Social and Urban Renewal – Melbourne’s Hidden Slum History

Anthony Jenkins

From his home in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the archaeologist John Lockyer O’Brien captured evidence of the inner-city’s evolving urban and social landscape, documenting a transitional stage between the overcrowded “slums” which attracted condemnation, and the construction of the Housing Commission Towers which sprung up from the razed grounds of urban renewal.1 Hidden within the collection of his photographs are vestiges of entire neighbourhoods condemned as “slums” by the Slum Abolition Board (precursor to the Victorian Housing Commission) that were consequently razed. The picture below from the roof of his own house depicts a more mixed architectural landscape taken, looking across a scene that combines the pediments of nineteenth century rooves, the first brick apartment blocks built in the 1940s, and large industrial buildings, on the horizon.

Figure 1: A View from the Roof of Number 35 Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958-1960, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00359.

Ubiquitous in Melbourne’s inner suburbs today, the Housing Commission Towers are imposing in stature and form, incongruous in comparison to the suburb’s late-Victorian shops and dwellings alongside more modern cubic buildings. Despite their location in these highly-sought after, historically-rich areas in Melbourne, the enduring association of the Towers (and their residents) is of divergence from the housing profile of mainstream Australia, as was seen during their targeting for isolation during Melbourne’s lockdowns.2 Towers like Fitzroy’s Atherton Gardens Towers, are home to some of the most vulnerable in these suburbs; recent migrants from war-torn and underdeveloped countries, low-income and first nations’ people.3

For most of the twentieth century, however, Fitzroy had been regarded by a rising affluent class as impoverished, unsightly, and crime-ridden, with its houses dilapidated and home to menacing, feeble dwellers.4 Proximity to the city’s resources (markets, hospitals, childcare, employment) had always ensured high residential demand as had their proximity to work in factories in Collingwood and along the river. The late-nineteenth century economic optimism of terraced dwellings gave way to depression in the 1890s, and by the Great Depression’s concurrent housing/rental crisis in the 1930s, Fitzroy’s streets were overrun, undeveloped, and teeming with the remnants of waste, human and industrial.5 Many families were forced into overcrowded, dilapidated residences, while being charged exorbitant rents.

Enter F. Oswald Barnett, reformer extraordinaire. A Methodist motivated to clean up the “slums,” Barnett distributed a collection of emotive photographs of inner-city alleys and residences in the 1930s to newspapers and ran an emotional campaign about the need to reform living conditions as a form of social improvement.6

Figure 2: ‘Carlton. Entrance to a Slum Pocket.’, Photograph gelatin silver (irregular) mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1930). 7
Despite ostensibly impassioned intentions, slum clearance campaigns contained unconcealed condescension towards the inhabitants.8 The residents’ character was critiqued as being faulty, and any proposed planning lacked considerations of the effects of housing shortages, high rents, and poverty upon this inner-city neighbourhood.9

Figure 3: ‘Carlton. Two Mothers.’, Photograph gelatin silver mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1935). 10
As these two pictures in the State Library collection show, Barnett’s photography served to titillate audiences with sordid descriptions of poverty, and slum abolition projects made little account for where the displaced “dwellers” would go.11

Beginning in the years following WWII, the campaign for ‘slum clearance’ began again and journalists gave expression to moral outrage about living conditions in Fitzroy.

Figure 4: Lindsay Mudge, ‘Unhappy Folk Herded into Fitzroy Hovels,’ The Argus, 11 October 1955.

With new models of social housing arriving from Europe, plans were in place to modernise the inner city. A newly formed Housing Commission oversaw the razing of condemned areas, as this photo from the O’Brien collection graphically shows – a weatherboard house torn apart that with its four rooms would have substantially provided shelter and a home to a family.

Figure 5: A House Being Demolished in Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00366.

Having cleared a large block below Gertrude Street, between Brunswick and Napier Streets, the Atherton Gardens Estate was erected between 1965 and 1971.12 With 800 flats, and twenty stories high, it became home to thousands of low-income families and immigrants and is so to this day.13

Figure 6: Housing Commission of Victoria, ‘Atherton Gardens Estate,’ Architectuul, 1970,

Their history has however been intrinsically linked with larger, timeless forces of social mobility, urban renewal, and community solidarity. Eventually, the patriarchal slum clearance policymakers were faced with fierce resistance by residents, in Melbourne and beyond, and community groups successfully campaigned against further demolitions of homes.14 Many houses which have survived and are now likely investment properties, or leased sharehouses are the later twentieth century product of middle-class migration to the inner-city with consequent renovation and gentrification of the once-condemned properties. The lovely row of brick buildings pictured below were not considered the lucrative, bohemian, cosmopolitan dwellings of today and were in fact, houses in Atherton street that were demolished to make way for the Towers.15

Figure 7: Houses in Atherton Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00167.

