EARLY HISTORY OF ST ALBANS
1950-1955: Turning Point
St Albans is a neigbourhood that was first settled by Europeans in the 1850s, i.e. more than 160 years ago. It was an area of open grazing land between the Shire of Keilor to the north, Braybrook to the south, the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River on the east, and the Kororoit Creek as its western boundary. The name “St Albans” was first adopted 125 years ago when the new railway station was officially opened and named on 1 February 1887, and thus the neighbourhood became known by the name of its railway station. Prior to that the area was referred to as being Keilor Plains, or the Keilor-Braybrook Farmers Common. In its early years St Albans had a dispersed population of about 100 people. These days it is smack in the middle of the City of Brimbank and has a population of about 35,000 people living within the ‘old’ St Albans district, i.e. the postcode area 3021.
Surprisingly for a neighbourhood as old and as big as St Albans, there is very little written about its particular history, i.e. its own history as a neighbourhood. This is because it developed across the boundary between Sunshine and Keilor and was thus divided between these two municipalities. Being a divided settlement at the periphery of each council’s administrative area, St Albans tended not to get the attention that city historians accorded to their district centers. That is not surprising, and yet the neighbourhood had a unique identity that was different to the old cities of Keilor and Sunshine.
There is very little on the public record about the history of St Albans, despite its size and unique record, particularly in the settlement of European immigrants after World War Two. There are passing references in some of the regional and municipal publications, but they not comprehensive.
In 1985 a number of St Albans residents decided to plan for the celebration of the railway station’s 100th birthday, and this was the start of a more concerted effort to capture history of the neighbourhood. Tom Rigg, who was the St Albans station master at the time, Joan Carstairs, Mary Smith and others, formed the St Albans Railway Centenary Committee and used both recorded and oral history techniques to prepare the history of the railway station and the history of the town, published as “St Albans: The First Hundred Years 1887-1987”.
The history of the European settlement of St Albans can be surmised from studying the development of the Shires of Keilor and Braybrook, each of which was responsible for their respective half of the neighbourhood.
The first recorded European explorers who visited the area were the Surveyor-General Charles Grimes of Tasmania and James Flemming. In 1803 they explored around Braybrook and Keilor, but declared that it was not suitable for agriculture because there were too many rocks. Then in 1824 Hamilton Hume and William Hovell traipsed from Sydney to the District of Port Phillip, as Victoria was then known, trying to reach Westernport Bay. They passed through St Albans on 15 December 1824, and the stone memorial at the corner of Taylors Road and East Esplanade commemorates their visit. When Hume and Hovell returned to Sydney their reports highly praised the quality of the pastureland in Port Phillip, so that may have been an incentive for Hume's friend, John Batman of Tasmania, to come looking for new pastures when all the good land in Tasmania had been allocated.
In 1835 John Batman came across Bass Strait looking for grazing land, and his party boated up the Maribyrnong River and walked through the grasslands that would later become a core section of St Albans. He described the plains along the Maribyrnong (Saltwater) River as beautiful sheep pasture, and stock grazing was indeed one of the pursuits of the earliest European settlers to the area. The prognosis for the sheep industry was well judged, because in 1836 there were 27,000 sheep and only 200 Europeans in Victoria. The latter did increase to 500 in 1837, but it was no contest, as by then the sheep already numbered 100,000.
However, more pertinent to local historians should be the mapping of Batman’s journey along the Saltwater River against present-day landmarks. Anderson (1984:31) writes that the party:
“… crossed Sunshine North to the vicinity of the junction of Furlong Road and the Bendigo railway [i.e. near Ginifer Station], and then curved away into St Albans proper and back towards Keilor, passing near or over the site of the St Albans East Primary School, and along approximately the line of Stenson Road to the Maribyrnong River again”’
John Batman would have to be one of the most famous names of early Melbourne settlement to be associated with the St Albans area, brief as it was. It’s a wonder that his sojourn ‘in our backyard’ has not been promoted more vigorously as a local historical fact to be recognised and commemorated in some way.
These first settlers were seeking pasture to establish livestock herds; they quickly dispersed throughout the countryside looking for unoccupied grassland to call their own. It was the era when squatters took control of large tracts of land, so that before long there was little opportunity for newcomers to acquire “unoccupied” land for farming purposes in the established central district; the new people always had to keep moving further inland. Much of the land around St Albans was owned (or at least controlled) by the Taylors of Keilor and the Clarkes of Sunbury.
