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Surrey Hills

a brief history

Surrey Hills - a brief history


Much of what is today known as the suburb of Surrey Hills was taken up as part of Elgar’s Special Survey in 1841, comprising more than 5,000 acres in the parishes of Boroondara and Nunawading, roughly approximating to the Cities of Boroondara and Whitehorse today. This large area was subsequently broken up for farmland between the 1850s and 1870s. The name ‘Surrey Hills’ was reputedly first used by real estate agent John Hanlon Knipe in his 1878 subdivision just south of Mont Albert Road.  Knipe was the owner of about 30 acres on the south side of the road in the 1870s, and sold his land in 1878 in two acre lots. Two other landowners of this period in the general area included J White with 20 acres and C Fysh with 94 acres.


Mont Albert Road is a principal road in the suburb. It is shown on early maps as ‘Survey Road’ (after Elgar’s Special Survey) and also ‘Mount Albert Road’, reputedly after an elevated point (Mount Albert) in the area around Union Road and Barton Street (north of Mont Albert Road)


By 1882 when the railway was extended to Lilydale, Surrey Hills was the common name for the area and thus the name given to the station. At first, engineers in charge of the trains were averse to stopping at the Surrey Hills platform because of difficulties with the gradient, but on 1 September 1883, Surrey Hills Station was brought into regular service. The station was officially opened on 6 October 1883. The railway line to Surrey Hills heightened the appeal of the increasingly accessible district and spurred an increase in population. An extraordinary boom in real estate prices and land speculation was also underway in Melbourne during the 1880s. Together with much of the remainder of the increasingly developed metropolitan area, the land boom changed the character of Boroondara, including Surrey Hills.


Developers and estate agents promoted a suburban lifestyle that was embraced by both middle class and working class purchasers, and vast areas of former farmland in the vicinity of Camberwell, Box Hill and Hawthorn were converted to new suburban estates. The pace of land sales is evidenced by the plethora of auction notices for estates in Surrey Hills. Many of these can be accessed on the State Library of Victoria website. (See ) A number of these promoted the similarities between Surrey Hills and the villages of England. Some estate agents undertook street planting, and streets were named for English people and places. Auction notices stressed the stunning views available, proximity to Melbourne via the railway line, and the presence of major traffic routes including Canterbury Road. In 1882, a tower was erected for prospective buyers to view the area, which boasted ‘the most magnificent views within eight miles of Melbourne’. A diagram prepared for the Surrey Hills Historical Society in 1989, indicates a number of named ‘estates’, presumably for real estate marketing purposes.  These include the ‘Surrey Hills Estate’ (1878), the ‘Kingston Estate’ (1889), and the ‘Surrey Hills Station Estate’ (1887).


The rush for land prompted the establishment of several quarries to supply the local building trade. There were small quarries in the area now covered by the John August Reserve and the Grovedale Road Park and in the 1880s Albert Mills reputedly established a brickworks and kiln in Kingston Road (the location is not known). A large brickworks was established by Haughtons on Elgar Road with housing for workers developed in the area of Charles Street. Other businesses associated with the building trade also sprang up, including W J Wine’s Timber Merchants, located on Croydon Road. Further local infrastructure was also needed, and a second railway line to Surrey Hills, along with a second platform on the north side of the line, was constructed in 1888.


The prosperity of the 1880s also gave way in the 1890s to a bank and property collapse, prompting a severe economic depression throughout Victoria. Banks closed, British investment dried up and immigration was halted. In Surrey Hills, the advent of the depression stymied development and ended the land boom that had characterised the previous decade. The effects of the economic downturn continued to be felt well into the early years of the twentieth century, so that by 1909 the majority of land in Surrey Hills, still remained undeveloped.


Building activity resumed in the first decades of the twentieth century and despite the outbreak of World War One, the pace of development quickened after 1914, radiating out from the hub of the Surrey Hills railway station. Construction continued throughout the war years, although some houses built during this period were not occupied until after the war. Mont Albert Road also gained a small pocket of commercial development in this period.  This included McKell’s grocery at 217-219 Mont Albert Road and its neighbouring corner store at 215, to the east side of Wells Street, and some similar development on the south side of the road.


Much of the remaining empty land in Boroondara in this period was taken up by land agents and auctioned for home sites. Real estate agents, as they had been in the later nineteenth century, were still eager to emphasise the perceived qualities of the district in the post-war land sales, promoting the area generally as a ‘suburban idyll’, and a convenient retreat from the city. By the 1920s agents were also promoting the benefits provided by new tram lines in Boroondara.  The extension of the tram line along Whitehorse Road to Union Road in September 1916 provided an additional transport option. This complemented the railway option, which was itself expanded with Chatham station which opened on 1 April 1927 with the current island platform only and the station buildings still under construction.

The fight to have this station constructed took 15 years of persistence from the local station committee and protracted negotiations between the Camberwell Council and the Railways Commissioners. It probably wouldn’t have happened without the resolve of the local station committee, which eventually convinced Council to spend about £2,000 in making the roadways and in purchasing the land upon which the station was being built.


On opening day the station was decorated with flags, and there was a large attendance when the Mayor of Camberwell, Councillor H. Rooks declared it open for traffic. The Mayoress cut a ribbon which had been placed across the track, and a train was allowed to pass through.


Platform 3 was built when services on the third track from East Camberwell were extended through the station to Box Hill in December 1971.

REF: The Argus, Saturday 2 April 1927


Most of the area between Mont Albert and Whitehorse Road developed post-WW1, resulting in community pressure to build another school. John Butler Maling’s farm was subdivided and part of it purchased by the Department of Education for Chatham Primary School; it also opened in 1927.

Some of the housing development in the post war period included homes for returning World War One soldiers. In September 1915, The Argus reported that of the earliest war service homes constructed in the state, ten were to be built in Surrey Hills.  During the interwar period, the State Savings Bank of Victoria also financed the construction of many houses in Surrey Hills as part of their campaign to encourage home ownership. This is likely to have included homes for returning soldiers. The State Savings Bank houses were comparatively inexpensive to construct, and were based on a series of standard designs from which applicants were able to select their preferred house.


After the Second World War, and as with other parts of Boroondara, the advent of the motor car solidified Surrey Hills as a dormitory suburb for Melbourne workers. Car ownership had been steadily increasing since the 1920s, but it was not until the 1950s that the popularity of motor vehicles really took hold. As the number of car owning residents increased, there were increasing demands for the removal of street trees to make way for the construction of residential driveways. The Council accordingly reviewed and amended many of their public planting policies, introducing new species and spacing plantings more widely, to appease car-owning residents. 


While new types of housing, in the form of apartments and flats, were established in many suburbs of Melbourne in the post-war period, Surrey Hills retained much of the character it had developed by the 1920s. New residents in the latter decades of the twentieth century, however, moved in and renovated many of the old houses that had been built during the boom periods, or demolished them and constructed new dwellings. In 1980, this trend was reported in The Age as the ‘changing face of Surrey Hills’.


Acknowledgements and for more information:

  • ‘Surrey Hills in Celebration of the Centennial 1883-1983’ – available at Surrey Hills Neighbourhood Centre

  • City of Boroondara Heritage studies – contact Council

  • Surrey Hills Neighbourhood Centre Heritage Collection – email:



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