Category Archives: Coburg

Coburg Mix

Coburg is changing – I’ve had this conversation many times, one of the most memorable was with another resident in the Victoria Street Mall. I liked the changes and he didn’t, was this simply a matter of different tastes? He didn’t like the café culture although he couldn’t explain what was wrong with people talking and enjoying life. I enjoy having more good cafes and restaurants within walking distance of my home. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like the changes but he kept on talking about the way things used to be. In the end I could only conclude that he just didn’t like change.

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Coburg cannot simply be seen simply as a working class suburb in the north of Melbourne. Coburg is a mix of the old and new, people from around the world, a mix that creates a friendly atmosphere on the liminal zone.  Coburg is now in the liminal zone the inner and outer suburbs but it was once a rural village just to the north of Melbourne. The basic structure of Coburg was laid out in the late 19th century when it was still a rural village aspiring to be a city. The row of churches, the grid of major streets, the pubs, the cemetery, and the civic and recreational spaces had been created before the population boomed.

Coburg remains a mix, a muddled merger, a blend that hasn’t been homogenized into one substance. All there are many elements in this mix from the rural and urban, the mix of prison and industry, the mix of nationalities and a mix of classes. The mansions along the Avenue and the Grove are an indication the wealth of some people who lived in Coburg in the late 19th century.

Mansion in Coburg

Mansion in Coburg

Richard Broome often comments in his book, Coburg – between two creeks, on this mix even when Coburg became a largely working class suburb in the 1920 – 70s. (p.215) Broome comments on the aspirations of Coburg’s blue-collar employees, reflected in the higher than average home ownership in the suburb. Coburg as suburb with high home ownership; even in the Great Depression there were only a handful of repossession in Coburg. Home ownership makes people, in a classic Marxist sense, not working class as they have capital. Although Coburg did have a large number of factory workers during the 1920 – 70s as the factories closed down the population mix changed yet again and Coburg became a dormitory suburb.

The micro-suburbs like Connan’s Hill on the border of Coburg. Or “the Toorak of the north” as the original publicity claimed for the new suburb of Merlynston. Both of these mico-suburbs were urbanized post WWI before they were all farmland.

Coburg’s Chinese population arrived along with the European settlement of the area and specialized in market gardening. Chinese market gardens opposite the Coburg Town Hall; the land was acquired by the city, although there were still Chinese working market gardens along the Merri Creek into the 1970s. The presence of the Chinese market gardens was marked by a piece of pavement art in the park. Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski pavement painting ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) first exhibited as part of the Moreland Sculpture Show (it was in chalk then and was on a different piece of pavement), now the painting has gone too.

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

The mix of Coburg is one of its many attractions; it makes for great people watching. I love walking or cycling around the suburb, I can do almost all my shopping locally and dine out locally. I do have to leave the suburb for art galleries and most of my live entertainment.

Coburg is an area of land bounded by the Merri and Moonee Valley creeks. The Moonee Valley creek is now just a large concrete drain but the Merri Creek is now an attractive place, recovering from its badly polluted state in the late 20th century. Coburg has changed from a village to a city, to a dormitory suburb, to a shopping and business hub. Coburg has changed since Europeans stole the land from the aborigines but it is now being done with greater taste. There is a greater sensitivity to preserving the local character. There are a surprising number of heritage listed buildings and heritage overlays in Coburg. Developers are preserving art deco facades of factories (see my post on Art Deco Coburg) and homeowners are restoring Federation era houses, renovating the interiors for the 21st century. There was plenty of insensitive development in Coburg in the 1960-80. Now there are many new construction sites along Sydney Road many of the old shops, garages and warehouses are coming down. The “Hygenic Building” still stands but the dairy behind it has long gone.

I didn’t realize the passions raised by these changes in Coburg until I wrote my first blog Coburg 2010. But it is still out there, last week I got of pamphlet from the Save Coburg campaign. This is often the parochial politics of the current gentrification of a suburb, the financial and emotional attachment to the home, the financial pressures to move, the loss of rental spaces for students and other low-income groups. If you want to make really intelligent comments on this aspect of redevelopment then I suggest that you first read Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979); far too few people have read this brilliant book. Thompson describes the chaos mathematics of the forces operating to depopulated former inner city slums and makes them attractive places to gentrify.

