An Unenviable Reputation: The Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne. Part One: Environs & Denizens of Bourke Street

The next several posts will introduce you to an extended version of a paper that I gave earlier in the year at the University of Melbourne. It explores one of the forgotten arcades of Melbourne – the Eastern Arcade on Bourke Street and forms the beginnings of a case study that should help me to coalesce some of my ideas on the themes I’m going to look at in Chapter Two. The chapter will concentrate on the retail shops that were present in the arcades in Australia, exploring the types of shops, what goods they sold & what they tell us about the circulation of goods between Australia and the rest of the globe. It also tries to illuminate some of the changes that these spaces underwent during their history and their relationship with/how they were affected by the city streets around them and broader developments within the immediate urban space & beyond. This is still very much a work in progress, so any feedback would be totally appreciated!

… the sooner the arcade is demolished the better. It had an unenviable reputation. The locality will go up several steps of the ladder of dignity if a theatre be built there*

Eastern Arcade Promenade, 1922. Victoria Police Museum.

A photograph from the Victoria Police Museum shows an empty arcade; it appears dirty, dusty and down at heel. Despite the gloom, the glass panes in the roof let in a surprising amount of light and allow us glimpses of its interior. Shopkeepers’ signs can be seen along the promenade: J. Meyers Botanic Druggist, a costume hire shop, a barber and numerous unreadable signs in the lower promenade and upper galleries. At the end of the building a sign proclaims its location: The Eastern Arcade. This somewhat melancholy image towards the end of its commercial life and was taken for police evidence in the December 1921 murder of a twelve-year-old girl, allegedly carried out in the arcade’s wine shop. On December 30, 1921 The Gun Alley Murder, as it came to be known, sent shockwaves through Melbourne and indeed the whole of Australia. Soon after, a small article in the Argus newspaper suggested that ‘the sooner the arcade is demolished the better. It has an unenviable reputation. The locality will go up several steps of the ladder of dignity if a theatre be built there’ (The Daily News, 25 May 1922, 4). Within four years, the arcade’s tenants were gone and the site was entirely occupied by a furniture store. This supposed reputation and its end was in stark contrast to the high hopes that had been entertained for it when constructed just over fifty years before.

Given the popular ideas of the nineteenth-century shopping arcade as a refined, dreamlike place for middle class visitors to indulge in the purchase of luxury goods, this characterisation of the Eastern Arcade by the Argus may initially seem surprising. Today, Melbourne’s nineteenth-century shopping arcades are among its best-known heritage sites, attracting locals and tourists alike. Their marketing and presentation places a heavy emphasis on their role as an ‘authentic’ representation of the idealised nineteenth-century shopping arcade. But does an examination of the history of the Eastern Arcade, and the businesses and people that inhabited it, validate these idealised representations? What does its historical trajectory – from vaunted site of elegant shopping, leisure and pleasure to one of supposed undesirable characters and unenviable reputation – tell us about the role that these spaces played within the urban environment of the city?

This paper is part of a broader project that explores the social history of shopping arcades built in Australian cities and towns between 1853 and 1901. Through an examination of the people and businesses that inhabited them, it contends that the arcades were significant sites of modernity within the urban landscape. It argues that they were inextricably connected with the metropolitan life that surrounded them and that their histories frequently transgressed the stereotypes with which they were labelled. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges the constructed ideal of the arcade as a rarified and exclusive shopping space and argues that this stereotype elides their complex, diverse, multilayered and sometimes uneasy histories. This paper explores these themes through a case study of one of its forgotten specimens: the Eastern Arcade.

SLV 1888
Section of ‘Standard plans of the city of Melbourne’, showing Eastern Market at top right with Eastern Arcade to its left. Mahlstedt and Gee, surveyors and draughtsmen, Melbourne and Sydney, 1888. State Library Victoria.

On 5 June 1872 architect George R. Johnson advertised for ‘tenders for the ERECTION of an ARCADE, Bourke-street east, for H. A. Crawford, Esq’ (The Argus, 5 June 1872, 3) that would run between Bourke and Little Collins streets and was situated next to the Melbourne City Corporation’s Eastern Market. The tender was won by builder George Cornwell, who had also constructed the previous building on the site, the Haymarket Theatre, an icon of the Melbourne theatre scene, large centred in this area of the city and which was destroyed by fire in 1871. The Eastern Arcade, as it was to be known, would be the fourth of its kind in the city of Melbourne, after the 1853 Queens Arcade, 1854 Victoria Arcade and the 1870 Royal Arcade, although only one was still in operation – the Royal Arcade two blocks away.

The new arcade was in an apparently highly advantageous position for attracting customers, located on one of Melbourne’s busiest streets, at the heart of its entertainment district, and next door to the Eastern Market – a hub for citizens of all classes both night and day.

