‘Why is Flinders Lane not called Little Flinders Street?’ is a fair enough question, one that has perplexed Melburnians since the town’s beginnings.
Melbourne’s 33-feet-wide little streets were never meant to have major properties or businesses on them, but rather to provide rear service access to the big streets, or ‘Great’ streets as they were often called. But in the process of subdivision after the first land sales, lots of buildings were in fact erected on the little streets, much to the annoyance of the ideal world of the planners.
Remember that the early settlement on the Yarra River in 1835, before even Melbourne got its name Melbourne, was an illegal one made up of those Vandemonians looking for new lands. Aside from being an invasion of the lands of the Kulin, it was also illegal in the eyes of the Sydney government, who eventually sent down surveyors and administrators to sort things out.
But the interesting thing here is that Flinders Lane as laid down in surveyor Hoddle’s 1837 grid actually more or less followed the course of one of the settlement’s first tracks. Flinders Lane runs parallel to the Yarra River, and actually marked the northern limit of the river flats, so it makes sense that it was on that topographical rim that the first European settlers built their huts and houses—out of reach of the river. There was even originally a small cliff near the Lane at the William Street end, running east-west, that had to be cut down as the streets were formed.
The point here is that this track that became Flinders Lane was the first thoroughfare that ran through what was to become Melbourne, so its early usage gave it some kind of point of difference.
People didn’t start to worry too much about what to call the little streets until 1839—at the time people were saying, we don’t care what you call them, Little Streets or Lanes, but call them something because it’s all too confusing. Flinders Lane was gazetted as such in 1843, but the rest of the little streets took the prefix ‘Little’.
The confusing thing for visitors and Melburnians alike is that for much of its history, ‘Flinders Lane’ and ‘Little Flinders Street’ have both appeared on maps and business letterheads and even street signs as alternative versions, so there has always been this sense of confusion, that probably increased over time as the knowledge of that early pre-eminence of the lane faded from memory.
Melbourne City Council street nameplates indicated ‘Little Flinders Street’ at least until the 1930s, but a Council resolution in 1948 reaffirmed the official name as ‘Flinders Lane’.
See: ‘Flinders Lane’ in eMelbourne.
Some newspaper references
‘Flinders Lane, Melbourne’ (NSW Government Gazette, 1843)
‘In Flinders Lane’ (Age, 1897)
‘Flinders Lane’ (Argus, 1906)
‘A Chief of Commerce’ (Punch, 1906)
‘Lost in the Lane’ (Herald, 1933)
‘The Lane’ (Herald, 1934)
‘Our Great and Little Streets’ (Argus, 1937)
‘Flinders Lane’ (Age, 1948)
Bright Bros. and Co., 36 Flinders Lane west on south-west corner of Flinders Lane and Bond Street, 1861 (State Library of Victoria).