For more on the history of Coburg you can read Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) but I must warn you that it is a boring local history with too much focus on details and not enough narrative. Broome had made full use of the archives but struggles to make a history out the material collected and his frequent contemporary asides are not an alternative to analysis.


Coburg Cemetery

I went to Coburg Cemetery primarily to find the grave of the Melbourne sculptor, Charles Web Gilbert. It was an easier task than I expected because Coburg Cemetery now has a Heritage Walk. And Charles Web Gilbert’s grave was one of the stops on the walk.

The self-guided walk starts at the visitor’s rotunda and takes the visitor around 30 graves in the cemetery. There are the graves of notable people like ornithologist George Arthur Keartland, victims of disasters, sporting heroes and politicians. The grave of gangland enforcer John Daniel (Snowy) Cutmore and the graves of murder victims, like police constable David Edward McGrath or bank manager, Thomas Anketell. And the graves of early Coburg’s Chinese residents and the grave of Said Ahmed Shah, the first Moslem religious leader in Melbourne.

The grave of Said Ahmed Shah

The hillside site for Coburg Cemetery was surveyed and gazetted in 1860 but was not used until 1875. The cemetery is divided into denominational compartments and the style of tombs reflects these religious differences. The cemetery is now an attractive, although muddy old cemetery full of examples of late 19th and 20th century funerary monuments, statues of angels and other ornamental marble carving. Some of the graves are in bad repair and erosion is causing some monuments to tilt and others to collapse.

Back to Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925); who made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor. He also made the Mathew Flinders Memorial next to St Paul’s Cathedral on Swanston St.

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

Charles Web Gilbert learnt sculpture as an apprentice chef modelling icing-sugar decorations. Mostly self-taught as a sculptor his only formal art training was in drawing. His first studio off was Collins Street, he then at 59 Gore Street where he built his own foundry and started experimenting casting in bronze. He regularly exhibited with the Victorian Artists’ and Yarra Sculptors’ societies and in London at the Royal Academy. Late in 1917 Gilbert joined the Australian Imperial Force as a sculptor in the War Records Section. After that the rest of his life was dominated by making memorials. Gilbert made 9 World War I memorials for the Chamber of Manufactures, Melbourne, the Malvern Town Hall, the British (Australian) Medical Association, Parkville, Shepparton, Burnside, Adelaide, and Broken Hill.

Charles Web Gilbert had always done everything for himself, including his own foundry work. He wore himself out carrying clay for a huge full size model and died suddenly on 3 October 1925. Web Gilbert’s grave in Church of England section of cemetery is very plain with out any memorial sculpture or even a headstone.


Street Art meets Graffiti in Coburg

Coburg is on the edge of the donut ring of Melbourne’s inner city suburbs and the outer suburbs. For street art it is the high tide mark, the final piece on a midnight mission, the liminal zone where beautiful street art meets ugly graffiti. Coburg is different from it’s more inner neighbour, Brunswick where the aerosol is thick and fast. Coburg is where the inner city pieces run out and only bombing, tagging continues. It is not in the mainstream of Melbourne’s street art or graffiti scene but the occasional piece still pops up. Braddock, Psalm, Lench and others have all decorated the walls of Coburg.

Suki Art, paste-up, Coburg, 2010

There are street artists who do the occasional odd piece, leaving messages along the bike trail, Shark’s paste-ups of birds and Forever’s great Cooo-burg pigeon paste-up, the odd stencil here and there.

I have been looking at Coburg’s graffiti for decades. I remember a long gone, old Psalm blockbuster piece on the fence by Coburg railway station from back in the 1990s when there was very little graffiti on the Upfield line. I also remember an early stencil and paste-ups by Peter Bourke who went on to a great fake newspaper headline paste-up campaign, “The Pedestrian Times”.

Lench, aerosol, Coburg, 2010

The aerosol pieces along the Upfield train line run and bike path out a little way into Coburg past Moreland Station, partially due to a lack of available walls. Build a brick wall by the railway tracks in Coburg and it will be painted, as Lench did with this new wall. And beyond Coburg Railway Station the there is a lot of crap graffiti. There are few pieces due to local strange attractors, like the walls opposite Batman Station. There aren’t that many laneways in Coburg, the city council had a policy of selling them off. There are the occasional sticker and paste-up runs up Sydney Road that reach Coburg’s shopping centre. And furious political debate and simple graffiti cover the giant back walls of the supermarkets.

