Changes to Melbourne's Street Numbers

  • Abstract:
    During 1888/1889 Melbourne's street numbering system changed. This article explains what these changes were and the reasons why they changed. This information is important for any person researching the location of Melbourne's people and businesses before and after the change. Using this information, incorrect assumptions about street locations may be avoided.

So you've found the street where your family lived, or ran a business. If you are lucky, there is also a street number so that you can check to see if the building still survives. However, great care must be taken when using street numbers. These often changed over time as towns became more populated and new buildings were squeezed into the streetscape where previously there had been vacant land. What may seem like a move further down the street may be merely a change in the system of street numbering. The house you are photographing today might be the wrong one!


When I first started researching certain business addresses in Melbourne, I very quickly discovered the trap that the uninitiated usually fall into. In the early days, Collins Street East Melbourne, for example, was Collins Street East, in Melbourne, NOT Collins Street in East Melbourne. Melbourne's roads which ran East-West were originally numbered in two sections, with Elizabeth Street being the starting point for each section. Number 1 Collins Street East ran from the corner of Elizabeth Street up to Spring Street, and number 1 Collins Street West ran from the corner of Elizabeth Street up to Spencer Street. The odd numbers were on the northern side of the street. This same system operated in all of Melbourne's east-west streets, including the 'little' streets such as Little Bourke, Little Lonsdale, etc.


90 Collins St

Originally 90 Collins St East, now 179 Collins St

Small two-storey building with white facade

on left side of photo.

Photo courtesy of Peter Torokfalvy


The potential confusion created as result of changes in street numbering can be seen by following the progress of one particular business over time. The homœopathic pharmacy of Kidner and Gould was established in 1860 with the street address of 90 Collins Street East. The business was located on the south side of the street opposite the Baptist Church. The building still survives, albeit dwarfed by the surrounding structures, and with a 'new' art deco facade and the new street number of 179 Collins Street. 


 (Coincidentally, I discovered that in the 1930s my father had designed the art deco frieze and general appearance of the front of the building, as one of his earliest assignments as a junior architect.)


During the 1870s the pharmacy, now named Martin & Co., moved to 85 Collins Street East, a two storey building on the opposite side of the street, next to the Baptist Church.




According to Melbourne's post office directories, the business was still at that location until 1884. There was a gap in available directory information until 1892, when the business (by now named Martin & Pleasance) was suddenly listed as being at 180 Collins Street - an even number where it had been an odd number, and a much larger number which would normally indicate that the premises had moved further up the hill towards Spring Street. In fact I knew that this was incorrect. The business had remained in the same location, although in 1890 the two storey building had been replaced by a newly-built five storey edifice. The apparent difference in the address was the result of a major change in Melbourne's street numbering system.

Exactly when did this change occur, and why?



Facade detail of 180 Collins Street

Photo courtesy of Peter Torokfalvy



180 Collins Street

Five-storey Martin & Pleasance building

(behind large tree)

Photo courtesy of Peter Torokfalvy


The issue of street numbering became problematic in Melbourne and other Victorian towns even in the very early years. With the surge in population following the discovery of gold, it was no longer easy to locate people by directions and landmarks alone - instructions such as 'near the Star and Garter Hotel' or 'last wooden cottage a quarter mile from the back of Bishop's Palace' being two such real-life examples.

Collins St 1870-s

Collins Street circa 1870 (looking West)

Showing the original homœopathic pharmacy on the left

with the verandah,with a carriage parking outside it.

Later the pharmacy moved across the road to the

two-storey building beside the church, labelled 'Chemist'.

Photo courtesy of State Library of Victoria (H41033/17)










Geelong took an early lead. Frederick Proeschel (1809 - 1870) had already measured and mapped out all the Geelong streets 'for the purpose of numbering', and the Geelong Advertiser of 4 January 1855 reported that Proeschel had obtained permission to affix a number plate to every house in town and the suburbs 'for which his charge will be half-a-crown.' The charge was considered to be small considering the great benefit to the community.

Mr Proeschel, described as being the most persevering of all map-makers, went on to make maps of various Melbourne suburbs (including Richmond and Collingwood), Melbourne itself, maps of Victoria, and an Atlas of Australia.


According to an article in The Argus of 18 February 1947, a letter dated 1855 from Mr Proeschel to the Melbourne Council was re-discovered in one of the State offices. Having 'officially numbered' Geelong and North Melbourne, Proeschel wrote to the Council to offer a similar service, provided he was allowed to charge each householder for the number plate. It appears that this offer was not taken up.


Over time, many practices served to confuse the effectiveness of existing street numbers. Builders of a series of cottages often numbered them 1, 2, 3, and so on, removing the usefulness and logic of an overall street numbering system. In the 23 July 1880 edition of The Argus, 'A Sufferer' stated that 'Persons living, as I do, in one of these unfortunate number ones, can testify to the annoyance caused by the multiplicity of callers inquiring for the right number one.' Also, Proeschel had suggested that small cottages should be given only half numbers. Melbourne showed some evidence of this custom, with addresses such as 105A or 12½ .


By 1876 there were complaints about the inadequate and confusing street numbering in Carlton. One writer to The Argus of 1 June 1876 stated that in the section of Canning Street running from the Carlton gardens north to Reilly Street there were about 148 dwellings and commented that:


Fifty have no numbers at all, there are eight number ones, nine number twos, nine number threes, seven number fours, and one five, with great leaps from one number to another, till 128 is reached, the highest figure in the street." The writer continued, stating that "the time lost by strangers, parcel deliverers, and others in finding the residences of the people of Carlton would more than pay for the uniform numbering of the houses many times over in a year. Might not the City Council, through some bye-law [sic] or otherwise, take the matter in hand, and with the assistance of the building surveyor restore a little order from this increasing confusion.


