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What's on City of Melbourne

Building Melbourne

Since 1840 to today, Melbourne has taken form from a small settlement to a vibrant city.

Find out more about Melbourne's historic landmarks at What's On, our website for everything to see and do in the city.

Early days: the 1800s

Princes Bridge

On 22 April 1840, a company was formed to build a bridge across the Yarra River. In 1845, controversy erupted over the bridge’s location. Superintendent La Trobe favoured the end of Elizabeth Street where the water was a little over six metres deep with a thick, black mud bottom, but the company preferred Swanston Street where the depth of the water was only two metres but had a hard, gravelly bed.

Despite bitter arguments, the company finally had its way and, on 9 June 1845, a contract for the bridge and the approaches was let. The bridge was just above the present Princes Bridge. It remained a toll bridge until it was superseded by a free government bridge, the Princes Bridge, which was officially opened on 15 November 1850 after many delays.

A new Prince’s Bridge was built and officially opened on 4 October, 1888, while the year 1890 saw the opening of a seaward road bridge leading out of the city – the present Queens Bridge.

The first churches

The Cathedral Church of St James, a modest wooden structure, first opened for worship in 1837 on the corner of Collins and William Streets. One of the first subscribers to the fund for the erection of the building was John Batman, whose generous gift made possible the first centre of worship for pioneer families.

In 1839, the foundation stone for a permanent church, the new St James Church, was laid by the Superintendent of Port Phillip, Charles Joseph La Trobe. Although its first role was that of a parish church, St James became the Cathedral Church with the founding of the Diocese of Melbourne in 1847. It remained as the Cathedral Church until the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1891 and was moved, stone by stone, to its present site on the corner of King and Batman Streets, West Melbourne, in 1914. St James' Cathedral is classified by the National Trust as being of national importance.

In 1850, construction began on St Patrick’s Cathedral to replace the small wooden structure that had been built on five acres of land granted to the church by Superintendent La Trobe. Although the first mass was celebrated on 14 February 1858, the building was not officially opened until November of that year.

City taking shape

By 1860, Melbourne had reached its final form. Most of the land had been sold and many of the sections of the town had attracted special types of occupancies which still characterise the city today. The eastern end of Collins Street had attracted members of the medical profession, while the central and western section of this same street saw insurance companies, banks and building societies established.

Bourke Street had its theatres and music halls, while the western section of Little Collins Street had attracted the legal profession. Prior to 1860, a large fountain graced the centre of the intersection of Collins and Swanston Streets, but to enable the laying of tram tracks in these streets in the mid 1860s, it was transferred to the Carlton Gardens, where it still stands today.

Visit History of Melbourne streets for more information on the development of Melbourne's roads.

Public Works Committee

In 1845, the Council appointed a Public Works Committee, which reported three months later that 400 tree stumps had been grubbed from the main streets of the town but that 1000 still remained to be cleared. By 1849, most of the principal streets were paved, the footpaths gravelled and the centres of the roads metalled. Some streets had kerbed and pitched water channels, while one thoroughfare even had a few oil lamps placed on wooden posts.

Gold, gold, gold

The discovery of gold in Victoria in the early 1850s had a remarkable effect on the growth of Melbourne. The Melbourne Morning Herald in October 1851, stated: "The whole city is gold mad; the city is getting more and more deserted every day". But this trend to leave the city was only temporary. The gold seekers usually drifted back after a week or two, some successful, some disappointed.

News of the discovery of gold spread all round the world and from 1852 to 1854 the average number of people arriving in Victoria by sea was 90,000 a year. From 1855 to 1858, the average was still 60,000, with less than 30,000 disappointed people departing each year over that period.

By 1854, the population of Melbourne was nearly 80,000 and by 1861 had increased to 140,000.

Victoria’s Parliament

In 1851, Victoria was separated from New South Wales and Melbourne became the capital of the colony. Building commenced on Parliament House early in 1856 and was sufficiently completed for it to be officially opened by the Acting Governor General, Sir Edward Macarthur, on 25 November 1856.

The State Parliament met in that building until the Federation of the States in 1901, when Australia became a nation. The building then became the seat of Federal Parliament and the State Parliament transferred to the Exhibition Building (which opened in 1880), where it continued to meet until 1927. In that year, Canberra became the official capital of Australia, and the departure of the Federal Parliament for Canberra left the way open for the State Parliament to again take up residence in Parliament House.

For historical and visiting information visit Parliament House.

