinese diggers, many of whom came from the ‘See Yup’ districts of the province of Guangdong. The temple was financed by the See Yup Society, a mutual self-help organisation for Chinese migrants, not unlike those other friendly societies I mentioned. It’s further evidence of the way different groups in Victorian Melbourne got together to support each other.

With its fine architecture and splendid interior, the temple symbolised the success of the Chinese community on the goldfields. It was, and is, a centre of worship and a death registry. Most importantly, the temple contains thousands of memorial tablets with the names and home districts of society members who died in Victoria.

This is perhaps the most impressive collection of lost names in Melbourne. Dating back one-and-a-half centuries, the tablets preserve the details of the Chinese diggers who came to Victoria during the Gold Rush, and their many successors. The temple is a house of memory, in which thousands of names are retained that otherwise would be lost to oblivion.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese population of Melbourne declined, due partly to racism given official form by anti-Chinese immigration and employment policies, though Chinese people continued to make a living in occupations such as market gardening and laundries. The temple was in decline by the 1930s and by the 1960s it had fallen into a state of disrepair, with the building vandalised, windows boarded up and the gardens a wilderness.


The See Yup temple in 1963, pre-restoration. Source: National Trust (Victoria)

During this time it was suggested that the building might be sold, or even demolished. I came across an article featuring a young Barry Humphries, lounging on a lion, cheekily claiming that he wanted to buy it. Barry is a fan of Melbourne’s Victorian architecture so he may not have been entirely joking.


Fortunately, neither the sale nor the demolition eventuated. As Chinese migration increased again, there was renewed interest in the temple. In the 1970s it was restored by the Chinese community with the support of the National Trust, helped by grants from state and federal governments. The restoration included a new roof and paint job, as well as fixing up the garden.

More recently, another grant enabled the 13,000 memorial tablets to be cleaned and restored, and the inscriptions entered into a database. (‘Honouring the dead caps a life of dedication’The Age, 3 August 2007.) The lost names of the See Yup temple have thus found a new home in cyberspace, where they may perhaps last for longer than the names preserved on the tablets – though who can be certain of that?


Thanks to the National Trust (Victoria) for assistance with this story.

Further reading:

‘Temperance and Melbourne’s grand coffee palaces’ at the State Library of Victoria

‘The Chinese in Melbourne’ at eMelbourne: the Encyclopaedia of Melbourne














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