Then the discovery of gold at Ballarat and Bendigo in the 1850s brought about significant social and economic change to the whole colony. The biggest ever surge in Victoria's population occurred at this time, as fortune-seeking miners rushed to the goldfields to stake their claim for prosperity. In 1851 the population had already reached 77,000. More people soon followed, both the quick-fortune seekers and a steadier inflow of families attracted by the image of making a new start in a land of opportunity. The pace of immigration was such that by 1861 Victoria's population had reached 461,000.
The consequence of these events was to put pressure on the colonial government to make land available for residential and small-farming purposes. Eventually the squatters lost their grip over Crown lands and their great estates were broken down into small farmlets and sold to the public. This is what attracted people to the area from the 1870s onwards: the possibility of acquiring land.
Keilor had been declared a township in 1850, and local settlement was enhanced by the movement of people through the district on their way to the goldfields, because some may have spent money on overnight accommodation and in replenishing supplies, but it seems that drinking at the two Keilor pubs was a popular activity. According to the Essendon Gazette:
"It was rather a singular sight then to see two or three hundred diggers in a row extending from the door of the public house awaiting their turn to enter. On being served they passed out by a back door, and if he required another drink he went around and took up his position at the lower end of the row." (Keilor Historical Society Newsletter, No. 9 & 10, Feb. 1991)
Soon the land between Sunshine and Keilor was occupied by the mainly British Europeans, and the area that now lies between Keilor Downs and the centre of St Albans was called Keilor Plains. Then in 1863 the area became known as the Keilor-Braybrook Farmers Common, because settlers for miles around could graze their stock here.
Transport to the area was greatly improved in February 1859 when the Bendigo railway was opened for public traffic between Footscray, Diggers Rest and Sunbury, and then the Sydenham station opened in March 1859.
It's interesting that the railway station that was built near the Hume and Hovell memorial has been named Keilor Plains, and I also understand that some of the surrounding residents want to have the neighbourhood also named Keilor Plains.
The Land Acts of 1865 and 1869 divided up the large holdings and made the land available for small farms at affordable prices - selectors were taking over from the squatters. Land in Keilor Plains and the Farmers Common became available from 1869 onwards, and people from near and far bid for the 60 to 80-acre farmlets. A selector received a license to rent the land for the first few years, during which time they had to make improvements, usually in the form of erecting fences and buildings, and sowing crops or pasture for stock. After three years they could either buy the land outright or continue paying rent for up to seven years until the purchase price was paid in full.
The increasing number of children in the area called for the provision of a local school, especially when the Victorian Education Act of 1872 made it compulsory for children to attend school between the ages of 6 and 14 years. St Albans didn't get its own school until 1889 when it commenced in a house in Adelaide Street rented from the Church of England, near where the Brimbank Secondary College is now located. The Education Department paid the princely sum of one shilling per week for the hire of the cottage, so they weren't risking too much of their venture capital on the exercise.
However, the small farms in St Albans were never really profitable because the acreage was too small and the water supply was inadequate. After a few years, some of these early farmers were happy to sell their holdings to the land speculators, who were relying on the positive economic trends of the 1880s to bring about their own fortunes through private real estate development.
The 1881 Victorian Municipal Directory gives a less than flattering report of the Keilor township and the farming accomplishments of its 191 residents:
“Keilor Plains are not cultivated, agriculture is mostly abandoned, only a few choice spots on the bends of the river are cultivated. There have been no pastoral tenants for nearly twenty years, most of the land that did not belong to private owners has been granted for selection and is now used for grazing purposes with the exception of the small portion demanded for cultivation by the Land Act.”
It was the late eighties that gave St Albans its own name and identity. Land developer Alfred Padley and his Cosmopolitan Land and Banking Company bought up a number of these farmlets and subdivided them for residential properties. They wrote to the Railway Commissioners in 1886 and negotiated for the construction of a station to be called St Albans, which was the first time that name had been proposed.
The new station was open for business on 1 February 1887 for passengers and light goods, but it wasn't a routine stop on the journey, as passengers wanting to alight there had to notify the guard at the previous station. There were only three trains running daily from Melbourne to Bendigo, and three from Bendigo to Melbourne. But from then on the district became known by the name of its railway station.
Where did the name come from? Local historians who have researched this question discovered that the station (and therefore the district) was named after the English town and Abbey of St Albans, which itself is named after the first British martyr, Saint Alban, who died for the Christian faith in about 304AD; the first abbey there in 793 was built to house Saint Alban's relics. Mrs Padley’s family history was strongly linked with the Abbey of St Albans, and it seems that the name was proposed as a local memorial to her historical roots.
