The word slum originated in London cockney slang early in the 19th century, and was applied in Melbourne from the 1850s. Slum depictions, fashioned in words and illustration, endured as a powerful genre in Melbourne's cultural landscape throughout the next century. The slum label was initially applied to socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods within Central Melbourne and from the early 20th century until the 1960s was used to characterise the inner suburbs. The term has been barely used since the 1970s. Its disuse resulted in part from community recognition of social changes occurring in inner Melbourne. Home purchase by owner-occupiers, begun by recent immigrants during the 1950s, slowed and eventually reversed the outward flow of residents from the inner suburbs and restored private and public investment in what had become a capital-starved environment of renters and absentee landlords. The slum genre collapsed, also, because other consensus-building myths caught the public's attention as the credibility of slum depictions waned.
Slums are indeed imaginary places. They are mental constructions, juxtaposed with a society's core values and given territorial expression. Their essence is simplicity: unlike the complexities and continuing transformations of the city neighbourhoods they purport to describe, slums are homogeneous and unchanging. Their allure lies in what Charles Dickens called the 'attraction of repulsion'. They are our imaginary opposite: ugly and dangerous places, characterised by poverty and deviance. Slums delineate the foundations and borders of a society, by encapsulating what is in commonsense terms unacceptable and unpalatable. They thereby clarify and consolidate core values and behavioural codes.
Melbourne slum myths were used to mobilise support for genuine social reforms. Sir James Barrett, for example, railed against slums during the first half of the 20th century as he lobbied for health reform and championed city planning. F. Oswald Barnett publicised the horrors of Melbourne's 'unsuspected slums' during the 1930s and 1940s, in the cause of social equity. John Stubbs damned Melbourne's inner-suburban slums when, in his 1966 book The hidden people, he sought to kindle public interest in welfare reform. Their brand of sensationalism did not, however, sustain community interest. Melbourne's slum genre endured because the exaggerated stereotypes entertained. Respectable households enjoyed reading about the surreal environments and immoral behaviour precisely because the descriptions were so foreign to their own lives. Slums were an expected and titillating part of the imaginary landscape of bustling cities. They provided a necessary benchmark against which to measure a city's overall cohesion and modernity, and a catalyst for the activities of child rescue societies and other inner-city missions.
Slum stereotypes so conditioned public knowledge about social realities in Melbourne as to sanction draconian schemes of urban 'renewal'. Agitation for slum clearance began during the 1880s, gathered momentum before World War I and culminated with the investigations of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, whose damning 1937 report led to the establishment of the Housing Commission of Victoria. The commission's slum-clearance projects during the 1950s and 1960s were the most far-reaching in Australia. They were resisted by residents in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond. Gradually their protests received media attention. However, it was not until the Carlton Association mounted a sophisticated public-relations campaign against slum clearance in 1969 that this fight-back prevailed. In 1973 premier Dick Hamer visited Carlton to announce that the slum-clearance plans had been dropped in favour of heritage conservation for the inner suburbs.
An important historical problem remains: how does one obtain an 'inside' appreciation of the communities that were swept away when seemingly only the misleading 'outside' stereotypes, which justified their destruction in the first place, remain? Both the problem and its solution are highlighted by Little Lon. This inner-city neighbourhood was demonised as a notorious slum, and was destroyed during the 1950s. Archaeologists and historians have collaborated to reinterpret the vanished community. Their attention focused on Casselden Place, a laneway of tiny weatherboard and brick houses that dated back to the 1850s. One of the cottages still stands. The laneway is remarkable for the quantity and range of its excavated material culture. Analysis of it has produced vignettes of working-class households that are grounded in the ignored material residues of inequality that were left by those who actually lived in the neighbourhood. It is thereby possible to puncture outside slum myths and reveal everyday life inside such maligned communities.