Culture Melbourne

Street names: Why was Synagogue Lane renamed?

Church Street, Melbourne
Church Street doesn’t have a church in it any more.

Little Queen Street, Melbourne, formerly Synagogue Lane
Nearby Synagogue Lane doesn’t have a synagogue in it anymore.

I got curious: How come only one of them got to keep its name?

Despite what appears to be a sign that is not particularly ancient, evidently the name change was some time ago — it’s shown as Little Queen Street in the second edition Melway from 1968.

Historian and author Robyn Annear’s web site says that in fact it was renamed Bourke Lane in as part of a “civic cleansing” ahead of the 1880 International Exhibition, and then later renamed again as Little Queen Street. She quotes an 1869 Colonial Monthly, which describes the area:

The blackest sheep of all the flock make their home here. It is dangerous to pass through the place in daylight, unattended, and open robberies have been committed at noonday.

Annear’s book “A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne” notes a Synagogue was on the NE corner of Bourke Street and Synagogue Lane from 1847 to 1929. (More notes here.)

Melbourne, Bourke Street synagogue, 1847-1929The Melbourne Synagogue history page notes that the original small 1847 building was rebuilt as a larger structure in 1855. PictureAustralia turned up this picture of it — certainly a grand looking building. Following its demolition in 1929, the New Melbourne Synagogue in Toorak Road opened in 1930.

Getting back to the lane name change, backing up the 1880ish date is this record of correspondence with the Public Works Committee in June 1878, requesting the name change.

This street names history poster puts an interesting light on it, saying “the new name reduced ‘annoyances’ directed at those attending Little Bourke Street synagogue.”

So perhaps it wasn’t an anti-Semitic move as might perhaps seem at first glance, but one designed to stop problems for the local Jewish population?

A report in Australian Jewish News last year appears to agree:

Alongside the shul ran a small road named Synagogue Lane. Today, it is known as Little Queen Street, with [Melbourne Hebrew Congregation life governor] Cohen suggesting the name may have been changed due to vandalism. However, the street sign displayed today pays tribute to the lane’s heritage.

It’s a little hard to tell for certain, as details are sketchy. Anybody got any further information on it?

(If I had the time, contacting Robyn Annear or the Synagogue might be options — but I think I’ve done enough digging for now.)

Update July 2015: I notice City Of Melbourne has updated the sign. It still mentions the old name of the lane…

Synagogue Lane sign

As Alexandra noted, it’s got a typo — it should be “formerly”, not “formally”.

Nice to see whoever runs the City Of Melbourne Twitter account has a sense of humour:

I’ve also found this eMelbourne page which gives a year for the name change:

In 1868 the name of Synagogue Lane was changed to Little Queen Street because the former name ‘has unfortunately acquired a notoriety’.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

2 replies on “Street names: Why was Synagogue Lane renamed?”

The church for which Church Street was named was St James’ Anglican Church which was on the block bounded by William, Little Collins, Church and Bourke Streets. On this site today are the St. James Building, plaza and shopping concourse and the AMP Building, 535 Bourke Street, at the corner of William Street.

St James’ is the oldest church in Melbourne and one of only three buildings in the central city which predate the Gold Rush of 1851.

St James’ was the Cathedral for the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne until St Paul’s Cathedral opened in 1981. At the start of the 20th century St James’ Anglican Church was moved stone by stone to its present site in King St, opposite the Flagstaff Gardens.

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