Capitalising on fear of the bubonic plague in 1901 the suburb of Haberfield was built in Sydney. Australia’s first planned model suburb had limited height, there were no pubs and no back lanes. The back lanes were used for the ‘night-soil cart’; you can still see the low doors in the brick fences in some of the lanes in Fitzroy. We can assume from the absence of lanes that houses in Haberfield was connected to main sewers. (For more on Haberfield read Art and Architecture for more on bubonic plague and its effects on Sydney see the digital records of NSW.)
In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd was appalled at the tangle of overhead wires but he doesn’t get beneath the surface ugliness to notice that although these suburban homes that were now connected to telephone and electricity had not yet been connected to the sewers. That Melbourne had a telephone system before a sewerage system is a striking fact. In 1880 a telephone exchange opened in Collins Street and seven years later, in 1887 the first Melbourne homes to be connected to sewers. Some homes in the suburb of Frankston were only connected to the sewerage in 1991.
The architectural evidence for nineteenth century Smellbourne’s muddy, shit covered streets and open sewers is still evident, not just with network of back lanes, but in the iron boot scrapers, a necessary architectural feature, built into the entrances of its older buildings.
My own suburb of Coburg, in Melbourne’s inner north, contains many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century suburban development, most with back lanes but a few without. Lincoln Street and the adjoining street have a single house block, instead of the usual double blocks with a laneway down the middle. In “Lascelles Park” development there only a lane between the houses on Jamieson and Lascelles streets and two very short lanes behind the four larger lots at the Reynard Gosling Road ends.
Over last century suburban planners were turning against lanes as more suburbs were connected to sewers. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties the Moreland City Council was sell off several of the lanes in Coburg as they were no longer used except for fly-tipping and discreet access for burglars. The bluestone cobbles are expensive to repair and make traversing the lanes uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible especially for people with disabilities, cyclist and even ordinary pedestrians.
In spite of all of this the inhabitants of Moreland now want to preserve the lanes. After a 2,400-signature petition was presented to Moreland City Council in September 2013 the Council resolved to maintain Moreland’s bluestone laneways and there is now a plan to preserve these lanes. The Council explains on it web page devoted to bluestone lanes that “Moreland values the network of bluestone laneways as a community asset which is an important part of Moreland’s heritage and urban character.”
Unlike the lanes in the inner city Melbourne that are famous for their street art, little bars and boutiques these back lanes are amongst the least attractive features of the suburb, generally backing onto old rusted corrugated iron fences and old sheds. Maybe someone is hoping that their historic ambience of Coburg and Brunswick before sewers will add to their property value.