1950s Melbourne

Flinders St Station and trams  in the 1950s- Melbourne icons

Stability and Sedation
When glamorous US film star Ava Gardner visited Melbourne in 1959 to film Neville Shute's nuclear-disaster novel On the Beach, she was allegedly unimpressed by our isolated corner of the world and famously described it as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world". US evangelist Billy Graham however, while visiting in 1950, had called it "the most moral city in the world". Perhaps in between those two descriptions, almost a decade apart, lay an unavoidable correlation...were we morally upright but dreadfully dull? More recently, journalist Neil Jillet has claimed Gardner  never made the remark at all but rather it was a colourful invention of his own, yet this scarcely seems to matter, as the remark, now etched into Melbourne folklore, had touched a raw nerve.

Typical suburban housewife, Edna Everage
Melbourne in the 1950s was certainly a bastion of conservative values, with nary a ripple of discord from its citizens. Men wore hats and suits and women wore hats and gloves and everyone was awfully nice and chiefly concerned with domesticity. Politically, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was at the helm, WWII was over, the men were home, the women were shuffled back to the kitchen, the pubs closed at 6 o'clock, families were moving out to the newly created suburbs and all seemed right with the world.

It was, as comedian Barry Humphries once remarked, "like going to a party and dancing all night with one's mother". Humphries was one of the few Melbournians to sharply satirise 1950s Melbourne culture via his suburban creation, Edna Everage, who exquisitely typified all that was smug, stifling and self-satisfied about respectable normality. Melbourne had its pockets of subversion but after two world wars and a Depression, most people did not crave excitement - they wanted stability and security and could thus be lulled into a sense of conformity without too much social  friction. By and large, we were white, homogenised and compliant....much like a glass of milk devoid of flavouring.

Still of a 1950s beauty by Melbourne's leading portrait photographer, Athol Shmith. Culture Victoria
The Hopeful City
Unlike its rival city Sydney, Melbourne had never been a penal colony but rather its foundations lay in the aspirations of ex-convicts, English immigrants and free men who had hoped for a new prosperity and a civilised world of respectable passions and dreams. In 1836  the first settlement on the Yarra river was formally named after the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Melbourne and within two years land values had more than tripled. Melbourne's prosperity was further  propelled along by the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and the land boom of the 1890s - growth was so rapid that at one point it became the second largest city in the British Empire, after London. 

Alas, the 1890s boom was followed by a calamitous crash and fortunes were lost almost overnight. My own great grandfather, Francis Gilman, Mayor of the inner city suburb of Hawthorn, lost 80,000 pounds in the crash through over-speculation  - a fortune by the standards of the day. Completely ruined, he was  forced to forgo his Malvern mansion, get a job at the gas works and move in with his adult daughter and son-in-law. Melbourne recovered but only to be sunk into desperation once again by the Great Depression of the 1930s and of course, two terrible wars. Post-war however, things picked up greatly, as they did elsewhere.

Melbournian race-goers, with trainer Tommy Smith out front. Image by Baden Mullaney
The 50s was a  period of new-found affluence. Employment was stable, birth rates were up, Victorian wool prices were healthy, US investment and coal exports to Japan were happening and earlier Government restrictions on imported goods led to a productive manufacturing sector which serviced the domestic market. Shops and houses sprang up to service the needs of growing young families and the great suburban sprawl was taking firm root.

 State of the art 1950s Melbourne home

Premier for 25 yrs, Sir Henry Bolte.
The pro-development and aesthetically challenged Henry Bolte was the State Premier (still the longest serving thus far in our history), and was, according to my mother, responsible, among other controversies, for tearing down what was known as the "Paris end" of Collins street in the city and removing forever many of the old buildings in the town that had identified Melbourne architecturally as one of the most striking examples of a Victorian city in the world. However, I'm aware this is a subjective view and there were and still are, Melbournians who preferred to decimate the ornate and elegant buildings in favour of innovative glass and concrete, thereby making it look like any other modern city:

Decorative domes, facades, spires and even entire buildings were removed. Traditional ornamental cast-iron awnings on commercial buildings were removed and banned in the inner city, and instead, shop awnings were suspended without posts. The (the developers) actions were as much to modernise the city as it was to remove the traditional associations with Europe. Many of these revolutionary early curtain-walled buildings contrasted heavily with the many highly ornate existing buildings providing further 'evidence' of the superiority of modern construction.
From  Walking Melbourne, describing the rush to modernise Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics.

Melbourne's Victorian architecture - Royal Exhibition Building. In need of repair, by 1950 it was earmarked for demolition, to make way for the construction of office blocks. The grand ballroom was eventually demolished but the public outcry was so great, it was decided to preserve the rest.

The Wild One, Johnny O'Keefe
The new demographic, the teenager was emerging as a targetable economic force and even rock'n roll had hit us in the form of diminutive rocker, Sydney-sider, Johnny O'Keefe,  known locally as The Wild One, who belted out foreign hits with enough gusto to rattle the old folk

Night-life was limited in Melbourne due to the six o'clock hotel closing rule  but there was always the cinema, clubs, theatre, restaurants, Luna Park, dances and of course, the radio at home. Daytime recreation was commonly fulfilled by our obsession with the beach and sports of all kinds, though 1950s Melbournians traditionally favoured Australian Rules football, which was conceived in Melbourne,  horse racing and cricket. For the children there was Scouts and Cubs and Girl Guides and Brownies, designed to foster good citizenship and character development. 

The Bar (1954) by South Melbourne artist John Brack, representing the "6 o'clock swill" when men would down as much beer as they could in the small window between the end of work and closing time.

