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Forgotten histories and abandoned places of Melbourne

With the global travel industry disrupted in recent years, many of us have turned our attentions to other pursuits. If you’ve been holding off on going overseas, but are yearning for adventure, don’t despair! There’s plenty to discover close to home.

It’s not just the great coffee and restaurants that give Melbourne its reputation as Australia’s ‘cultural capital’ – there are also plenty of fascinating historical stories and mysteries to uncover.

Whether you’re a Melbourne local, or spending time here as a student or tourist, you’ll get more out of your experience of the city by exploring some of its history.

Here are just a few secrets Melbourne has been hiding.

An abandoned underground bowling alley

Underneath Melbourne’s famous Degraves Street café precinct lies an abandoned bowling alley and tavern that have been boarded up and forgotten. This was just one of the intriguing mysteries discovered by Bachelor of Film, TV and Animation student Aarya Hatkhambkar and her classmates when they were filming a documentary about the Degraves St underpass, also known as Campbell Arcade.

The students explored the history of the underpass on the eve of its closure to make way for Metro Tunnel upgrades.

‘Degraves underpass was a pedestrian area that came off from Flinders St Station,’ Aarya explains. ‘They used it during the first Olympic Games that were held in Melbourne, to separate the crowds.’

‘It was public access but a lot of people don’t know it exists. It’s got these pink mosaic walls and it’s really, really pretty. The most famous hidden location there is this bowling alley, it’s all sealed up now. We went in there and showed whatever we could which was remaining. We didn’t go into any unauthorised areas, just public spaces we could film.’

Unfortunately Aarya and her crew weren’t able to get a glimpse of the bowling alley, but could see a path leading up to a curved in wall that was all sealed up.

The students’ documentary may be the last remaining relic preserving the history of the tunnel, which up until recently was home to a variety of niche shops offering vinyl records, vintage clothing, coffee and hairdressing. All the local businesses had to move out to make way for the new tunnel upgrade.

‘Nobody actually knows how they’re going to preserve the area,’ Aarya says. ‘A lot of arcades in the past have been destroyed due to urbanisation. They’ll keep it, but maybe not in its most beautiful form.’

A recently reawakened ballroom above Flinders Street Station

Many of the Melbourne residents who regularly pass through the iconic Flinders Street Station have no idea that the building is home to a lavish ballroom which was abandoned for 35 years.

The expansive ballroom is part of the main building, which was completed in 1910. In its heyday, it was the standout attraction of the 100-room building, hosting weekly dances and classes. From about the 1920s onwards, Flinders Street Station was also host to a range of educational and club activities managed by the Victorian Railways Institute.

But the ballroom closed its doors in 1985 and was essentially off-limits until 2021, when artist Patricia Piccinini reopened it to host an exhibition.

Aarya learnt a little about the ballroom during her research for the documentary.

‘It’s really weird with these locations because people neglect them and when rumours start happening, it just gets hushed away,’ she says.

The long-forgotten Degraves Street Mill

Back in Degraves Street, many Melbournians have never learnt that this area, now famous for cafes and quirky shops, started off as a mill.

The street is named after William Degraves and his brother Charles, who in 1849 established a steam flour mill on the corner of Flinders Lane and Degraves Street.

The thriving business quickly grew to include locations throughout Victoria, including at Sandhurst, Malmsbury, Kyneton and Echuca.

A distinctive building on Flinders Lane, now labelled Tomasetti House, was originally home to the William Degraves and Co warehouse, built in 1853. A bar on the ground floor of this building previously showcased some of this history, but like many businesses in the CBD it has recently closed. Now little remains that would show the area was once a mill.

The importance of preserving local history

Aarya and her classmates really enjoyed learning about these histories and more during the research for their documentary.

‘I used to get bored in school so I’d search “Abandoned places of Melbourne,”’ she laughs. ‘Me and my friends had this obsession with ghost stories, but when people think about ghost stories they often think of overseas places, not Australia. I feel like Melbournians don’t really know their own history.’

Aarya believes it’s critically important that residents of an area learn about the local history.

‘Places have been lost and adapted into new buildings. If new people don’t know anything about the history, they don’t worry about preserving it.’

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