Carlton is a residential, commercial and educational area adjoining the northern boundary of central Melbourne at Victoria Street. Its other boundaries are Elizabeth Street/Royal Parade, Cemetery Road/Princes Street and Nicholson Street. The University of Melbourne is in the postcode area of Parkville, but is treated here as being in Carlton. The area north of Cemetery Road/Princes Street is Carlton North.

The subdivision and settlement of Carlton came later than that of Fitzroy and Collingwood. By the gold rush, 1851, two thirds of those suburbs were subdivided, often in a haphazard way calculated to maximise profit on the resale of land. When Robert Hoddle, Government surveyor, came to survey Carlton in 1852, care was taken to lay out streets in an orderly grid, with reserves for open space and religious institutions. His survey was bounded by Royal Parade, Grattan Street, Nicholson Street and Victoria Street, but with the University provided for in a reserve north of Grattan Street. The churches' precinct was in Queensberry Street, between Lygon and Rathdowne Streets (Anglican, Free Gaelic and Wesleyan), and one block north in Pelham Street (Catholic). There were no school or hospital reserves, but Lincoln Square, Argyle Square and Carlton Gardens were shown. The two squares provided a distinctly English tone for the new suburb.

Carlton, thought to have been named after the residence of the Prince of Wales, was relatively elevated, and attracted several notable homes. Justice Redmond Barry lived in Rathdowne Street, equidistant between the City Court and the University of which he was the first Chancellor in 1853.

By 1860 Carlton had five schools of which one, in Faraday Street, was a National School (1858), and ran continuously until 1972.

By 1884 there were four government schools: Lygon Street, 1870-1908, Queensberry Street, 1881-1932, Faraday Street (already mentioned) and Rathdowne Street, which was opened in 1884 and is the sole survivor. Four non-government schools closed between 1863 and 1884.

The number of schools is indicative of the size of the local population. Whilst some large homes were built, speculators subdivided blocks of land for cottages, forming narrow streets and narrower lanes for house frontages, overcoming Hoddle's vision for a spacious suburb. In any event, the gold-rush immigrants wanted houses within walking distance of their workplaces, many of which were in central Melbourne.

In 1858 one of Carlton's best known landmarks began. In Bouverie Street the North Melbourne Brewery was opened. (The name North Melbourne was appropriate because for some years after Carlton was surveyed all the land north of Victoria Street was ‘North Melbourne’.) The brewery failed and was sold in 1864 to Edward Latham, who secured the services of a skilled brewer. Carlton Ale never looked back. The bluestone offices (1864) in Bouverie Street remain, after the brewery site was cleared in the late 1980s.

Other landmarks which began in the 1850s include the University of Melbourne (1853), the Catholic Church and St Georges school (1855), the lying-in hospital (1856 - later the Royal Women's Hospital), and the land grant for the Trades Hall at the corner of Lygon and Russell Streets. In 1866 St Judes Church of England in Keppel Street was built. Nine years later the Free Hospital for Sick Children was opened when it moved from Spring Street, Melbourne, to Redmond Barry's residence in Pelham Street, between Drummond and Rathdowne Streets. St Nicholas's Hospital was built on the site in 1899, the forerunner of the Royal Children's Hospital, Parkville.

In 1864 a local football club was formed and won premierships in 1873-75 among local competition, before the formation of the Victorian Football Association in 1877. The Carlton Football Club was a founding member of the Victorian Football League in 1897, the year it moved its home ground to Princes Park. It won five premierships between 1906 and 1914 and eight more, including three in its best postwar decade, the 1980s.

In 1878 eight hectares were set aside in the Carlton Gardens for a building for Melbourne's International Exhibition in 1880-81. The international event was Melbourne's sixth exhibition, and its grandest. The building with its prominent dome became the venue for exhibitions, motor shows, home shows, the first federal Parliament and countless public examinations for secondary and tertiary students.

In 1887-88 tram lines were opened along Swanston Street, Elgin Street, Rathdowne Street and Nicholson Street. There was no tram along Lygon Street, but it had substantial rows of shops and commercial buildings.

In 1903 the Australian handbook described Carlton as:

By the turn of the century Carlton was home mostly to artisans, workers and small industries. Emigrants found employment and affordable housing there, and two main groups were Jews and Italians. Jewish residents had synagogues in Bourke Street West, Melbourne, and in East Melbourne, but by 1919 their increasing numbers in Carlton brought about a synagogue in Pitt Street. It ushered in the peak Jewish population in south Carlton during the inter-war years.

