Strolling along High St in Preston Central, looking round at the hairdressers and cafes, the Chinese and Vietnamese eateries, the bakeries, the $2.00 shops, you might wonder what this part of Melbourne was like for the people who first came here. How did they live? And how did Preston get its name?
In the 1840s, the first white settlers from the new town (then called Bearbrass) on the banks of the Yarra started to head north, cutting their way through the bush. The first thing you notice about early photos of Melbourne is how bare it was. No trees, just buildings. Fortunately, some original redgums still stand in Bundoora Park.
Property lots for the Preston area were auctioned off in 1838 and 1839. Two pounds, one shilling and sixpence bought you an acre in South Preston but if you were prepared to venture further north you could buy an acre for eight shillings and threepence. Abel Gower purchased the lot bounded by High Street, Murray Road, the Darebin Creek and Bell Street; the Preston central area was initially known as Gowerville.
Trees were felled, farms, dairies and market gardens were established, and an
English family from Brighton called Woods opened the first store and Post Office. Something about their new surroundings reminded them of a Sussex village they used to visit on annual Baptist church excursions – the village of Preston, so that’s what the Woods named the area.
It wasn’t easy to get to. The Collingwood and Clifton Hill cable tram from Melbourne, painted in red and white to designate its route, only went as far as the bridge at Clifton Hill. The fare was four and a half pennies, there and back. In 1890 the line was extended to Dundas St. By 1889 though, you could catch the train to Whittlesea and get off at Preston Station (threepence return). By the 1920s you could catch an electric tram to Gilbert Road or Plenty Road.
In 1893 Preston’s population was 3,600. If you were a local looking for a job you might knock on the door of Zwar’s Tannery, Hutton’s Hams and Bacons (with their bossy advertising – ‘Don’t argue, Hutton’s hams are best!’), or apply at Scott’s Brickyard – the first to produce machine-made bricks, using horsepower.
You might find work on in a flour mill, a dairy farm, a piggery, in a market garden, in the soap factory, in the library, teach in one of the two state schools, enforce the law in one of the two police stations, clerk in one of the two post offices or at the Town Hall. If you’d been out drinking at one of Preston’s six hotels you’d be wending your way home by gaslight, avoiding, potholes, quagmires and quarries the further you got from High Street. Many of the small parks around Darebin today were once clay and bluestone quarries then tips before being filled in.
Preston, like the rest of Melbourne, grew rapidly during the Victorian gold rush years of the 1850s. The 1890s saw an economic slump and many locals lost their jobs; as they did forty years later during the great depression of the 1930s.
Preston has been a shire (1871), a borough (1922), a town (1922) and a city (1926). In 1994 Preston merged into the City of Darebin.
In the 1950s Greeks and Italian migrants were moving to Preston, finding work in the textile, clothing and traditional footwear manufacturing industries and setting up their own businesses, opening the pastry shops, pizza parlours and cafes that are so typical of Melbourne’s north.
By the 1970s Preston had changed greatly from its Anglo beginnings, becoming home to one of the most diverse populations in Melbourne. The 2016 census revealed that 46% of people in the Preston area spoke a language other than English at home. These days, after English, Italian, Greek, Arabic and Mandarin are the languages you’re most likely to hear on High Street, followed by Cantonese and Macedonian.
In the 1990s outsourcing of manufacturing meant the closure many of the traditional industries in Preston. The tanneries had already closed – the last one operating was Howes’ in High Street. The Preston Market, one of the area’s biggest attractions, was built in 1969 on the site of the old Broadhurst Tannery.
Over the last 30 years Preston has had to reinvent itself yet again. New enterprises of all kinds are springing up and bringing fresh opportunities and making the area one of the most interesting places in Melbourne to live, work and eat.