Changes at Mentone: A Continuing Story

Mentone Beach on a fine day in December 2003.


The book Mentone Through the Years traces the history of Mentone from its beginning to the year 2002. Many changes have occurred since then. This article seeks to explore some of these changes in relation to the early history of this beachside community.

Two thousand and two was the year when several planning issues gave rise to serious disputes over changes to Mentone's central shopping area and their effects on local people. The most worrying of the officially planned developments came at the end of 2002. A suggestion was made that a new bus interchange should be created for Mentone which involved the removal a substantial part of the gardens next to the station and a repositioning of the pedestrian traffic lights. This caused a great outcry because of the popularity of having green space near the town's centre. The main opposition to the plan came from an unofficial group ultimately led by Garry Spencer and Dorothy Booth. Garry Spencer organised a protest which culminated in a rally in the station gardens on Saturday morning, 23 November 2002. Several hundred people attended and were joined by local councillors and State politicians. It was obvious at the rally that the politicians and local councillors had already decided that the whole new project concerning the Mentone station and its surroundings should be dumped and new plans drawn up.

Those in positions of power could see that destroying the ambience of the station gardens was being recognised as the vandalism of a Mentone public asset. Ordinary citizens were speaking out. What it also showed was the pride that locals had in Mentone, its citizen-friendly shopping centre, and its public transport hub around the station.

After the Station Gardens rally in 2002, Garry Spencer and Dorothy Booth played key roles in establishing a permanent group of activists which has become the Friends of the Mentone Station Gardens. Now chaired by Dorothy Booth, this group has worked regularly to maintain the appearance and utility of the station gardens as well as the station itself. Regular working bees and constant consultation with railway and civil authorities have produced a transport hub that is the envy of many other suburban groups. The role of the Friends group has been important in leading to other activities that continue to keep Mentone a desirable southern suburb.

The Friends group has been involved in monitoring other developments in central Mentone. They supported a Kingston Council policy to prevent ugly high-rise structures being built. The council decreed that two-storey structures in the local area were permitted, but anything planned to be higher than that was not given a permit unless there were exceptional circumstances. Four-storey buildings were allowed in the central shopping area. Subsequently, the height limits in the central shopping area were declared by the Minister of Planning to be discretionary. Several high-rise apartment blocks have been built beyond the shopping centre. One, a nine storey block close to Warrigal Road and Nepean Highway intersection was built on the former site of a small timber yard, the Nepean Timber Company that later closed and was replaced by the Mentone Ten Pin Bowl in 1963. Another apartment block was built on the corner of Balcombe Road and Swanston Street where a petrol station operated in the 1950s. Other later operators on the site were Timber Co, Mentone Motors, an agent for Holden cars, a gymnasium, Le Gym and a taxi service.

The Mentone Hotel, some distance from the main business area, soldiered on in more stringent days. The old times of profits from crowded bars, and drinkers driving home after lengthy stints at the pub are long gone. Mentone Hotel licensees tried to maintain customer numbers with boutique bars, evening disco nights, the hosting of smoke nights for clubs, as well as other attractions, but patronage continued to decline. In 2014, the heritage building was sold to the developer, Paul Huggins, who understood that the State Heritage laws guaranteed the preservation of the façade and internal staircase. Agreement was reached between the developer and the Kingston Council that several apartments would be provided in the heritage building and townhouses, some facing Beach Road and others facing Mentone Parade would be constructed on the hotel’s car park.

Since 2000, Mentone has remained almost free of dominant big structures that would destroy the people-friendly environment the town has always enjoyed. Most of Mentone is now reaping the benefits of being well away from the Nepean Highway. Some suburbs have this major highway running through the town's centre as happens in Moorabbin, Mordialloc, Aspendale, Edithvale, Chelsea and others. Years ago, to live and shop near the highway was a bonus, but the last decade or so has seen bumper-to-bumper traffic between Moorabbin and Mordialloc for lengthy periods each day, and it can only get worse. It is less pleasant to live on Nepean Highway than it once was. Shopping strips on this busy road are less desirable.

