Northcote - history of the suburb

In 1837 Robert Hoddle surveyed the area later to be known as Northcote and High Street is established as part of Melbourne’s grid system of street planning. The name is thought to be derived from the leader of the English Conservative Party, Stafford Henry Northcote. Aboriginal names were used for the creeks and rivers which formed the borders.

Land was first offered for sale by the government in Northcote in 1839. These were long, narrow allotments of between 90 and 140 acres, the influence of which can be observed in the street patterns of the suburb to this day. The land was bought up by property speculators and offered frontages of the Merri Creek. (refer to map pg. 7 Lemon).

In 1841 William Rucker developed the most prestigious of these allotments atop Northcote (renamed Rucker’s) Hill. His property, “Sunnyside” (later Alpines) was described at the time as 'the most expensive country house in the colony' (Lemon 10).  As a result of depression Rucker and fellow speculator H.L. Worsely forfeited their lands in 1842. In 1844 the Pilgrim Inn (Red House) later called the Croxton Park Hotel opened its doors for the first time.

Dr Peter Macarthur bought Worsley’s land and built a property named “Arthurton” off present day Arthurton Road. In 1852 he created a private road to give better access to his property and called it Separation Street (so named to commemorate the Separation of the colony of Victoria from New South Wales). Macarthur divided his lands and sold acres to prominent Northcote residents the Bastings brothers and Beilby Hawthorn as well as a group of German settlers who created a cemetery which exists to this day.  The Union Bank held onto Rucker’s lands and in the early 1850s built the access roads today known as Bastings Street, Mitchell Street, Westbourne Grove and Hawthorn Road. These gave better access to Rucker’s Hill which was notoriously difficult to ascend from the south.

Significant buildings of the era include the Peacock Inn, Commercial Hotel (today’s Northcote Social Club) and the Wesleyan Church and school which were all constructed in 1854. By the 1860s it was clear that the focus of settlement in Northcote was to be Rucker’s Hill. The Westgarth area was relatively unsettled to the south and to the north in Thornbury were farmlets such as “Pender‘s Grove” giving the area of rural feel, however it was evident that the city was fast approaching.

In 1864 Northcote finally became affiliated with a local government joining Preston as part of the Epping Road District. Northcote representatives included Edwin Bastings, George Plant and Thomas Mitchell however they felt ignored by the council which met ten miles away in Epping. The Darebin Shire formed in 1870 via a merger with the Woodstock and Upper Plenty/Morang Boards however disgruntled Northcote and Preston split to form the separate Shire of Jika Jika in 1871.  In 1874 the Northcote State School (No. 1401) in Helen Street was opened.

Throughout the 1870s major local industries included slaughter yards and clay pits, giving the area a working class character.  In 1882 the Northcote Brick Company was established in Separation Street. At its peak around 1.5 million bricks were produced every ten days from the huge quarry and continued to be for almost a century. This was one of the most significant employers in the area attracting in turn further settlement.

It was in the 1880s that Northcote was discovered and underwent a housing boom, along with many suburbs adjacent to Melbourne. The completion of the Rucker’s Hill embankment provided greater accessibility and allowed cable trams to travel High Street for the first time in 1890. In 1884 Northcote separated from the Shire of Jika Jika to form Borough of Northcote. Due to its increased size and wealth Northcote was given the status of Town, which coincided with the construction of The Northcote Town Hall in 1890. Other notable buildings of this era were Little Sisters of the Poor Convent (1885) and Northcote Tile & Pottery in Clyde St (1895). The Free Library was established in 1892 and relocated to a purpose built premises in 1911 that was funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when development significantly grew along St Georges Road.

A railway system was slow to emerge in Northcote which may have seen its early development stunted. Whilst the Heidelberg line was operational since 1888 it was only accessible to residents in Westgarth. It wasn’t until 1904 that a direct line from the city to Northcote was linked by railway to Clifton Hill, establishing a faster route to Melbourne. In 1914 Northcote had expanded to the point where it was officially proclaimed a City coinciding with introduction of electrification.

The founding branch of the Trades Hall's Progressive Political League, the forerunner of the Australian Labor Party, held its first meeting in 1891 at the Commercial Hotel. John Cain Senior, former Labor Premier of Victoria, opened a fruit shop in High Street in 1911 before his election to the Northcote Council in 1915 and State Parliament in 1917.

Migration, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, saw the community diversify. The majority of these new residents came from Italy and Greece giving Northcote a cosmopolitan flavour typical of inner city Melbourne. A strong artistic and student community has also given vibrancy to the area. Internationally renowned photographic artist Bill Henson currently resides in Northcote.

In 1981 Northcote Plaza was opened on the site of the former Northcote Brick Co. The adjacent quarry, which later became the local tip, was filled in to create All Nations Park which opened in 2002. In 1994 the City of Northcote merged with City of Preston to form City of Darebin. The area to the south of Heidelberg Road is now part of the newly formed City of Yarra. During the 1990s through to present significant gentrification has transformed much of Northcote, particularly Westgarth in the south. In June 2008 the Northcote Leader announced that Northcote had topped the list for house renovations in Melbourne.

Edge, Gary (2004). Surviving the six o’clock swill: a history of Darebin’s hotels. Melbourne: Darebin Libraries.

Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen. 

Swift, William George (1928). The history of Northcote: From its first settlement to a city. Northcote, Vic: Leader Publishing.

Ward, Andrew (2001). Darebin Heritage Review 2000. Burwood, Vic: City Of Darebin.

Northcote History Group

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