Still the problem persisted. 'Medicus' wrote to The Argus of 29 July 1885 regarding the lack of numbering of houses:


To one who receives messages to call at a certain number in a street without the exact locality being stated, the trouble and often impossibility of finding the place is well known, and leads to endless mistakes. One great cause is doubtless the numbers of new buildings put up, but there also seems to be a sort of mania to build a few houses of the same character and place 1, 2, 3, &c., on them.


The next day, another writer agreed with Medicus, stating that in just one street there were 'no less than 10 number 11s, and 13 number 15s.' Medicus recommended a remedy which he had seen in Glasgow, namely that the whole system be placed in the hands of the police, who would strike out the wrong numbers on the houses, and paint the correct numbers in red.


The 31 July 1885 edition of The Argus published another solution to the problem, provided by J.B. of South Melbourne:


Would not a plan of numbering buildings by definite distance be an improvement on the present system? Suppose, for instance, all streets running east and west were to commence numbering at the east, and all running north and south at the north; then, say, to every five yards a number be alotted [sic], house or no house; where vacant lands or cross streets intervened, the numbers to be entirely left out; then, the number given, the approximate position of the building would be known at once, and given any one number, any other could be found on the darkest night without any trouble, even though large vacant spaces might intervene.


The writer also advocated that buildings with large frontages would have several numbers, 'and where two occupied one space of five yards, a half number might be introduced to the second one, and to designate offices on a first floor A might be used, B for the second floor, and so on'.


By 1888 the City Council had decided to take on at least part of J.B.'s suggestions. On 18 August 1888 The Argus announced that the City Council had decided to re-number the houses in the streets of the city. Work in Carlton had been completed and re-numbering in West Melbourne was under way.


The new system of numbering Melbourne's streets commenced in the last three months of 1888. Under the new system the street numbers ran from south to north and from east to west consecutively, odd numbers on the left hand side, even numbers on the right. The existing division of the city into east and west was abolished. The council adopted an official tablet with the number in distinct blue figures. The by-law passed for the renumbering of the streets required that, 'under a penalty not exceeding 40 shillings these official tablets shall be affixed in all cases ... Any person removing or obliterating these numbers after they have been affixed is liable to a penalty not exceeding £20.'


According to The Argus of 17 January, 1889, the principal feature of the newly-published Melbourne Directory for 1889 was the publication of the new street numbers:


The City Corporation having during the last three months re-numbered the streets within their bounds, the publishers of this volume have been enabled, by making special arrangements with the municipal officers, to publish the new numbers. The volume contains these numbers only, and as they will be alone used by the Post-office department, the value of the directory is increased by this change. The new street numbers of North and South Melbourne and several of the other suburbs are also given.


Also in January 1889, some businesses advertised, for example, that in consequence of the alteration of street numbers by the City Council, the street number for Company X, formerly No. 15, has been altered to No. 37 Queen Street.


For a while some businesses advertised the new number, but still attached to word 'East' to the street, to indicate that they were still in the eastern part of Collins Street, for example. Others chose to indicate their location by reference to another prominent and well-known building such as the Athenaeum, to show that they had not moved from their previous address, despite the new street number.


This dramatic change of the street numbering system inevitably was the talk of the town and prompted one person to write an amusing piece about its affect on him and his lifestyle. The item appeared in The Argus of 2 February 1889 and was entitled 'What's Your Number? by 163'. Following the visit of a council official, Mr Number 21 suddenly became Mr Number 163, and after the pretty enamel plate showing the new number had been affixed to his door, his life was transformed. 'Before the gentleman came I was number 21; now I was 163. ... I was no longer my old self.' Distances walked seemed far greater because of the larger numbers involved. Even his dog refused to live at the 'new' address, racing off to Number 21, his old number.


He found that he had acquired the habits and lifestyle of Number 163, old style. 'I always knew that Mr B. (163, old style) was abnormally fond of his glass. I am appalled at the prospect of my becoming so. Already I feel, or think I feel premonitory symptoms of gout.' He hoped that his heir (Number 21, new style) would inherit from him all his good traits. 'My heir (No. 21, new style) will surely have a pleasant time, I can promise him that. He will inherit from me sober thoughts, inexpensive tastes, a good constitution, and benevolent disposition.'


Deliveries, tradesmen and visitors intended for Number 163, old style, now came to him at Number 163, new style, as these people had not been informed of the alteration of numbers. 'Mr B. (163, old style) must have been a much-troubled man. We are in a position to know now, because almost every day we have evidence of it in the number of bills which come to us, and which we do not owe.' At the time there must have been numerous such mistakes, with the result that strangers got to know more of the private lives and activities of their 'alternate number' than was intended, with embarrassment to all involved. For example, in the article, because of the unplanned arrival of a 'rag man', the wife of Number 163, new style, discovered that the reason why the woman living in Number 163, old style, was able to look so well-dressed was that she sold all her old clothes to the rag man in order to buy the latest fashions.


The requirement for households to display house numbers spawned a new 'scam', with a report in The Argus of 2 May 1913 that a man was going around some of the suburbs demanding that numbers be placed on doors and gates and selling the number plates at a price higher than the authorised price of the plates supplied by the council.


Problems with street numbering, with resulting changes, continued in suburbs and townships throughout the years. So all researchers must 'beware the street number'.


©   Barbara Armstrong