As far back as the 1850s, slums existed in inner city Melbourne. Slum dwellers lived a squalid existence. Often, they had no bathrooms, or sewerage. They lived in ramshackle housing, with leaky roofs and holes in the walls.
[Collingwood]. Rear of No. 5 Hood Street; H2001.291/20
In 1923, active Methodist and social reformer F. Oswald Barnett visited an inner city slum. He was so shocked that he was moved to write the following lament:
WHAT CAN I DO?
What shall I do about these little ones,
These children of the slums,
These helpless, unwashed babies of the slums,
Who crawl along on bare and filthy floors,
Who feed with sticky flies,
Who play in evil-smelling lanes,
Whose mothers cannot keep them clean,
In body or in soul? 
Carlton. Entrance to a slum pocket, c.a. 1930; H2001.291/12
Enlisting the help of other young Methodists, Barnett began a campaign for social change. Together, they successfully advocated for the establishment of the Methodist Babies’ House in South Yarra in 1929.
C’wood [i.e. Collingwood] open air wash-house; H2001.291/234
Barnett went further. Along with several other photographers, he began taking photos of the slums, using them as fuel in his push for social reform. The pictures, combined with emotive language, simultaneously shocked and captivated the public.
Carlton. Two mothers; H2001.291/9
Melbourne historian, Dr Andrew Brown-May, observes that from the 1850s onwards: ‘Slum depictions, fashioned in words and illustration, endured as a powerful genre in Melbourne’s cultural landscape.’ 
Slum portrayals were sensationalist and voyeuristic. Photos from the slums featured alcoholic mothers with loose moral standards, ‘vermin-infested kitchens’, and children riddled with fleas and head lice.
Fitzroy. The key of the front door of the apartment house; H2001.291/51
The campaign to rid Melbourne of its slums steadily gained momentum over the next century. In 1937 the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board produced a damning report on the ‘slum menace’:
‘The Board records its horror and amazement at the deplorable conditions….Hidden behind wide, spacious streets there are slum pockets which are hotbeds of depravity and disease’. 
The Board recommended urgent measures to combat the problem, including the rehousing of slum dwellers and reclamation of slum areas. Its report led to the creation of the Housing Commission of Victoria.
Carlton [Kitchen interior with woman and three children], c.a. 1935; H2001.291/6
In 1938, the Victorian government passed legislation to facilitate a ‘war on slums.’ The Housing Commission was tasked with ‘excising’ slum pockets for the ‘common good’.  The Commission built flats to rehouse the slum dwellers. At the same time, it went about acquiring cheap land in suburbs such as Coburg, Brunswick, Northcote, Fitzroy and Richmond.
West Melbourne. The front view of a “Dudley Mansion; H2001.291/68
But abolishing the slums was proving to be difficult. The ‘demolitions program’ was beset with problems. By 1940, only 53 families had actually been moved into new houses. Synchronising demolition works with the building program was hard. The Commission did not have enough resources, and lacked the support of the labour movement. 
Behind the Scenes; H2001.291/267
The Housing Commission upped the ante. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Commission launched the most ambitious slum-clearance projects ever seen in Australia. Residents in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond protested and refused to move. In 1969, the Carlton Association launched a PR campaign denouncing the schemes.
Finally, four years later, the Victorian government abandoned the slum clearance schemes, but by then, whole communities had been dismantled. The buildings that housed them had been demolished.
Society moved on to other concerns. But the slum stereotype lives on in our records. It is the only version of the truth that remains.
You can view the entire F. Oswald Barnett Collection online.
 Barnett, F.O. [1945?], I hear the tramp of millions, Rawson’s Book Shop, Melbourne
 ‘Slums’, Encyclopedia of Melbourne
 Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, 1937, First (progress) report, with appendices and supplements [microform] : slum reclamation : housing for the lower-paid worker; short term programme, H.J. Green, Government Printer, Melbourne
 Freestone, R., 2010, Urban nation : Australia’s planning heritage, CSIRO Publishing in assoc. with the Dept. of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, & the Australian Heritage Council. p. 217
 Howe, R. (ed.), 1988, New houses for old : fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938-1988, Ministry of Housing & Construction, Melbourne, p. 41