Melbourne's leading thoroughfare and popular main street, Bourke Street was laid out as part of Hoddle's 1837 grid plan and named after Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales. A principal axis between the elevated eastern and western ends at Spring and Spencer streets, Bourke Street's central hollow between Elizabeth and Swanston streets is the street's busiest retail zone and was officially opened as the Bourke Street Mall in 1983. The popular phrase 'busier than Bourke Street' reflects the street's function as a node of transport, retailing and entertainment, and its reputation for popularity and panache is often contrasted with the sober formality of Collins Street.
In the mid-1880s, Tom Roberts' Allegro con brio captured the spirit of the old street, before trams replaced the centre road cab stands, and before the dust and the crowd were subjected to the regime of asphalt and the motor car. While the contemporary street cannot claim the vibrancy of its heyday, it still continues functional traditions dating from the gold rush era: offices to the west, retailing in the middle, entertainment and restaurants to the east.
In Melbourne's early years, Bourke Street was considered to be out of town, more a series of gullies, bogs and tree stumps than a thoroughfare. Robert Hoddle purchased a block at the south-east corner of Spencer Street in 1840 for his private residence and garden. By the late 1840s, the western end saw the opening of St Patrick's Hall, the first synagogue and the first public hospital.
In the 1850s Bourke Street gained a reputation as a brash and crowded thoroughfare and the focus of Saturday night amusement. By the 1870s, bright with the glare of street lamps and boasting the latest shop-window displays, it was often compared to London's Oxford Street.
Melbourne's first theatre opened in Bourke Street as the Pavilion in 1841, and by the late 1840s the eastern end was established as the city's principal entertainment zone. Famous Bourke Street theatres included the Theatre Royal, Opera House, Academy of Music, Apollo Hall, Haymarket Theatre, Salle de Valentino, Waxworks, Bijou and Tivoli. The decline of live theatre from the 1920s saw the congregation of cinemas in Bourke Street East.
Theatres and public halls were complemented by other entertainments in the form of billiard rooms, cigar divans, rifle galleries, bowling alleys and sideshows. Bourke Street East between Elizabeth and Russell streets was the focus of street life, with bootblacks, spruikers, coffee stalls and temporary exhibitions taking up a pitch at every available corner. While the early evening crowd trod Bourke Street's pavements for entertainment or for show, the night-time street was also notorious for public disorder, fights, brothel touts and drinking and drunkenness.
P.C. Cole's 1910s popular ditty, set to the music of Fred Hall, epitomised the popularity of the strip:
Gimme old Melbourne, an gimme me tart:
An' then I am simply orlright,
Can any bloke point to a better old joint,
Than Bourke Street on Saturday night.
Bourke Street's oyster shops, boarding houses and tobacconists of the 1850s and 1860s gained a reputation as fronts for sly grog selling and betting and gambling. Over its history, Bourke Street boasted many of the city's most famous hotels, including the Royal Mail, Australia Felix, Bull and Mouth, Orient, Imperial, Old White Hart, Albion, Menzies, Saracen's Head and Southern Cross Hotel. Cheap restaurants proliferated from the 1870s. Parer's Hotel and Crystal Tea Rooms became a Melbourne institution, while the Café de Paris was a favourite literary and artistic meeting place. Twentieth-century restaurants such as Florentino's, Pellegrini's and the Society Café have become Melbourne institutions.
Melbourne's first post office was located at the north-east corner of Elizabeth Street in 1841. Crowded on mail day, the site soon became a centre for communications and remains the geographic and symbolic centre of the city. Bourke Street was early a transport hub, a terminus for Cobb & Co.'s coach services to the diggings and of suburban omnibuses. The last cable tram ran in October 1940 on the Bourke Street route.
West of the post office, the street was renowned for the concentration of horse saleyards (such as Bear's and Kirk's Horse Bazaar), saddlers, whip factories, stock agents, carriage-builders and harness-makers. In the 1850s, the driving of stock in the street and the breaking in of horses gained this section the sobriquet 'Wild West'. The western section also hosted the offices and wool warehouses of Goldsbrough Mort and Dalgety, Selborne Chambers, the Bourke Street West Police Station, and St Augustine's Catholic Church.
By the 1880s, the street's western end was a focus of dry goods and retail furniture trade, with the central section associated more with the drapery trade. Buckley & Nunn commenced their drapery business in the early 1850s; Robertson & Moffatt and Stephen & Sons were replaced in 1911 by the Myer emporium. Central Bourke Street thus gained retail ascendancy over inner-suburban shopping strips in Collingwood and Prahran. Other traders associated with Bourke Street in different eras include Miller's Feather Shop, the Leviathan Men's Clothing Store, Gaunt's Jewellers, London Stores, Danks Hardware, Coles Stores, Darrods, David Jones, and Cole's Book Arcade.
Arcades such as the Victoria, the Royal and the Eastern enticed shoppers away from the formal street grid. The foundation stone of the new Eastern Market was laid in 1878, though the block at the corner of Exhibition Street had since the late 1850s been the site of Paddy's Market. On market days the street was littered with refuse and dung, and lined with carts and goods from Spring to Russell streets. Other eastern end landmarks include the Salvation Army temple and the Hill of Content bookshop.
From the mid-1980s, residential development was encouraged in the Bourke Street Hill Precinct between Spring and Exhibition streets. The mass of Parliament House at the eastern end, with the spires of St Patrick's Cathedral visible behind, continues to dominate the street vista from Spring to William streets. While the face of Bourke Street is much changed since 1908 when Charlie Fredricksen ('The Man Outside Hoyts') began his career as Melbourne's most famous spruiker, its place at the symbolic heart of spending and spectacle endures in such institutions as the Myer Christmas Windows.