Coburg political graffiti 2011

This is Shit, stencil, Coburg, 2008

buffing, Coburg 2011

There is also a lot of serious buffing in Coburg creating walls that look like abstract paintings. This buffing discourages anyone to go beyond tags, throw-ups and slogans; although the occasional one can take even that to a new level. There are some really creative throw-ups in Coburg.

yarn bombing, Coburg 2011

throw-up flower, Coburg 2011

stencil, Coburg 2011

throw-up, Coburg 2011


Art Deco Coburg

According to real estate agents there are plenty of art deco houses in Coburg but real estate agents are not experts on architecture and most of these claims are based on some ceiling moulding and a few other left over features. There are some art deco buildings in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Coburg but art deco in Coburg was not prestige buildings rather it was new facades for old factories, pubs, shops, garages, houses and a community hall. Art deco architecture was a sign that the upwardly mobile working class industrial suburb was keeping up with the times.

Now that the old Union Knitting Mills has been gutted and transformed into multi-story flats I started to consider how the “modern geometric style” (as art deco was then known) was received and used in Coburg. The new building is a dramatic change but sensitive to the old streetscape and preserves the best aspects of the architecture. The renovation retains the original curving banded art deco façade and entrance. Even the original factory sign has been restored.

A block down from Union Knitting Mills the Post Office Hotel also has an art deco façade covering an older building. The façade has recently been restored – I’ve enjoying several meals at the Post Office Hotel and the pub has gained a reputation for its superb food both in its restaurant and counter menu. The iron ribbon lettering of the Post Office Hotel sign is similar to that of several pubs in North Melbourne.

There are other touches of art deco in the suburb. Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) reports a building boom immediately after the Great Depression, people had been waiting for better economic times before starting their construction. There are modern/art deco elements in facades of a few Coburg factory facades along Sydney Road dating their construction.

Akins Auto Service on Nicholson St. is another example of the modest art deco buildings in Coburg. Akins Auto Service was established in 1932. There are also art deco elements in design of the façade on the Progress Hall and parts of the memorial opposite the Coburg Town Hall on Bell Street. The memorial is dedicated to the first Coburg resident killed in WWII: the griffons on the memorial are impressive.

For more of Melbourne’s art deco buildings see Art Deco Buildings blog by David Thompson. Although he has not written about Coburg, Thompson does look Art Deco in many of Melbourne’s suburbs.


Pentridge Rehabilitated

Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated. Pentridge Prison was built in 1850 to cope with the over crowded Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks in Port Phillip Bay. The prison closed on the 1st May 1997; wreaking historian Richard Broome’s 1987 prediction that the “it is likely to last another 136 years.” Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987)

Penal history is a major feature of Australian colonial history and Pentridge Prison is the gravesite of Australia’s most famous folk hero/outlaw, Ned Kelly. Although some Australians take pride in a convict past the residents of Coburg didn’t and repeatedly called for the removal of the prison. Pentridge Prison haunted the upwardly mobile aspirations of the homeowners and residents of Coburg for generations. The city changed its name attempting to disassociate the city from the prison. Now Coburg won’t be forgetting Pentridge with parts of the prison now being classified for its heritage value and other parts being replaced by a slowing growing housing estate. The rehabilitation of the former Pentridge Prison into Pentridge Village has slowly progressing for several years.

I am not interested in spruiking the real estate; I am interested in the cultural issues of this urban redevelopment. I am interested in the mix of historic, residential and retail that the transformation includes. At least Pentridge Village is not another anonymous housing estate or apartment block; there is plenty of the prison’s character preserved and the new residents won’t forget the history of the place. This is not to suggest that the architecture of a 19th Century prison does not have its charm or that the new flats and apartments look like a prison. The better bluestone construction has been preserved; the granite “bluestone” was mostly quarried, cut and built by prison labour (except for the external walls for obvious reasons). Barred windows, old signs and other features are being preserved as the prison is being rehabilitated. Some streets have been named after part of the prison like “Warden’s Walk” but others are just bizarre property development words.