Melbourne Mint

In 1872, the Melbourne Mint (a branch of the British Royal Mint) opened to meet the problems created by the large discoveries of gold in Australia and to reduce its export as much as possible. When the Sydney Mint closed in 1926, the Royal Melbourne Mint became the mint of the Commonwealth and the sole contractor for the production of Commonwealth coinage. The Melbourne Mint closed in 1970. Melbourne’s Mint had been given an ‘A’ classification by the National Trust of Australia, which means it is to be preserved unconditionally. Visit the National Trust for more information.

Queen Victoria Market opens

The Queen Victoria Market opened on the site of the old settlement’s first general cemetery on 20 March 1878. The cemetery was closed in 1853, but was used occasionally until the Markets Lands Act 1917 gave the Council control of the old cemetery area for the market purposes. On 28 November 1921, Council approved the removal of the bodies buried therein and their reinterment in the New Melbourne General Cemetery, Fawkner. The market was then extended to its present area of 13 acres. Visit Queen Victoria Market for more information on its long history.

Land booms

Land boomed between 1880 and 1890, with surplus government revenue and buoyant optimism creating great progress for the metropolis of Melbourne. Where previously in the city three or four storey office blocks had been the highest buildings, virtually overnight eight and nine storey buildings were built by private enterprise. The foundation stone of St. Paul’s Cathedral at the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets was laid in 1880 and the building consecrated at the beginning of 1891.

The early 1890s cast a shadow on the growth of Melbourne when the land boom subsided and, in 1891 and 1892, numerous banks and building societies ceased operation. By the middle of 1892, 21 financial companies were in suspension.

Trains and trams

The first steam-operated trains and railway in Australia was established by the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company in 1854. The single line ran from Flinders Street to a pier at Sandridge (Port Melbourne), a distance of approximately 4km (2.5 miles), being officially openend by Governor Sir Charles Hotham on 12 September 1854.

The first cable tramway was opened in 1885 and ran from the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets to Richmond. In 1886, to permit the extension of the cable-tram lines to Collins Street, the Bourke and Wills Monument was removed from the corner of Russell and Collins streets and repositioned in Spring Street.

By 1887, more than 32 kilometres (20 miles) of tramway system had been constructed. The Crown Law offices in Lonsdale Street and the Railway Offices in Spencer Street were built during this period.

More colonial history

Discover more information about Melbourne's colonial period at Explore History, the State Library of Victoria's online exhibition portal.

Building a city: the 20th Century

The turn of the 20th Century saw a surge of activity in Melbourne.

The Council Baths (now City Baths) in Swanston Street were built in 1903. In 1906, the first electric tram service was introduced and operated from the cable-tram terminus at Flemington. A large number of public buildings were constructed, including Flinders Street Station, City Court and the Melbourne Hospital (now Queen Victoria Hospital).

The 20s and 30s

After World War I, the construction of many public buildings continued, including Spencer Street Bridge in 1929. The entire railway system became electric between 1918 and 1923; the conversion of cable trams to electric trams commenced in 1925 and concluded in the late-1930s.

Due to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, World War II and postwar building restrictions and material shortages, building development in Melbourne remained fairly static until the early-1950s.


Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD) boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. Its first skyscraper, ICI House, was completed in 1958. In the lead up to the 1956 Olympic Games the removal of verandahs further contributed to the physical change occurring in the CBD. In the 1960s, the first stage of the Victorian Arts Centre was opened, as was the National Gallery of Victoria. This period of growth and development also saw the start of construction of the West Gate Bridge.

Underground railway

In the early 1970s, digging commenced on the first tunnels for the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop line (now the City Loop), with the project being completed in 1986.

Modern skyline

Building works that altered the City’s skyline and character in the 1980s and 1990s included the redevelopment of the Melbourne City Baths, State Library of Victoria, the old Queen Victoria Hospital site and the Queen Victoria Market.

The installation of light towers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Yarra Park in 1985 and the construction of the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne Park (formerly Flinders Park) saw major alterations to the landscape of one of Melbourne’s principal assets, namely its parks and gardens.

The 1990s saw a lot of development in Melbourne, including Southbank, Crown Entertainment Complex and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. The Docklands redevelopment began in 1996.

Also during this period, Melbourne’s laneways and arcades underwent a revival and were upgraded with bluestone paving, street furniture and lighting.

Modern Melbourne: the 21st Century

In 2000, the new ultra-modern Melbourne Museum opened in the Carlton Gardens, sitting alongside the Royal Exhibition Building.

Development continued at Southbank and Docklands, creating vibrant communities in these areas. The striking new public space of Federation Square opened in 2002.

Princes Bridge