Russell House, the oldest residence in Melbourne’s CBD

Russell-House

There are some fascinating places in Melbourne.  Russell House  or The Old Corner  Shop, as it is often called, is one of them.  Places like this are what make Melbourne such an exciting city to explore.

Russell-Old-Corner-Shop
As you are wandering up Kings Street or along La Trobe Street at the edge of the CBD you suddenly come upon this funny old house that is completely over shadowed by the high rise buildings on La Trobe Street – so over shadowed that I have known people to walk past and not see it.  The Old Corner Shop is the oldest private residence in the city.

cnr-King-and-La-Trobe-Stree
It is owned and lived in by Lola, the granddaughter of Valetta Azzopardi who bought the property in 1899, and her husband George Russell.  Lola was born in the cottage and has lived there all her life.

Amazing to ponder on that when you consider how we move about today.  It is even more amazing to think that the Russells sleep, eat and relax there every day while  the heavy traffic and trams grind and rattle past and the city loop train roars underneath.

Russell-House

If you are waiting at the traffic lights in the early hours of the morning give a thought to them asleep only a few meters away.
The plaque on the side of the house says it was built as a shop and a dwelling in 1850/1.  Its surprising the building is still standing what with the city loop train line being dug underneath it and then all the construction work for the buildings behind it.

Strengthening and restoration work was carried out in the late 1980s.  However the house still looks vulnerable to modern life.  It poses the question of what that corner may be like in another 150 years.  I hope the little house is still tucked in there and holding it’s own.
The Russells turned the original shop into a cafe and catering business and it is still a shop and cafe today with a black board menu.

menu-Russell-cafe
I was working in the area during the winter and one lunch hour popped in for coffee.  The experience made me wonder if they don’t get many walk-ins.  The instant coffee was a very very long time coming but fine when it did.  The up-side of the wait was to give me the chance to explore the shop  – the ambiance of another era  is very strong and well worth experiencing.

William-the-Peke

I also met William, the Pekingese, who came in from the living area to say hello.  He had just returned from his daily walk in Flagstaff Gardens and is very at home in this delightful and incongruous  house on the corner of  La Trobe and Russell Streets.  He, too, has lived there most of his life.
If you haven’t seen the house take a detour that way – it is a blast from the past and if you step inside there is a moment when you believe you’re a time traveller or in a time warp.

Getting There:-

Train: The Flagstaff Gardens stop is opposite.

Trams: You can get the free city circle tram and get off at the corner of a Trobe and King Street or take any tram from Flinders Street Station along Swanston Street.  Get off at La Trobe Street and either walk or take the next tram along La Trobe  to King Street.

22 Comments

  • Thanks for the tip – I’ve walked past the building many times and never given it a thought. Will pop in to have a look around soon.

    Jetsetting Joyce

  • Ilze Hancox says:

    I work close by and walked in there for the first time today. That will definitely be the last time. The people were quite unfriendly, the place smelled funny and the food did not look fresh at all. Not for the fainthearted.
    Ilze

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Ilze, I wonder if you picked a bad day. I have always found the people friendly but it is certainly a step back into the past. I think they should serve ice creams – it would be hard for these to go stale and they’d meet a need on a hot summer day. Em

  • Matthew Williams says:

    Actually George’s surname is Dixon, not Russell, and Lola is Russell-Dixon.

    They were both theatre actors in their day and Lola has an OAM for her contribution to the theatrical life of the city.

    It is sad that the old place is unstable – the passing traffic is very taxing on its structural stability. It urgently needs restoration but as always funds for these things are very limited.

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Matthew
    Thanks for the further information. It is such a cute place. I hope that it can be restored so it stays there in the future. I can see there could be problems because it is such a busy corner. Em

  • Carol Kneebone (nee Jackson) says:

    Lola Russell was my Social English teacher at Williamstown Girls Secondary School in the late sixties – I can’t believe how good she looks. I intend to drop in next time I am in the city and see if she remembers me. She produced a play I was in, called “The Bluebird of Happiness”. I wonder if she will recall

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Carol,
    What a nice story. I hope she remembers you. Let me know if you get time.
    Em

  • Bernie says:

    Hi – I was wondering if anyone can help with the previous owners of this lovely little building. I was hoping it might have been where my relatives lived around 1855-1860 – there names were Henry Isaac & Rebecca Wyse (Wise). I know they moved from Albury & Beechworth down to Melbourne around 1855-1856 and lived on the corner of King & LaTrobe Sts – having made their fortune in Beechworth during the gold rush, and selling the Commercial Hotel in Beechworth. Any help would be appreciated.

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Bernie
    I hope some one can help you. I haven’t any information that goes further than the current owners’ family. It would be interesting to know who built the house and who they bought it from – perhaps your family.
    Best of luck Em.

  • Mike Scully says:

    George and Lola had parts (as a couple I believe) in On the Beach, the film made in Melbourne in 1959 and starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire.

