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Following in the footsteps of history

Sydney Road walking tours could become a regular event

Brunswick Community History Group president Elisabeth Jackson alongside the free speech memorial outside the Mechanics Institute building in Sydney Road.

Mark Phillips
Friday, April 15, 2022

A PAIR of historical walking tours of Sydney Road have proved so popular that a third has had to be added to meet demand.

The collaboration between the Sydney Road Business Association and the Brunswick Community History Group will take place next week.

The tours are capped at 15 people each. Tours on April 20 and April 23 sold out almost instantly, but a third event on April 21 has now been slotted into the program.

Community History Group president Elisabeth Jackson, who will conduct the 90 minute tours, hopes it will be the beginning of a regular program to introduce the suburb’s history to a new cohort of residents.

“We could maybe do it once a month, with extra ones in the school holidays because we’re only doing a very tiny section and there’s a lot to see in Sydney Road,” she said.

The tours will begin at the Sarah Sands Hotel and travel north up Sydney Road, visiting six other historical spots on the way.

Some of the venues, such as the Brunswick Town Hall and the Mechanics Institute, are still standing today. But Ms Jackson will also take her groups to the Barkly Square shopping centre, which was once a quarry, and the Aldi supermarket, which was built on the site of what was the Empire Theatre.

She said Brunswick has a mixed record when it comes to preserving its history.

“We have lost a lot of old buildings over the years,” she said. “But Brunswick Council had heritage protection in place fairly early so it could have been a lot worse.”

The Brunswick Community History Group was formed in 1983 and its activities include monthly meetings where a lecture or presentation is delivered on an aspect of local history, publication of a newsletter several times a year, and research into the suburb’s heritage. Under its auspices several books have been published about Brunswick’s history, and the group can help residents conduct their own research into the history of their property and street.

Ms Jackson has lived in the suburb since the mid-1980s and as a former Mayor of Brunswick is part of the area’s history herself.

She served a total of 12 years as a councillor spread over 15 years, and was on the council when it was abolished by the Kennett Government in 1994 to be replaced by the City of Moreland from the merger of Brunswick and Coburg.

Last year, it became widely known that the name Moreland was derived from a slave plantation in Jamaica, sparking a search for a new name for the municipality.

To Ms Jackson, this is an example of why knowledge of local history is important but it has also exposed holes in the area’s historical records.

“There’s very little known about Indigenous history,” she said.

“We think of Brunswick history starting in 1841 when the first white settlers came but of course there was thousands of years of history before that, but it’s very difficult to discover anything about that. But we need to do more of that.

“And we need to document more about the postwar migrant experience because there were just successive waves of migrants coming through Brunswick over that period.”

Since Ms Jackson took over as president of the Brunswick Community History Group late last year, it has launched a new website and she is keen to grow the membership, which costs just $10 a year.

The group is aiming to complete its latest project, a comprehensive history of the name of every street in Brunswick, this year. The book, which will be available for public sale, draws on research by the late Les Barnes.

“He did huge amounts of research on Brunswick’s history, and one of the things he did was an unpublished manuscript, which listed all of the origins of the street names of Brunswick, and also a bit about notable people who had lived in each street. So it’s just a wonderful resource.”

An abbreviated version of the manuscript was included in a history of Brunswick published in 1994, which was updated and reissued in 2013. The new book will include all the names of new streets that have been added since then.

Ms Jackson also flagged that the group would be more active in opposing developments which it believed would undermine the historical fabric of Brunswick. The group recently made a submission to Heritage Victoria against the demolition of an historic building in the Brickworks precinct.

The Brunswick Community History Group’s next meeting on May 7 will feature a presentation by Dr Cheryl Griffin about William Thomas, a Brunswick resident who was Assistant Protector of Aborigines in the 1840s. Meetings are held at Siteworks in Saxon Street.

More information and tickets for the Sydney Road History Tour on April 21 are available here. Tickets are $15 each.