Private open spaces at the rear of dwellings were present from the beginning of Melbourne. They arose and continue for three main reasons: to extend food supplies by cultivation; to create a rural aesthetic and amenity in the city; and to generate capital from the subdivision of land.
Initially, the majority of migrants came from cities dominated by terrace housing that opened directly onto the street with little or no back space. Only in the English countryside were gardens common and it was these cottager designs that were used in the first houses, with space in front for the household to grow vegetables, herbs and some decorative plants.
By the mid-19th century, middle-class houses in East Melbourne, Richmond Hill, Toorak and North Fitzroy were surrounded by expansive cottager-like gardens. The rear was given over, in part, to agriculture and service functions, but the remainder was decorative, arranged using imported styles: the geometric Georgian, the wild Picturesque or the more florid Gardenesque. The suburban garden was firmly demarcated from the inner-city yard. This distinction was accentuated in the 1880s land boom when inner-city blocks in Carlton, Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy were cut into smaller and smaller lots. The result was the near disappearance of front gardens and the creation of a backyard, a small dank and purely functional space for toilet, washhouse and refuse.
As the inner city densified, suburbanisation proceeded apace. In villa suburbs such as Essendon, Brighton and Kew, fronts were increasingly differentiated from the back garden, where the utility functions and needs of the household could be satisfied.
The 1890s depression ended the rapid expansion of villa suburbs, inner-city subdivision and the creation of landscaped gardens in various English styles. With Federation and greater autonomy in taste and style, inspiration moved beyond Britain. In the 1920s, the Californian bungalow transformed house styles and gardens. By replacing the picket fence with wire on wooden rails, the front garden lost its semi-privacy to become a space of display rather than utility or recreation.
The 1930s backyard was known by its contents: a woodheap; a washhouse; a clothes line; one or more tanks on wooden tank stands, with mint and parsley nearby in a cut-down kerosene tin; a dunny against the back fence, so that the pan could be collected from the back lane; a kennel for the dog; an incinerator, often in an old oil drum; a chookhouse along the back fence, and sometimes a sleep-out. A lemon tree was nearly universal. There were regional differences in the vegetation grown in such yards as well as
ethnic and class differences, the latter expressed predominantly in the size of the domestic spaces. Italians grew tomatoes, onions, oregano and tarragon, zucchini, fennel, olives and wine grapes; so did the Greeks, who also grew different types of basil, while the Chinese engaged in intense market gardening of vegetables.
While the 1940s saw material shortages and self-building, in the 1950s there was rapid urbanisation, a rise in home-ownership rates, a reduction in residential block sizes, new domestic appliances, greater personal mobility and more out-of-home leisure time. The extension of motor car ownership necessitated the building of a garage; initially at the end of a long side drive in the backyard but later moving towards the front of the house, first as a carport (in the 1960s and 1970s) and then as a two-car structure occupying the front of the dwelling. Sewerage meant that the outside toilet was duplicated indoors and ultimately removed. Clothes drying from a length of cable suspended on wooden stakes was displaced from the 1940s by the Hills Hoist in the middle of the yard, while the barbecue replaced the incinerator.
While the demarcation between a formal, decorative front garden and a functional private backyard was well defined for Anglo-Australians, for immigrants from Southern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s inner-city housing offered an opportunity to transform small, often neglected yards into productive agricultural areas, both front and back.
Comparing house designs from the 1960s and the 1980s, there was an increase in the overall segmentation of the house; a rise in the size of dwellings; and an increase in the importance of entertainment and family areas. More recently the inner-city terrace yard has become the model for newly subdivided suburban blocks. As the house on the quarter-acre gives way to mock-Federation cottages, within or behind each one is a small, neatly organised and paved yard filled with outdoor furniture and flower pots, meeting the needs of older and busier households, easing the pace of suburban expansion and enriching suburban landowners and developers.