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the info. I hope they get to see Ava (At the End of the Word) at the Spiegltent. Em

  • Dianne Dillon says:

    Lola was my Drama Teacher at Williamstown Girls’ High , Lola and George are lovely friendly people ,Lola instilled a great love of the Theatre and all things theatrical in me , you are in my heart forever Lola , Im sure you are in the hearts of all the students you taught , The importance of being Ernest , Hamlet , The Pied Piper , Romeo and Juliet , Enduring as the Camphor Tree amongst others , pay her visit and have a talk about the old days ….and of course JCW’s ..thank you Lola and George …kindest regards , Dianne Dillon

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Dianne
    What a lovely tribute to Lola. I wish I had had such a teacher. It is nice to know that her legacy lives on.
    Thanks for dropping by my blog.
    Cheers Em

  • Corrine Murphy says:

    Many of the past students of Williamstown Girls’ High School, myself included, have great memories of Lola Russell. She gave us all more than she could ever imagine. Our Facebook group has had a surge of interest in her, and we are planning to organise an afternoon tea with Lola as the guest of honour if she is willing and able.I will love Lola all of my days, I just need to tell her so : Life is too fleeting to leave things unsaid.

    Corrine Murphy

  • Norm Johnstone says:

    I was wondering if this is the same Beautiful Lola Russell that was an English Teacher for a short time at Coburg Technical School in the late 50′s early 60′s, if so I would love to drop into her café and speak with her. I doubt if she would remember it but the most embarrassing event in my whole life involved the then Miss Russel and I remember it as if it was yesterday.

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Norman. Yes I believe she was an English teacher for a number of years about that time. I would love to know the story you mention! I had heard that Lola hadn’t been well but may better now. The last time I went past the cafe was open. I think teachers like to know that they are remembered. Em

  • Peter Sjones says:

    Is the Russel still open?
    Is Lola still with us?

  • Jackie M. says:

    Yes, as of 5 July 2016, Lola and George are still happily serving customers at Russell’s Corner Shop. I was in there today and it was simply superb! They now have a lovely and bubbly young lady chef working for them. She bakes fresh scones every day – it appears that this has become their signature menu item now. The light and fluffy scones were served with traditionally made English clotted cream and you can take your pick of their homemade jams (their chef makes everything from scratch – cream and jam included, which I thought was very impressive and yes, you can certainly taste the difference). I had the devonshire tea with apricot jam and noticed the new menu with even a gluten-free option, which I thought was very interesting and thoughtful. I love that they are keeping with old tradition, but now cater for the modern palette and special requirements to some extent. Lola came out for a chat, but seemed very tired. I was told that George was out walking the dog. I felt like I had come to visit much-loved relatives who lived in the country, it was delightful!!

    You simply cannot find this sort of country and home-cooked quality treat in the city. You can waste money at the Winsor hotel, but their scones, cream and jam are nothing like the real-deal country-style scones served at Russell’s, they’re also half the price! The tea and coffee is made the old traditional way and no frills, so if you’re looking for a fancy coffee, you won’t find it here. It’s the style of coffee you would drink if you went to visit grandma and grandpa who don’t have Starbucks-esque coffee machines. I love that this forms part of their quirk and my husband enjoyed his home-style coffee with a bit of a chuckle.

    My family and I usually have to drive up to the Dandenongs for the real deal devonshire tea, so this was such a lovely surprise today. It was absolutely perfect for the freezing and wet winter weather we had today too. Will definitely be heading back for their devonshire tea, it was absolutely delicious and it was so refreshing to sit in a ‘quite’ cafe for a change. Very much a delightful step back in time.

  • Melbourne says:

    Dear Jackie. Thank you for lovely up-date. I am so glad you enjoyed your time there. I haven’t tried their new menu. I will do so when I am in the CBD next time. I love scones and home made jam! Em

  • Harly says:

    Came across this blog who really had most of the information I needed to know about the café. Being a grandma’s boy, I am really keen to try the foods they are serving inside. I had doubts getting in today as the ambience was unusual and really looked like a home and not a shop for me. I saw the graceful old lady sitting by the window folding serviettes on the table. The moment I read that there are freshly-made scones and jam, I’m definitely visiting the shop next time when I have time. Do you else know what other foods they serve and if the scones are only in the morning? Cheers

  • Cindy Murray says:

    I have been doing a lot of ancestry research and I have discovered that the Heffernan mentioned on the blue plaque outside is actually an ancestor on my mother’s side of the family. The Heffernan’s sold it to the Azzopardi/Russell family in order to pay off debts owed by Michael Heffernan!

    Despite it being owned by a different family since 1899 I am proud that my ancestor built the place

  • Melbourne says:

    Hi Cindy
    Thanks for your comment and the information. It is wonderful to find that after all these years it is still standing. Em

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