The O’Brien collection provides invaluable insight into the Fitzroy of the Barnett and post-war era. Research possibilities are wide-ranging and multidisciplinary; one can visually track the physical transformation of urban renewal on a single address, from terrace house to “hovel” to Commission tower, with supplementary information gleaned from ‘Social Surveys’ maintained in the University of Melbourne Library. Stories associated with inhabitants in the photographed abodes could be uncovered by incorporating personal and familial databases like or street directories.

With the current rental and housing crises in Melbourne and beyond, it is vital to examine the different methods that communities have used historically to cope with larger economic forces which constrain the ability to find safe, affordable habitation. In a strange historical repetition, between first writing this blog and finishing it, recent news from the State Government has announced that 44 Housing Commission towers will be demolished by 2051. Once again, the language surrounding the condemned buildings is critical and emotive, stressing the unsightly nature of the Towers, and once again, residents will be left without rooves over their heads.16 As urban landscapes change, a greater understanding of how buildings, streets, suburbs come to create neighbourhoods is worthwhile, as they might not be the same for long. Perhaps we need a new O’Brien to document the next transitions taking place in Fitzroy.

Anthony Jenkins is a PhD candidate in the new field of Public Health Humanities, studying the history of Australian smoking cultures and anti-cancer advocacy.


  1. Anne O’Brien, ‘Housing the Homeless: How Revisiting the 1940s Assists the Struggle’, Australian Journal of Social Issues 57, no. 4 (2022): 800-802,
  2. Kristian Silva, ‘Hard Times to Hard Lockdowns: Melbourne’s Endless Housing Challenges’, ABC News, 11 July 2020,
  3. Fitzroy History Society, ‘Remembering Fitzroy: A Walk Along the Lost Streets of the Atherton Precinct’ (Fitzroy History Society, 22 April 2017),
  4. Alan Mayne, ‘A Just War: The Language of Slum Representation in Twentieth-Century Australia,’ Journal of Urban History 22, no. 1 (1995): 79,
  5. Tony Birch, ‘”These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss”: Slum Photography in a Melbourne Suburb,’ Australian Historical Studies 35, no. 123 (2004): 3-6,
  6. E. W. Russell, ‘Barnett, Frederick Oswald (1883–1972)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, 18 vols (Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1979),
  7. F. Oswald Barnett and Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, ‘Carlton. Entrance to a Slum Pocket.’, Photograph gelatin silver (irregular) mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1930), H2001.291/12,
  8. Grahame Shaw, ‘Slum Clearance and Urban Renewal,’ Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal 3, no. 5 (1965): 170–74,
  9. Birch, ‘“These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss,” 1–15.
  10. F. Oswald Barnett and Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, ‘Carlton. Two Mothers.’, Photograph gelatin silver mounted on card (State Library of Victoria: F. Oswald Barnett Collection, c. 1935), H2001.291/9,
  11. Birch, ‘“These Children Have Been Born in an Abyss,” 1–15.
  12. Mayne, ‘A Just War’, 92; Silva, ‘Hard Times to Hard Lockdowns,’ ABC News, 11 July 2020.
  13. Julie Szego and Christopher Hopkins, ‘“A Completely Different World”: The Rich and Resilient Communities inside Melbourne’s Towers’, The Guardian, 8 July 2020, sec. Australia news,
  14. Renate Howe, ‘New Residents—New City. The Role of Urban Activists in the Transformation of Inner City Melbourne,’ Urban Policy and Research 27, no. 3 (1 September 2009): 243–51,
  15. Andrew Sells, ‘The Gentrification of Inner Melbourne: An Integrative Framework for Explanation’ (Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1991), 32.
  16. Margaret Simons, ‘Australia’s Public Housing Towers Are Regarded as Dated and Ugly. But What Will Happen When They’re Gone?’, The Guardian, 2 October 2023, sec. Housing,

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