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A part of retail shopping in Melbourne since the 19th century, the idea of the arcade derived from the oriental bazaars of the Middle East and the medieval arcaded streets of Europe. Essentially a covered street lined with shops, the first modern arcades appeared in France at the end of the 18th century and in Britain soon afterwards. Arcades often offered specialist or luxury goods and were perceived as offering respite from the dangers, noise and grime of city streets.

The first of Melbourne's arcades was Queen's Arcade (1853), which ran from Lonsdale Street through to Little Bourke Street. More popular was the Royal Arcade, between Bourke and Little Collins streets, which was frequented by fashionable and discerning Melburnians following its completion in 1871. Over the next two decades, its success appears to have prompted the construction of a series of new arcades in the central city. Next to open was the Eastern Arcade (1873), designed by George Johnson and located between Bourke and Little Bourke streets near Exhibition Street (just west of the Eastern Market). The Eastern Arcade was larger than most, featuring 68 shops and a gallery on the upper level. West of the Eastern Arcade was the Victoria Arcade (1876), designed by prominent architect Joseph Reed. Located in the heart of Melbourne's main entertainment district, the Victoria served principally as a vestibule for two of the main theatres in the area, the Gaiety and the Bijou.

Other city arcades of the late 19th century included the highly popular Cole's Book Arcade in Bourke Street (1876) and the supremely fashionable Block Arcade in Collins Street (1891-93). A small number of arcades were also constructed in the suburbs in the period, including the Prahran Arcade in Chapel Street and King's Arcade near the railway station in Armadale.

Despite the proliferation of other retailing models, including the rise of the modern department store and the large suburban shopping centres, the popularity of arcades continued into the 20th century. The postwar period in particular saw the construction of numerous shopping arcades in the central city; these to some extent replaced lanes in providing pedestrian access through city blocks. Though less distinctive in their design than their 19th-century predecessors, arcades were also popular in the suburbs and were often linked to large carparks behind traditional shopping strips. Melbourne's best-known surviving 19th-century arcades are the Royal and Block arcades, both of which carry on the original tradition of small distinctive shops offering luxury goods.

Kate Gray