During the summer of 198788, historical archaeologists conducted an archaeological dig within part of the block bordered by Spring, Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Lonsdale streets in Melbourne’s central business district. The excavated area had an unsavoury reputation as a ‘red light district’ and as ‘the heart of Melbourne’s slumdom’.
The archaeologists uncovered the remains of lanes and pathways and the foundations of houses and workshops. They found thousands of objects used and discarded during the last third of the 19th century. Digs on other parts of the block during 2002 and 2003 recovered many other items.
The small houses accommodated families and single people, immigrants from Britain, China, Pakistan and Lebanon, children and the elderly. Within the diverse neighbourhood, two-roomed homes crowded together along narrow lanes, and factories, pubs, brothels and boarding houses attracted people from outside the area.
The collection provides fascinating insights into the people who lived and worked in Melbourne 140 years ago: the first generation of Europeans to settle the city.
The archaeologists found magnums that once held the best French champagne. There were marbles, toy tea sets and a toy soldier; Chinese ceramics, willow pattern plates, a Crimean War souvenir, tokens and coins. Residents purchased homoeopathic pain killers, patent medicines and laxatives. They ate mainly cheap cuts of mutton, and the area was infested with rats.
Archaeologists and historians continue to analyse the distribution and stratigraphy of objects, and discover more about the people who lived in the district. Did they live differently from those in other closely settled inner areas of 19th-century Australian cities?