1950s Melbourne Cup poster
True, we were still at best, a one car family (many people didn't own a car at all),  the shopping mall would not arrive till the end of the decade and  we were late to receive some of the technological marvels that were already ubiquitous in other countries, such as TV (which didn't arrive until 1956) - yet when we could, we took to the new consumerism with gusto.

Cream brick veneers grew from the landscape like wildflowers in Spring, old 'coppers' were set aside as down payments were made on bright new washing machines, refrigerators replaced archaic ice-boxes and babies passed through the maternity wards with almost as much frequency as the Holden cars that rolled off the production lines. We were in the boom period.

holden cars coming off the production line
Shiny new  Holden cars barrelling along the production lines . ABC News
Identity Crisis
In the 1950s, many people still considered themselves both British and Australian, if not by birth then by sentiment, lacking the national confidence to completely sever the invisible umbilical cord to Mother England and we looked to that country for guidance and approval. Schools hung the monarch's portrait in the main corridor and its students sang her praises every morning at assembly. American cultural colonisation had yet to make any deep inroads into our sense of sense of identity, although certainly we soaked up our fair share of US influence via Hollywood and seductive images of American culture.

Cultural institutions tended to reflect English tastes and values and while we did have our own artists, musicians, writers and actors, we were a little shy about applauding local talent and loath to regard  them with the same reverence we showed foreign, celebrated talent. We weren't quite sure they were as good  - this  reticence became known as the Australian "cultural cringe". Native, Aboriginal culture was often overlooked, except as a kind of novel boutique art and in the '50s the most celebrated Aboriginal artist was Albert Namatjera, who, though extraordinarily talented, painted almost exclusively in the European style.

Kwaritnama - watercolour  by Albert Namatjira. NGA 

Most Melbournians living in the metropolitan area scarcely even saw an Aboriginal and there was little regard or acknowledgement of traditional ownership. The vast majority of Australians were European-centric, living under the insular umbrella of the White Australia policy, which excluded non-European immigrants. However we weren't completely devoid of multi-culturalism as Greek and Italian immigrants were beginning to open up cafes, delicatessens and restaurants, gradually introducing strange and interesting foods into our hitherto limited culinary range.

When we finally did get television in 1956, we began, slowly, to project more of our unique identity through locally produced TV shows, although imported material was still favoured by the commercial operators. In Melbourne, GTV9 launched In Melbourne Tonight and the children's program The Tarax Show in 1957, HSV7 broadcast the variety show Sunnyside Up but the public broadcaster, the ABC, would not give us a platform for the discussion of local issues via the current affairs programs Four Corners, and This Day Tonight until the beginning of the next decade.

The 1956 Olympic Games
Runner Ron Clarke lights the Olympic Flame in 1956
The '56 Games were in a way, a coming of age for Melbourne. It was a chance to play host to a vast sweep of  international visitors and to showcase our beloved city to the world and although we were a little insecure culturally, as a sporting nation, we felt up to the task. Apart from providing the stimulus for a massive period of growth and development - hotels had to be built, old buildings torn down, new facilities created, as the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere and the first to be broadcast live on television, it electrified Melbourne with a tremendous sense of pride and excitement.

The Games were opened by Prince Phillip and the Olympic flame lit by Melbourne runner, Ron Clarke, who by the end of his career, would set seventeen world records. Rower Merv Wood carried the Australian flag in the opening ceremony and went on to win the Bronze medal in the double sculls event with fellow rower Murray Riley. Strange things happened during the games - prejudices were broken down and new bonds formed. My own Grandmother, who still had residual resentment toward the Japanese because of WWII, went to one of the basketball games, which happened to be between the US and Japan and found herself barracking ferociously for the plucky Japanese basketballers, who were the underdogs during the game.

The '56 games also ushered in some new innovations, still maintained today - one such innovation, where all the athletes parade together as one at the close of the Games, came about at the suggestion of a Melbourne schoolboy, John Wing. Australia did well in the pool and on the track - Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose all won gold. 67 nations competed and despite some international tensions of the era, the catch cry of the day was "the friendly games".  When it was all over and the last athlete returned home, there was a general feeling that  the Games of the XVI  Olympiad had been a resounding success for Melbourne.

Decorations in celebration of the 1956 Olympics adorn Coles store in the city of Melbourne 

The 1950s had ushered in a new age of modernism, affluence and consumerism in Melbourne, as it did in the rest of the Australia and we were never to be the same again. We had our cars and houses and the promise of a bright future. In that decade we grew bolder, stronger and a little more sophisticated. Melbourne became the cultural and financial centre of Australia, as well as the fashion capital. We still loved sport but valued the Arts, taking pride in our new found cosmopolitanism, which was helped along by a steady stream of immigration. So confident and secure were we, that by the 1960s we were ready to question, criticise and to some degree at least, overhaul the conservative status quo.

Some Significant Events in 1950s Melbourne:
1952 - Melbourne's iconic Argus newspaper becomes the first in the world, to introduce colour printing and photography for occasional issues
1953 - The Korean War ends but Australia keeps a presence in Korea as peace-keeping force until 1957
1954 - People line the streets as the Queen and Prince Phillip visit Melbourne as part of their first official tour of Australia
1955  -Ray Lawler's play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll  premieres at the Union Theatre, Melbourne
1956 - Barry Humphries introduces Edna Everage on the Melbourne stage. Television arrives. The Games begin.
1957 - The Argus becomes unprofitable and is shut down forever
1959 - On the Beach is filmed in Melbourne, with visiting stars Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. The beach scenes are shot on the Cowes beach, Phillip Island.