Real estate agents know the value of Mentone and the prices of homes here are commonly over one million dollars or close to it. Those homes close to the beach in quieter streets are highly sought after and in the million dollars plus range. The founders of Mentone picked the right place for a community hub, whether they knew it at the time or not.

Since the 2000s began, Mentone schools have continued to attract students in great numbers from local suburbs and even some from distant ones. The five colleges have continued to build new facilities. Mentone Girls Secondary College has added classrooms because its reputation leads parents to settle locally and give daughters the opportunity to attend one of Victoria's most valued secondary colleges. Both the Grammar Schools continue to prosper with the boys Grammar now enrolling girls as well. The campus has been extended across Lucerne Street to Warrigal Road where the Don Ingram section and playing fields occupy the land down to Naples Road. The Girls Grammar has expanded its site which now has frontages on Beach Road and Mentone Parade, with new premises added to house more students. Kilbreda's facilities are mainly two-storey and fill most of its confined block in central Mentone. Kilbreda is extending its buildings currently. St Bede's, which once had a back oval on Naples Road, now has extensive quarters on that land, catering for technical workshops and indoor sports.

When McCristal's Mentone College opened on the St Bede's site in 1896 with a handful of male students, no-one would have predicted that about 5000 young people would be attending secondary colleges in this town, most of them coming into Mentone from other suburbs daily. It should also be remembered that the two primary schools, Mentone Primary and St Patrick's have been present for over a century as well, giving younger children the skills in the 3Rs, and much more, as they enter a challenging world. Mentone Primary School first opened in 1889 as the Childers Street brick building took shape, while St Patrick's Mentone was originally held in the modest wooden chapel on land in Como Parade donated by Matthew Davies to the Roman Catholic Church.

Returning our attention to the early 2000s, Mentone has continued to grow, with units and flats being erected widely to house people of various age groups including older residents who move out of the family home. Many backyards are now occupied by premises owned separately from those living in the original house. Many large blocks now have multiple residences on them where subdivision is allowable. Hence the town's population has grown substantially. A downside of this has come with the number of cars parked in the streets and in every vacant spot around many dwellings. Bumper-to-bumper road traffic can be uncomfortable as well.

The early years of the new millennium have brought changes in Mentone's sporting teams. The amalgamation of Mentone Football Club with St Bede's Old Collegians has been a great success. The St Bede's Mentone Tigers Club, with two bases, one in Mentone and the other at Walter Galt complex inland from Parkdale, has been successful. The united club won the D Grade Victorian Amateur Football Association premiership in its first year, 1993. It has now moved to the top levels of the Victorian Amateur Football Association. The St Bede’s Mentone Tiger team won three flags in a row in 2006-7-8 under the coaching of St Bede's ex-student, Luke Beveridge. In doing this, the club moved from C Grade to A Grade in three years, the first time that had been achieved in the history of the Amateur Association. Beveridge, the grandson of Jack Beveridge, a Collingwood premiership player from the famous 1927-30 years, became the Australian Football League's Western Bulldogs senior coach in 2015 and led the Bulldogs to their second flag in 2016. He joins a long list of Mentone footballers who have played or coached in the VFL or AFL over the years since 1889 when the Mentone club was founded.

Mentone Cricket Club was founded in 1888, just four years after the town received its name from Matthew Davies. It has been the home team of several great players. Ian Meckiff began his career at Mentone and later, in 1958-9, blasted England out in a MCG Test Match that created a furore when the England players and cricket writers accused him of being a chucker. The club also produced Leo O'Brien the skilful opening batsman in the 1932-3 Bodyline Tests against Larwood who bowled bumpers at the request of Jardine, the hard-line England captain. The cricket club continues to do well, these days in the Sub-District Competition.

