Such was life

The streets of Melbourne – by numbers

In 1887, Melbourne City Council ordered the renumbering of properties across the city to make houses and businesses easier to find.

A newspaper wood engraving showing street and shopfronts in Elizabeth Street in 1864, including the businesses of William Dean, George Robertson, McBean, James McEwan & Co. and Thomas Jackson.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, IAN24/12/63/9

Up until this time, streets that ran east-west were divided at Elizabeth Street so that street numbers began at 1 on either side heading east to Spring Street and west to Spencer Street, for example, 61 Bourke Street East. Numbering of north-south streets began at Flinders Street and went north, as is still the case today. You can see this numbering system in The most complete popular & mercantile map of Melbourne from 1853.

The lack of consistent street numbering caused problems for deliveries of goods and services across Melbourne. During an outbreak of typhoid in February 1887, a doctor wrote to The Argus complaining about the difficulty of finding patients’ houses. He compared the process for numbering houses in Melbourne to corn sown in a field ‘by the simple process of scattering, so that although there are plenty of numbers, none of them are in the right places.’ He concluded his letter with the timeless observation that if the council ‘can afford to spend £10,000 in ornamentation of the town hall, I think they can bestow a much smaller sum upon work, of the neglect of which I am now complaining.’

The complaint letter in The Argus, 1887.

The Argus, 8th Februrary 1887

Eventually, the Melbourne City Council did respond. According to the council minutes, a Mr JA Kay wrote a report for the Council’s Public Works Committee on the uniform numbering of houses in August 1887. The Argus records the councillors’ vigorous exchanges on the matter and Mr Kay’s proposal was approved at a meeting on 12 September 1887.

However, not everyone was happy with Council’s implementation of the new system. William Ball, a chemist working in Bourke Street wrote that the decision to allow one week for the change over was ‘very unjust and absurd’. He stated that the change would cost him over £100 in obsolete stationery, his printer having just produced 10,000 pamphlets with the old address. While Mr Ball saw the merit in a consistent street numbering system he felt that the Council should have provided residents and businesses with at least 6 months notice. He signed off his letter ‘W Ball 61 Bourke or 252 Bourke Street.’

Morgan's map of Melbourne's CBD, showing street numbering and the names of business.

You can view online the new numbering system in Morgan’s map of the city of Melbourne (above) from 1945. If you would like to find out more about street re-numbering in the city you can follow the story on the digitised newspapers on the Trove website.

Written by Chris Wade
Newspaper Librarian

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COMMENTS (5)

  1. Vicki says:

    Interesting! To think we could have had a similar numbering system to the wonderful NYC!

  2. Colin Rowley says:

    I wonder this compared to other states at the time? i had wondered why an address of 1877 was called 10 bourke street east. now i know.

  3. Jan McDonald says:

    The streets running north south were also renumbered at this time. Due to many subdivisions, the north south numbers had also become very complicated. There were numbers such as 35 and a half. After the north-south renumbering, most addresses had higher numbers, e.g. what was previously a hotel at 187 Swanston Street (almost opposite the then Melbourne Public Library) had its number changed to 303 (but still almost opposite the Public Library).

  4. Linda says:

    I was taught as a youngster that the numbering system was started at the GPO and radiated out from there. I was also taught that you walked on the left side of the footpath , how things have changed. Great to hear how the numbering system was created.

  5. Linda says:

    I was taught as a kid that street numbering started at the GPO and radiated out from there, also I was taught to walk on the left hand side of the footpath – well things have changed. Great to hear how street numbering was organised.

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