Pentridge Village does feature some new innovations; Warden’s Walk utilizes permeable paving to capture of storm-water runoff.  The storm-water harvesting and reuse (I saw some enormous water tanks) is used, in part, to water the extensive rose bush planting as a symbolic reference to the past (the prisoners maintained a rose garden within the prison as well as poetic reference). Some of Pentridge is still a building site and wasteland and in other parts residents have been living there for years. The spaces for shops and businesses are still vacant except for one restaurant. Although the heritage space has been used for fashion shows and old cells transformed in to boutique wine cellars according to Style Melbourne.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living very close to the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed. The escape proof Jika Jika Unit that looked like Space Station Despair has been demolished; although the architects could build on the nostalgic ambiance of the 19th Century parts of the prison, the modern penal architecture of the Jika Jika Unit could never be reformed.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

The historic entrance and other parts of the historic precinct of the old Pentridge Prison are yet to be rehabilitated. The front of the prison still stands looking abandoned with heritage issues yet to be resolved. There are no statues yet in this redevelopment and the front of the prison definitely needs a suitable statue that is sensitive to the history without being mawkish. (For information on the art of prisoners see my post about Prison Art @ Pentridge)

Perhaps saying that Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated is going too far; it scrubs up well and has taken significant steps to reform its character but it is still a work in progress.


Coo-burg

To the west of Jewell Station looks like a scene from the Hitchcock movie “The Birds”; there are hundreds of feral pigeons along with a dozen seagulls. Coburg’s intersection of Victoria Street and Waterfield Road presents a similar scene; some parts of the Victoria Street mall are completely unusable due to pigeon droppings. And now there are pigeon paste-ups in the Victoria Street Mall renaming the suburb: “Coo-burg”. These paste-ups rats of the sky make street art references to Banksy’s rats and Blek le Rat.

Coburg does not have a lot of street art or graffiti compared to Brunswick, just the occasional paste-up or sticker run and the odd tag. These paste-ups raise the question: are pigeons more serious urban problem than graffiti? In a word: yes. Pigeons make more than just a mess they make an unhygienic mess; pigeon dropping can spread diseases to humans. There are expenses incurred by local councils and traders to prevent pigeons roosting and to clean up pigeon droppings: anti-roosting devices and netting ruin the look of architecture. For more on the problem of pigeons in an urban environment see Pigeon Pest Control For Beginners.

There is legislation to prevent feeding pigeons but it goes on – some people dump bread by the loaf to feed them. But unlike graffiti the people who feed pigeons are not regarded as socially disruptive and the laws regarding feeding pigeons are not enforced nor are they a focus of public concern. Maybe Coo-burg needs a pigeon trap/roost like the one at Batman Park, Melbourne or other forms of population control. Expecting politicians to prioritise their response to problems based on evidence rather than prejudices would be too much.

Jail bird at the former Pentridge prison


Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge Prison operated in Coburg between 1850 and 1997 and as in all prisons some prisoners were also artists (not just escape artists and bareknuckle bash artists). In 1886 professional photographer, Joseph H. Soden was convicted of forging pound notes and served time in Pentridge in the same year his photographs were exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.

In 1960 (or 1962 or1964) aboriginal artist Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) painted the mural in “F” Division. Painted with ordinary house paint the mural depicts an aboriginal camp scene. Part of the stolen generation Elliot Ronald Bull had already studied painting with Melbourne painter, Ernest Buckmaster. After his release Elliot Ronald Bull participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions. His mural at Pentridge has been restored and preserved.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living a block from the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed.

Carving from officers club rooms Pentridge Prison.

There was some prisoner art on the site in the maximum security Jika Jika Unit and in the officers’ club rooms. On a wall in the officers’ club rooms were a series of folk art style carved and painted round base reliefs. I’m don’t know what has happened to them.

The escape proof Jika Jika Unit has been demolished along with the art on its walls. Prisoners had painted some of the yard walls of the Jika Jika unit. On the ceiling and walls of one cell an unknown, probably aboriginal artist had painted goanna with tracks leading up the wall and onto the ceiling. The simple elegance of this design helped humanized a dehumanising cell.

Towards the end of its long life Pentridge Prison did have various art programs for prisoners run by art educator, Dr Max Darby and painter, Margaret Miles. (See Dr Max Darby’s “My Days In Prison”.)There was also at least one prisoner art exhibition in a CBD bank – so if anyone knows anymore details about prisoner art in Pentridge Prison please comment before the details are lost to history and redevelopment.


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