Apart from the Mentone Oval off Brindisi Street, Mentone has many other sporting venues that prosper in the new millennium, including the lawn bowls rinks and tennis courts. However, squash, a boom sport in the mid-twentieth century, has fallen in patronage and Mentone's courts, Squashtone in Balcombe Road and the Collins Street courts, have closed, as have most squash venues in other suburbs. In the early 1960s, ten-pin bowling was a new pastime with the Mentone complex on the Warrigal Road-Nepean Hwy corner very profitable for that decade. But the interest in the game declined and the ten-pin bowl closed early in the 2000s and has been replaced by a nine-storey building housing small residential apartments. On the other side of Warrigal Road, opposite the old ten-pin bowl building, a group of units known as The Hub was erected in the 1990s and was Mentone's first motel. It continues to play this role but with a change of name; Parkdale Motor Inn.

The main street of Mentone has survived as a shopping centre despite the proximity of Southland which has a huge variety of shops and other attractions. In 1968, when Southland opened, many people tipped that Mentone's shopping centre would collapse. That did not happen and now, between Coles in the south and Woolworths in the north, there is a busy area, with many individual shops along Mentone Parade, Como Parade West and Balcombe Road. Large parking areas behind the shops attract shoppers from places quite distant from Mentone. However, shopping is different from many decades ago. There are hairdressers, estate agents, gift shops, coffee shops, and several eateries with La Porchetta offering a huge family-friendly venue in the town's centre. This spacious restaurant occupies the large building that was the first Woolworths in Mentone. Incidentally, Scicluna's general store opposite the railway station gardens is housed in the first Coles store we had. It opened in 1956 but the big chain store needed a bigger venue and by the seventies had built the present Coles store on the site of Ernie Jones's Brindisi Street hardware outlet and adjacent small shops. The days of small grocer shops, small green grocer outlets, small competing chemists and even florists, have gone. The shopping centre is still important; though different from the days when everybody shopped in what was the 'main street'. Nowadays, people eat out more often and takeaway businesses are much more common. Those changes have saved Mentone's central business area.

The beach which once brought thousands of summer visitors is popular again after the disastrous loss of sand during the mid-twentieth century. The Mentone beach all but disappeared until in 1977 a program of pumping sand back to the shore began.  A dredge and huge pipes operated for several years pumping sand from hundreds of metres out in the bay back to the Mentone-Parkdale shoreline. This has rescued the beach culture that existed for years between the world wars and later. Despite the changes to the beach itself and the huge number of competing attractions, many people still enjoy a day at the beach, sunbaking and having a dip.

During the last fifteen or twenty years, the fashion of eating out has grown considerably. Back in the immediate post-war period hardly any locals dined outside the residential home, except for a tiny number who went to one of the hotels. There were virtually no venues in Mentone that catered for evening diners. Parents in the forties and fifties would occasionally go to the city and have lunch at Coles Café, or at Myers. Nowadays, many people, including families with young children, go out for lunch or dinner regularly. Nearly all Mentone's main street shops once closed at about 6 p.m. but now supermarkets and other outlets stay open much later and so do several restaurants. Mentone has Turkish, Indian, and Chinese restaurants. The Lolly Jar that once was simply a confectionary shop has transformed itself into a very popular eatery, especially for those who like a nutritious snack and a cuppa in the middle of the day. There are others, including one with a French ambience, Le Roi. Lifestyles have changed since the times when a much larger percentage of people's lives were spent in the family home. Mentone's main street has changed dramatically and continues to embrace new business patterns.

Mentone's location, chosen by Matthew Davies back in the 1880s, has ensured that it will remain a desirable suburb for people with financial security. It offers a lifestyle, removed from the bustle of the inner suburbs, being close to the bayside, yet easily accessible to the attractions of the city and its attractions that include sporting centres, theatres and other cultural venues that enrich people's lives. It has not quite got the reputation of Menton, the elite holiday resort on the France-Italy border, after which it was named, but it has a desirable status many other towns would love.

Leo Gamble
1 November 2019
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