However, Alfred Padley's dream of St Albans becoming the semi-rural retreat of Melbourne's professional classes was demolished with the economic downturn in the 1890s, which was to have a prolonged effect on the local community. At the turn of the century the place was just a little hamlet with a station and small general store set amidst farm paddocks. A suburban steam train would come from the city in the morning, and the Bendigo Express in the evening would collect passengers if it was flagged down.
In 1900 the Education Department built St Albans State School No. 2969 on the corner of West Esplanade and Ruth Street. It was had three classrooms and would serve the community pretty much unchanged for the next fifty years.
There was little change in the area during the early 1900s, until after the end of the First World War. During this time, it seems that the population numbers in St Albans remained the same, fewer than 200 people.
In October 1921 the railway line from Footscray was electrified and a regular electric train service between Spencer Street and St. Albans was inaugurated. Wooden railway gates were placed on the crossing, not to keep any traffic at bay, but to save any wandering stock from being killed. Speaking of stock, those readers who paid attention to the earlier statistics will be interested to know that in 1921 there were 1.5 million people and 12.3 million sheep in Victoria.
At this stage in Australia, 97.7% of the population was either born in Australasia or in the British Isles. In Victoria, the population was fractionally more of British stock at 98.1% - only 0.9% of people were born in (non-British) European countries, and only 0.3% in Asia; it seems that the populations was fairly homogenous, statistically speaking.
The twenties was a time of economic revival after WW1, and the ambitions of industrial development had its positive effect on suburban development. There was some new settlement in St Albans to the extent that by 1932 the population had reached about 600. For example, some of the workers recruited for the factories in Albion and Sunshine established their homes in ‘Pommie Paddock’, around Percy Street. It was a significant addition to a small settlement. According to local history:
"In the late twenties St Albans was depicted as a small and very windy country town twelve miles from Melbourne with a population less than 200, consisting mainly of crop farmers, rail workers, and a few factory workers. One could still hardly call it a town, as all it consisted of was four small wooden shops (general store, mixed business, green grocer, and butcher), a wooden three-roomed school, two wooden churches, and a small Mechanics Institute Hall. Nobody knew where St Albans was. There was still no electricity, no roads, no water supply, no sewerage — as some residents who still remember the times say — there was nothing.."
In the 1920s the school was getting crowded as the existing facilities could not cope adequately with the enrolment, which had reached a total of 80 pupils. Three teachers were working in the one room in a building that needed repairs was hardly a quality environment.
Electricity came to a limited area of St Albans in 1930. Street lights were a real luxury, as people could now be about after dark without tripping over rocks or running into cattle. However, for people living away from the central area, it was another twenty years before the power lines were extended to the outskirts. In those days few people could afford to pay for private extension of such services, so they did without.
Nevertheless, progress was happening, and by 1932 the population had reached 600 people. However, the boom and crash cycle was repeating itself. The dreams of further residential development by local builders such as Walmer Coleman were frustrated by the Great Depression. People who had bought his houses ended up abandoning them because they went broke. And so the little village progressed minimally for another generation.
The next major improvement occurred in 1940 when a town water supply was partially installed by the Board of Works. By the 1950s there were still only a few water mains going along the arterial roads, but the MMBW permitted trunk services to be extended from these water mains; for example, you could dig a trench and put galvanised pipe along to the mains. You could then sell off the right to tap into that to your neighbours along the way.
The sparsely populated, semi-rural nature of the neighbourhood can still be surmised from the population statistics from the 1947 Census. At that time the Shire of Keilor had a total of 3,000 people. Most of the residential development in St Albans had been on the Keilor side of the municipal boundary. The Shire of Braybrook (Sunshine) had a significantly higher population of 15,000 people, but their main settlement was nowhere near the St Albans neighbourhood.
1950-1955: Turning Point
In the early 1950s the population had increased to 900, so progress was occurring, but not as rapidly as some would have hoped. As one-time local farmer and real estate agent John Stevens put it:
“People came to St. Albans and saw so many rocks and the wind sweeping over the plains and thought no-one could live under those conditions.”
Then the post-WW2 era brought about a long, sustained economic growth. In the 1950s the expansion of the immigration program and the growth of secondary industry in the west brought a new lease of life to the old farming subdivisions. The austerity of the war years had created a backlog of demand for housing and household consumer goods, and this demand was further fuelled by the new immigration.
Private enterprise welcomed the influx. Buying a St Albans bungalow on easy repayment terms stretched over a few years gave migrant families an opportunity to establish themselves, and from 1953 onwards they came in their thousands. The St Albans population skyrocketed, increasing from 900 in 1953 to 4,000 in 1955. It was the most incredible growth in its history, and it's no wonder that the government departments and the social planners of the day had not anticipated the demand for educational and community services.