Not long after Jewish residents began arriving Italians settled in central Carlton. Their numbers grew during the inter-war period, and the early post-war years saw the greatest Italian influence in Carlton. They left or influenced several landmarks: Bosari's Emporium, Lygon Street (1940), the Valmorbida family's grocery shops (Agostinos and King and Godfrees), University Cafe, an early espresso bar (1951) and Toto's pizzeria, Lygon Street (1966). Italian influence came to the fore with the first Lygon Street Fiesta in 1978.

Another expanding post-war population was students at the University of Melbourne. The university had had residential colleges since 1871, on an arc of land north of the University granted to the Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Catholic and Anglican Churches, but student digs in low-rent houses were popular. Their presence added variety to the burgeoning café life in Lygon Street, several beginning life-time associations with Jimmy Watson's wine bar. (Watson came from an Italian family and bought his wine saloon in 1934, upgrading it to a place of high reputation. Remodelled by Robin Boyd with a stunning white facade (1963), the business is run by the family's third generation and is commemorated by a premier annual wine trophy.)

The Catholic reserve at the corner of Pelham and Rathdowne Streets became the Sacred Heart Church (1897). The Lourdes Grotto in its ground was built by Italian craft workers during the 1940s. Behind the church is one of Carlton's oldest buildings, the bluestone St George's school (1855). The site was noted for festivals and processions during the early post-war years. In the late 1980s the property was transferred to Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church and primary school, a sign of changing ethnic composition as Italians found more spacious residences in Bulleen and other suburbs further from central Melbourne.

Carlton's southern boundary has three prominent sites facing central Melbourne. The Carlton Gardens, with notable tree-lined paths, and decorative gardens with a fountain fronting the refurbished Exhibition building. Various annexes to the Exhibition were removed during the 1990s and a site at the rear houses the Melbourne Museum. (The Aquarium, a popular commercial annexe, was burnt down in 1953.) Further to the west, there is the bluestone Bouverie Street brewery buildings, beside one of Melbourne's longest-lasting demolition sites.

Across middle Carlton are University, Lincoln and Argyle Squares, two of them partly occupied by bowling clubs. Argyle Square fronts Lygon Street, with shopping strips north and south of it. Many shops have been converted to cafes and restaurants, and the wide road provides a spacious outlook and room for kerb side cafes. The Lygon Court Plaza (1988) has 35 shops in nearly 9000 square metres of space.

North of Grattan Street there are the University, the Royal Women's Hospital and a blend of commercial and residential premises. Neighbourhood Macarthur and Murchison Squares make for attractive precincts. The University has spread beyond its reservation, consuming numerous residential and commercial properties.

The north area of Carlton, adjoining Princes Street, is predominantly residential. It was once targeted for slum reclamation. By the mid-1960s the Housing Commission had defined 81 ha, bounded by Swanston Street, Cemetery Road/Princes Street, Nicholson Street and Grattan/Carlton Streets, as appropriate for redevelopment. Ultimately two high-rise estates were built in Rathdowne and Palmerston Streets.

The Commission's threatened redevelopment and the prospect of the Eastern Freeway funnelling traffic through Carlton gave rise to the formation of the Carlton Association in 1969. The Association, linked to the gentrification process under way in Carlton, rapidly grew and its intellect and numbers brought about rapid changes in Government and Council policies. The suburb's nineteenth century building stock was substantially saved.

Saving Carlton from through traffic was achieved incrementally during the 1980s as traffic barriers and one-way routes were installed.

The balconies on the 31-storey Grocon apartment building (2015) at the former Carlton United and Brewery site on Swanston Street features a likeness of indigenous leader William Barak an elder of Melbourne's Wurundjeri tribe, an artist and social justice leader, who died in 1903.

Carlton had census populations of: 

Census date Population
1861 152
1911 13,119


including 7977 in Carlton North
2011 13,509

Further Reading

Carlton Forest Project, Among the terraces, c1991

Between two worlds: Jews, Italians and Carlton, Museum of Victoria, 1992

William S. Logan, The gentrification of inner Melbourne: a political geography of inner city housing, University of Queensland Press, 1985

Nigel Lewis and Associates, Carlton, North Carlton and Princes Hill Conservation Study, 1984

Australian Paper Mills, Alphington, Heidelberg, 1937

Peter Yule, Carlton: a history, Carlton, 2004