There’s a little blue building outside Flinders Street Station. Perhaps you have seen it. It’s down towards Queen Street at the bottom of an old, granite-paved milk ramp.
Granted, it’s nothing special to look at. There’s something of the mongrel about it. Half the building is boarded up, displaying advertisements for shop fronts that no longer exist. Until lately, a sole shoe repairer had defied the odds and continued to operate, but last week I noticed that he too, had gone.
Recently, the building came to my attention, thanks to a curious library patron. ‘When was the building built, and why?’ he asked. ‘Was it intended to be part of Banana Alley?’
My interest was piqued, not least because I’d never heard of Banana Alley. Nor was I aware of the existence of a milk ramp so I did some research.
[Scenes of the State Library of Victoria from 1954 Age newspaper]; H27642a
And here is what I found…
The Milk Dock
Flinders street station once had a milk dock. Fresh milk was delivered to Flinders Street by incoming trains from dairies all over Victoria. Milk cans were collected by railway staff and wheeled down the milk ramp on trolleys. Not everyone, it seems, was a fan of the process.
[Flinders Street Railway Station]; H2010.76/5
‘…[T]ired porters…drag goods trolleys almost every hour of the day’, complained The Argus in 1912. ‘Now and then a trolley gets out of hand, and “shoots the chute” in a wild rush, while the porters sprint behind it yelling warnings to those below. A man was knocked down and injured a few days ago. Some day, perhaps, someone will be killed’.
[Dairy wagon from 69 Wilson Street, North Carlton]; H92.20/1868
The chaos was not confined to the milk ramp. One commuter was so incensed that he penned a complaint to The Argus newspaper:
‘I lately followed a porter conveying a wooden truck, a crate of live fowls, and other baggage from a platform in Flinders Street to the cloakroom. He balanced them most insecurely on the top of some milk cans, with the result that both fowls and box somersaulted heavily on the platform… The same kind of thing can be noted any day’ (The Argus, 2 August 1917).
Once the milk cans were deposited (safely) at the bottom of the milk ramp, they were picked up by horses and carts, who distributed the milk to households across Melbourne. Later, the empty milk cans were returned to the station. They were cleaned, sorted and returned to the dairies.
The Flinders–street viaduct – an anticipatory sketch [Melbourne, Vic.]; A/S21/03/89/40
In 1891 the railway viaduct was built on Flinders Street for the purpose of connecting Spencer Street and Flinders Street stations. The arches underneath the viaduct were enclosed and sub-divided into 33 separate spaces. You can see them on the left in the photograph below.
[View south east across Flinders Street towards Queens Bridge and Queens Wharf];H2008.105/11
The dark, cavernous conditions of the viaduct’s vaults made them an ideal place to ripen green bananas. They were quickly adopted as storage facilities by wholesale fruiterers from the nearby Western Market. The bananas were unloaded at Queen’s Wharf, before being transferred to the vaults for stockpiling and ripening.
Unloading bananas, Queens Wharf, 1899 [Vic.]; H2006.188/3
The bananas were full of all kinds of nasties: spiders, insects, snakes and rodents, who would hide inside their clustered hands. Inevitably, these creepy crawlies made their way into the vaults.
In the 1930s, Queen’s Wharf was no longer accessible to cargo ships due to the construction of the Queens Street bridge. The vaults fell into disrepair, but the legacy of the bananas remained. To this day, the precinct is known as ‘Banana Alley’ .
The little blue building
The little blue building was built some time in the 1920s, presumably at the behest of the Victorian Railways. Over the years, it’s been variously occupied by tobacconists, boot-makers, a dyer’s business, a shop selling oils and colours, an instrument repairer, newsagencies, an adult bookstore, book repairers, and even a scientific instruments shop. But despite the best efforts of the Sands & McDougall doorknockers, we are yet to discover the reason for the little blue building’s existence.
Do you know why it was built? We’d love to know.