Unimproved blocks of land that had been languishing on the market for decades were suddenly in demand as the New Australians came looking for work and their own plot of land. House blocks that couldn’t be sold during the forties for as little as £8 suddenly became desirable at £50 and more, and by the sixties they had increased in value to £750.
Local builders and real estate agents were suddenly working overtime. The typical St Albans bungalow was a one-room, unlined, weatherboard construction without water, gas, or electricity. There was no sewerage connection at the time to any local properties, and the basic bungalow contract didn't even include an outhouse. For many people, this was often no worse than what they had been surviving in since the war, and they were happy to build on these basics. Others had the impression they were buying fully established dwellings and were bitterly disappointed when they saw the meagreness of their new home.
This building boom was a positive impetus for the local economy, and between 1950 and 1956 there was also a great development by local businesses. Though Easton’s timberyard near the station was still operating, and the Hounslows had their own small yard in Main Road East, the Stevens brothers established a timber yard and hardware store in the early fifties, and this supplied the new generation of owner-builders with their building products. This was the era, much commented on through folklore, when the men of St Albans would be seen balancing lengths of timber on their pushbikes, as they took home pieces they would be working with on the weekend.
These European migrants also brought a new energy to cultivating the land. Previously, the locals relied on a horse and plough to break up the soil to start their garden plots. The new settlers got out their picks and shovels and did it by hand. Pretty soon many of the bungalows were surrounded by their own vegetable garden and orchard of fruit trees, as proof of their owner's, and the soil's, productivity. These mini market-gardens sometimes took up the whole back yard, and sometimes even the front yard. In harvest season it was all hands to the task, as the summer bounty was preserved, pickled, bottled, or otherwise cured and stacked away in the larders.
And suddenly the old primary school was inundated with so many requests for enrolment that and it could not cope with the numbers. In 1954 there were 750 children enrolled at the school, with 622 attending the site in West Esplanade, 48 going off to Deer Park, and 94 accommodated at the Mechanics Institute Hall in East Esplanade.
The census figures for the year show that Victoria was starting to get just a little bit more cosmopolitan in its makeup, as the Australasian- and British-born cohort was now 94.4% while the "foreign-born" represented 5.6%. For St Albans, a retrospective guesstimate is that already 75% of the residents were "foreign-born" - now that is what I call being really cosmopolitan.
Migrant children who often started school without any knowledge of English were introduced to the written word through the popular John and Betty, Playmates, and Holidays readers. The antics of John, Betty, Fluff and Scottie were followed through the delightful illustrations until mastery of a few words developed. Seven-year-olds were put into Bubs grade to learn a smattering of English and then progressed to Grade 1 during the year. Occasionally a child did so well they progressed from Bubs grade to Grade 2 within the first year, though this was the exception.
Local residents who had been lobbying for extra primary schools and a high school were relieved when the Education Department finally announced that new buildings would be started in 1955. It was the start of a new era of local education and a new chapter in local history, and it not go unnoticed by the media.
Even The Argus, Melbourne's main daily newspaper at the time, discovered this wondrous new suburb where the classrooms were a little League of Nations. And so it was that in 1956 the Argus photographers came to St Albans to duly witness the birth of this new era. Students from the primary school were snapped for posterity and labelled with their country of origin as proof of their cosmopolitan background.
Just to prove this was not a fly-by-night interest, the media came back in 1957 and snapped the High School's collection of pupils representing the 28 nations enrolled at the school, and they came back in 1958 to witness the official opening of the High School.
So, it is indeed accurate to state that 1956 was the start of a new educational era in St Albans, as the district experienced a rate of population increase that was double that witnessed in Victoria during the heyday of the gold rushes.
The population had reached an unprecedented 4,000, there were 21 shops, and the old wooden hall in East Esplanade (the Mechanics Institute) was pulled down and a new brick hall built by Keilor Council.
In Victoria, children were legally required to attend school between the ages of 6 and 14 years; this upper limit meant that children were not allowed to leave school until the end of the term in which they turned 14. By 1957 there were already amendments drafted to the Education Act to raise the school leaving age to 15 years. The acute shortage of classrooms in the area was finally relieved with the opening of St Albans East Primary School and the St Albans High School.
So, the new area of local secondary education began when the first students of St Albans High School started on Tuesday 7 February 1956 in ... Sunshine.
Yes, another first for the area, the first secondary school to start here was actually in another district and pupils had to take the train to Sunshine station to get there. Mr JA Barker was the first headmaster of the school.