The market gardeners, live animal sellers and grocers selling a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs occupied the space on Wednesday and Saturday morning followed by the hay salesmen, while some poulterers, butchers, fruiterers, potato salesmen, oyster sellers and fishmongers seem to have been permanently present. Other types of businesses were also present, including an ironmonger, a nurseryman & florist, a shoemaker, a hay salesman, and the notable bookseller, E. W. Cole. The market was a centre for the sale of produce and goods but was also renowned as an entertainment quarter. On Saturday nights it was turned into Paddy’s Markets, with household goods, bric-a-brac, and cheap clothing for sale, alongside oyster sellers, hot food carts, musicians, magicians, the pigeon exchange. The market had also developed as a centre for evangelistic speeches on Sundays. Numerous newspaper articles describe the life and colour of the immediate surrounds of the Eastern Arcade both during the day and at night. One portrays the atmosphere on market days, when the proprietors of produce and other goods entirely took over Bourke Street:

The pavement is edged with live chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, with cases of new-laid eggs, with trays of cowslip-hued butter and pens of youthful porkers … All these things, however, though pleasant to the carnal eye, and though suggestive of rural scenes and rustic abundance, do strike one as misplaced, and as inconveniently obtrusive in the principal thoroughfare off the city, one of the avenues to which is blockaded, on certain days of the week, with hay-carts ; while on Wednesdays and Saturdays the south side of Bourke-street, from the Poly-technic to Stanford’s, is occupied by a continuous line of country wains and drays, overflowing with fruit, vegetables, poultry, and dairy produce. … By daylight, all is animation in the Eastern Market. Surburban [sic.] greengrocers, fruit hawkers, restaurant-keepers, thrifty housewives, costermongers, and a miscellaneous gathering of purchasers who admit of no satisfactory classification, are skimming the cream off the produce exposed for sale, and carrying away with them in carts, in cabs, on trucks and in bags and baskets, the bloom, the freshness, and the fragrance of the market. What remains seems to have lost the odour and the savour of the country. (Charles Rooking Carter Victoria, the British el Dorado or Melbourne In 1869 (London, 1870: Edward Stanford) 31-35)

At night, particularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Bourke Street was packed with people from all walks of life, soaking in the urban atmosphere. One newspaper correspondent took a Friday night turn around Melbourne, exploring its various streets and observing their denizens. As he strolled Bourke Street he ‘felt a sort of contentment in mixing with the busy crowd, and even looked upon the rough shouldering of rollicking larrikins in the light of companionship.’

At the Eastern Market he stops at the stall of Chinese Cheap John who enthralled the diverse crowd which included ‘the dirty loafer … side by side with the comfortable mechanic … and the professional thief … in tempting proximity to a comfortable and ponderous female, anxious to catch the vendor’s eye to make a bid for a Lilliputian mirror’ (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 20 May 1873, 68). In 1868 Marcus Clarke’s ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ described the scene and compares it with the major streets and public leisure places of the European cities.

Do you ever walk down Bourke-street on a Sunday evening? I do, and am bewildered weekly. I have attempted comparison with the Plaza Mayor, with the Boomjees, with the Roccio, with the Haymarket – in fact with all the streets that I have seen, read of, or dreamt of – but I have not arrived at a satisfactory conclusion … I think Bourke-street is unique. I want to know why Bourke-street is always crowded on Sunday evening … I am curious to know what brings all these people out. It is difficult to walk on the footpaths on a Sunday evening and sometimes the road is crowded with couples. The town looks like the Greenwich fair during a total eclipse, and I sometimes wonder that the merry-makers do not roll down the hiss after the manner of Richmond. (The peripatetic philosopher (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1869) 63-66)

Other shops on Bourke Street boasted equally diverse trades and businesses. The Sands and McDougall Directory for 1872 lists the ruins of the Haymarket Theatre and in the same section of the street, between Russell and Stephen (now Exhibition) Streets are listed a variety of businesses, which mixed retail trade with manufacturing – the American importer, a chemist, an ironmonger and lamp warehouse, a bookseller, a hat manufacturer and tailor, a bootmaker, seedsman and florist, draper, pastrycook, tobacconist and billiard saloon, grocer, hotel, fancy repository, fishmonger and oyster dealer, wine rooms, a plumber, a pawnbroker, hairdresser and more. The area had also been centre of Melbourne’s entertainment district since the 1840s and a cluster of theatres and other entertainments were to be found nearby. On Bourke Street alone, these included the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, the newly opened Opera House, the Royal Colosseum, the Polytechnic-hall with its theatre shows and exhibitions such as the Cyclorama of the Franco-Prussian War, Kreitmayer’s Waxworks and a variety of more low brow entertainment hotspots. Restaurants and drinking establishments such as the Theatre Royal’s Café de Paris, the Nissen Café, Hummun’s Hotel, the Bendigo Hotel, the Spanish Restaurant enabled imbibing throughout the day and night. The experience of a night out at the theatre, bar and restaurant was accompanied by all manner of street entertainers and sideshows, snack vendors and coffee-stalls to keep people amused and satiated.

