By Peter Dewar

    In 1924, a newspaper article posited why Footscray was the butt of jokes.  Back then meat works and chemical producers along the Maribyrnong River spewed putrid odours into the air.  If something smelled awry and you wanted to get a laugh, ‘Footscray’ was an easy shout out.  

    But a funky stench wasn’t the only dimension to the town.  Locals knew it and now they weren’t alone.

    ‘Footscray was no more a joke than Melbourne or Prahran … It is a very substantial, even attractive city, which harbors honest and industrious people,’ wrote a journalist in The Age. 

    Seems it came as news to some there was much more to working class life than factories.   

    Trips to Footscray shopping centre were part of the fabric of living out west and in time, the area loosely bordered by Barkly, Nicholson and Paisley Streets grew into a retail powerhouse. In his book A History of Footscray, John Lack describes it as a ‘Cinderella Suburb’ full of potential readying for its best days.

    The 1920s were roaring and working families from neighbouring areas would hop onto a tram, make their way to a wooden seat, pay the conductor for tickets and rattle along to the stores.  ‘See you down the street!’ was a common catch-cry, particularly of a Friday night, when shops stayed open long after factory sirens sounded an end to the working day.

    Traders built longstanding reputations. Green’s Emporium, located where Barkly Street intersects Geelong Road, sold any manner of household fittings.  A coffee shop is now situated in the mall where Maples once displayed furniture.  Scovell and Spurling were known for quality mens’ wear and it was in the mid-1920s that a ‘dashing young chemist’ Ernest Bradley moved in.

    But there was one store which had been operating in Nicholson Street since 1898, that would be seared in locals’ memories for generations to come. Eldest son Bert Forge had taken over from his father Christopher as boss of The People’s Draper.  Ever faithful to their brand –  ‘Remember — Forge’s sell it for less’ – a policy which ensured locals of budget-priced clothing and manchester.

    Forge’s promotional sales were famous. Jostling shoulder to shoulder, rifling through bargain bins came to be considered an outing.  On one occasion shoppers caused a ‘near riot’, forcing police to order a temporary closure for the day.

    A devastating fire around the end of the Second World War was not enough to stop the iconic retailer. That would be left to Father Time. Forges was acquired by another discounter, Dimmeys, in 1978 and finally sold to land developers in 2009.   

    Residents of the west also had access to medical practitioners, dentists and opticians within the shopping centre’s bounds.  Childcare services were also conveniently situated there.  For its string of specialists’ rooms, Paisley Street was coined ‘Footscray’s Harley Street’ after England’s world-famous medical district.

    With the exception of Sundays, downtown came alive at night.  Locals met at friendly societies, trade unions and social clubs.  Four large public halls hosted Annual Balls.  

    In the early evening, verandah lights came on at one of three picture theatres: the Barkly, Troc and Grand.  Orchestras could be heard tuning up for a night of foxtrots or the latest modern dance at the Victor and Orama ballrooms situated where Footscray Market is now located.

    Coles built a general store in ‘Southern Californian’ style to mark the end of the decade.   And while pricing was for the budget conscious, the store was anything but modest: expansive with many departments, a cafeteria and majestic Nicholson Street frontage.  Competitor Woolworths would follow in the 1940s with an outlet.

    Fast forward to 1952 and Footscray is reminded of its fetid, industrial past when a wayward bull escaping an abattoir raced down Barkly Street.  In truth, an influx of less smelly textile manufacturers had forever changed the face of ‘Stinkopolis’, which was now praised in Melbourne newspapers as the ‘Birmingham of Australia’.

    And Footscray shopping centre had matured into its energetic prime.  While 300 shops made it Melbourne’s third largest retail complex, the precinct was envied for being the most profitable.  This was all thanks to loyal patronage.  Estimates indicated nearly half of the district’s entire population visited Footscray’s cinemas each week.

    But good times were never meant to be evergreen.  As the sixties loomed, revolutionary times were being heralded in.  Television signalled quieter days for picture theatres.  Family owned shops made way for major chains.  Parking metres were installed in Nicholson Street. 

    Which brings us to the present day.  Clearly, Footscray’s centre is not the same charming gathering of family stores of earlier times.  And as for what’s ahead, I’ve encountered two schools of thought.

    There are those who draw attention to shuttered stores, graffiti-laden shopfronts and a chaotic streetscape.  Pointing to a cluster of high-rise residential towers, they fear for this ‘Cinderella suburb’ in its senior years.

    Others take a different view, seeing possibilities and potential in the multicultural vibe and letting the unexpected materialise in nondescript stores; sipping African coffee, ordering an authentic South East Asian dish, allowing a hipster joint or new cafe to be a reminder of the creativity of youth, taking home a culinary challenge from Footscray Market.  Fears for tomorrow? Where else can you have this much fun?


    My mum was a teacher at the then Footscray TAFE for over 25 years. If I was sick as a little kid, I’d go with her to work. We would go to the Forges canteen for lunch and then maybe to the cinema. I saw Watership Down there at age 6. – Jess Haire

    As a young boy, I clearly remember the famous burlesque dancer Alexandra the Great 48 (so named because of her 48 25 42 figure) performing in the Footscray Mall perhaps at the opening itself, quite the sensation. – Nbikeman

    Footscray shopping centre used to be a major attraction for us – much more variety than Sunshine. Forges department store was equal to any store in Melbourne CBD – when I first left home to live in a small flat in Footscray, I got everything I needed (including a bed – free delivery) from Forges. There were a lot of exclusive fashion stores too. It’s good going to Footscray still, I love the vibe, but I miss Forges for quality and variety.  – Mary Caroline Hill

    My first memory… Friday night shopping with my folks and thinking how cool it was to be driven up (and down) the ramp to access the carpark! Looking forward to the next issue of THE BESTSIDER! – Hazel Lekkas

    We shopped there as a kid before Highpoint or Altona Gate was about. There was a little Italian (?) cafe. I always had a chocolate milkshake and toasted chicken sanga. Has stayed with me forever. – Luke Laver


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    Peter Dewar
    Peter Dewar
    The west is my lifelong home, and I love writing about its people, history and places of interest.

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