The school’s inaugural enrolment consisted of 126 students representing 27 nationalities; the 71 girls and 55 boys were segregated into separate classrooms, as was the practice in those days. Tuition started in the Presbyterian Church Hall in Anderson Road, Sunshine. The hall was partitioned into three classrooms with moveable room dividers while trestle tables provided for the furniture requirements. One could say it was a good introduction to a multi-tasking environment, because people report you could always follow what was going on in the next class as the teachers were “shouting, bellowing or squeaking” to make themselves heard.
In the mid 1950s, the little township was starting to fill out. Unfortunately there was no planning data available to the education department on the population growth for the area, and the bureaucrats hadn’t foreseen a need for extra classrooms let alone extra schools. It had, after all, been a static population for the last fifty years, and the primary school had coped with the educational needs of local children fairly well. The public servants had previously argued that, statistically, there was no indication of any trends that justified building extra facilities. The area was just a quite semi-rural backwater with a population of about 800, of which about 100 children were adequately catered for through the existing primary school. Then, suddenly, the small primary school was inundated with young immigrants who often didn’t speak a word of English and for whom there was no space in the classroom. There was so little space that new enrolments were put into temporary classes in the Mechanics Institute or bussed off to Ardeer.
When Lorna Cameron discusses the circumstances at the time, she laughs and says the bureaucrats should have come out to St Albans and just looked around. There was a new family moving in nearly every day of the year - a thousand extra people each year is an amazing amount for a small community to accommodate, particularly when it never even had a thousand residents in all its history. You just had to walk up the street to see all the young couples moving in and the number of pregnant women on the streets to realise that there were going to be lots of children around very soon. You didn’t need long-term demographic statistics, you just needed a pair of eyes. Lorna says she found the sites for the high school in Main Road and the primary school in Station Street around her neighbourhood because there were many vacant blocks there; it was the eastern edge of the residential development at the time.
By the end of 1956, the first wing of the new high school was completed on the site in Main Road East and was ready for occupation in the new year, so now local students would be able to walk to school. It would often be a very muddy walk in the wintertime, because most of the streets in the district were undrained dirt tracks that quickly became quagmires in the downpours. This was just a routine inconvenience for students.
And finally, after two years of operation, the new building was officially opened by the Victorian Minister of Education on 14 November 1958 - the public face of the education department had finally made its way into an enclave of the European Diaspora where enthusiastic teenagers with unpronounceable names were starting to make their presence felt. The Minister must have been impressed to see about 300 parents and friends turn up for the occasion. However, the official ceremony was interrupted by rain, so the students retired to the classrooms while the dignitaries continued with their speeches over the class loudspeakers. The unpredictability of it all was enough for the good-humoured Minister to admit that “Some of you may be fortunate enough not to hear,” as he took up the microphone for his turn at speechifying.
By this stage the local population had reached 7,000 people and the student population had reached 3,100, compared to only 100 a decade earlier. About one-third of the current students were attending the Catholic school, so it was already quite a big school.
The high school had 550 students, catering not only for the local teenagers but also for some from the schools of Ardeer, Deer Park, West Sunshine, and Sydenham. In fact the students had really come from all parts of the world. The multicultural character of the school was obvious to everyone from the start: 83% of the students were from overseas, and the school even held classes in German, Italian, and Russian.
The school rag, Alba, even editorialised that:
“As our school consists of children of twenty-eight different races of different creeds and cultures, there is a great need for tolerance here. Because of this fact, we also have great opportunities to practice tolerance and only the unpredictable future will show whether we have succeeded or failed.”
It’s a credit to everyone concerned that the success was immediate and continuous; as I’ve always maintained, St Albans was multicultural before the word was even invented. When we first arrived here we all lived in little multicultural clusters that probably spoke half a dozen languages between as many households. Multilingualism was natural, it was what you grew up with. When you went to school you found the same thing was repeated, at a bigger scale, so it was natural to get on together.
St Albans, Victoria
At present St Albans has a population of 35,000. It is still a very multicultural area with 53.5% of residents being born overseas and its ethnic makeup is now mainly second and third generation immigrants, so the proportion of “non-English speaking background” residents is much higher if you take into account the Australian-born children of these residents.
The ABS 2001 Census reported that 43% were of Southern or Eastern European origin, with 10% of Maltese extraction alone and about 20% from the Balkan region, including Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Macedonians and Serbs. Significant communities from Vietnam and the Philippines were also reported.
Since the 2001 Census, there has also been a rapid increase in the number of refugees from the Horn of Africa settling in St Albans.
Up until 1980, St Albans was still geographically isolated from other suburbs, with large areas of open land between it and other suburbs, but now it is considered to be a middle-city suburb of the Melbourne Metropolitan area.
Notes for speech to be given December 2012 for 125th anniversary.