Emerald Hill was the name given to the municipality of South Melbourne during the period 1855-83. The name described the elevated area which rose above land that was mostly swampy, on alluvial soil and sand. The hill is a protruding area of volcanic origin, giving rise to green vegetation which contrasted with the dun-coloured, swampy vegetation.
In 1852 the Emerald Hill township was surveyed, mainly in response to the gold rush population increases. By the early 1860s further survey activity expanded the township to almost completely occupy the exposed former volcanic land, generally south-east of City Road and extended to Albert Road. St Vincent Gardens were the south-westerly boundary and the opposite boundary was Eastern Road. At the summit of Emerald Hill was the Orphan Asylum reserve, on which the Emerald Hill town hall was built in 1880.
The Emerald Hill township was at first a part of the Lonsdale Ward of the Melbourne City Council. Emerald Hill had a census population of 3504 in 1854. Dissatisfaction with the council led to Emerald Hill being proclaimed a separate borough on 26 May 1855. It became a town on 1 March 1872 and a city on 21 September 1883. Four days later the name was changed to South Melbourne.
The name Emerald Hill continued during the twentieth century as the title of a successful live theatre, a local newspaper and a conservation area proclaimed under the Australian Heritage Act. The conservation area is the block around the town hall, bounded by Dorcas, Clarendon, Park and Cecil Streets. In 1973 this two hectare area came under threat from development as a potential 'second CBD' when put up for sale by its owners the Family Care Organisation. Home to about 300 mainly low-income tenants, the Emerald Hill precinct became the site of protest action, resulting in the announcement in 1974 by federal minister Tom Uren, that the Whitlam Labor government would give the Victorian Hamer Liberal government a $3.5 million interest-free loan to keep the area in public hands. This action left the precinct intact as a Victorian-era streetscape.
South Melbourne entry