Eastern Market on Saturday Morning, Illustrated Melbourne Post, 2 August 1862. State Library Victoria.

But, coupled with the portrayal of the area as the lively bustling district of excitement, was a moral distaste for the activities, events and smells that went along with it. While some romanticised the street scenes, others complained of the stench that went with market’s rotten vegetables, livestock dung, decaying debris littering the street, and the stench of urine wafting out from nearby laneways. Others despised the noise and supposed inconvenience of the many hawkers selling their diverse wares in the city, including those that clustered around the theatres and market of Bourke Street. Newspaper reports and letters to the editor visualised it as a den of vice with gambling, drinking, pickpockets, larrikins and prostitutes, causing disturbances and discord for the honest citizens who visited it. These tropes in the newspapers were a favourite for Melbourne’s reporters such as Marcus Clarke and John Stanley James (alias Vagabond), who were influenced by European writers such as Balzac, Baudelaire and Dickens, and wrote about the city’s ‘Lower Bohemia’, titillating the middle class readers with stories of the lower orders of society.

Others echoed this construction of the low life of the city, particularly in letters to the editor that complain about the dangers of the street in the area. One correspondent to the editor deplores what he saw in the Eastern Market one Saturday night:

The Legislature have lately been occupied with the question of what shall we do with our larrikins; but the encouragement that our city corporation is showing, by allowing the Eastern-market to be converted into a gambling rendezvous must in a great measure conduce to the evil. I walked through the market on Saturday night, and saw four skittle-alleys doing a very large business. They mostly were attended by youths from 14 and upwards. … having travelled a great deal, must certainly say that in no British dominions would gambling on such a large scale as I saw there be allowed in any public market; for no doubt it has a very great tendency towards demoralising our youths, for the money they earn and ought to take home finds its way into the pockets of the proprietors of these alleys, who care not where it comes from. (The Argus, 30 May 1871, 6)

‘The Eastern Market on Saturday morning is a place very much affected by pickpockets, as amid the stir and bustle going on there is ample opportunity for the safe exercise of their calling’ and newspapers regaled the public with cases of pickpockets being brought before the courts and sent to jail. Others complained about Bourke Street being the city’s biggest urinal with the lanes around the theatres and bars, the only place for people to relieve themselves. The laneways that ran behind the Bourke Street blocks, Little Bourke and Little Collins were also considered to be a dangerous and nefarious place where robberies and houses of ill repute abounded. These essential arteries of the city were a world apart from but tangibly close the elegant main boulevards and both repelled and fascinated respectable Melburnians.

In the eyes of some this supposed moral decay was synonymous with the physical decay of the locale. In the contemporary press, there was a feeling that the streetscape of popular Bourke Street did not match the rest of the city’s grandeur, nor its aspirations. The Argus, which reported the story of the future arcade, envisaged that this new structure, one of the epitomes of metropolitan town life in Europe would, along with the development planned for the adjacent Eastern Market, lend a much needed air of improvement to this section of Bourke Street which would:

be much bettered in appearance by a building of the character above described. When it is finished the City Corporation will have to be active with their schemes for the improvement of the Eastern Market, and the replacement of the rookeries by something more in keeping with business requirements and public taste. (The Argus, 8 September 1871, 4)

The Eastern Market, Henry Gritten, James Philp, Charles Troedel, 1864. National Gallery of Australia.

This desire for ‘improvement’ was a persistent catchcry in the city of Melbourne, with such aspirations expressed each time a new building was constructed. The construction of public institutional buildings such as the Public Library, the General Post Office and the Houses of Parliament during the 1850s and ‘60s were proof of Melbourne’s status as a city. Likewise, in the discourse surrounding the city’s arcades, they were often compared to those of Europe from which they drew their inspiration and touted as verification of Melbourne’s claim to be a modern, cosmopolitan city. When Anthony Trollope visited Melbourne in 1871/2, he sang the city’s praises stating that it was ‘exceedingly well built, with handsome banks, pleasant gardens, broad streets, and a claim to city well-being which [could] hardly be seen in towns of similar population at home’ and praising its lack of squalor. Bourke Street impressed him; he compared favourably to Oxford Street, and Cheapside, two of London’s most popular entertainment and shopping districts (Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, (Leipzig, 1873: Bernard Tauchnitz), 37 & 40). But in the contemporary Melbourne press, there was a feeling that the streetscape of popular Bourke Street did not match the rest of the city’s grandeur, nor its aspirations:

The visitor to Melbourne who has passed through Collins-street from west to east, who has admired the palatial façades of the banks which flank that thoroughfare, has had his attention arrested by the New Town-hall and the campanile tower of the Independent Church, and who, pursuing his walk, turns into Stephen-street, and enters the Eastern Market, must be equally struck by a similar contrast suggested by the meanness and inappropriateness of the structures which constitute or fringe the Eastern Market. (The Argus, 11 April 1871, 3)

It was within this setting that the new arcade was to be built, replacing the ruin of the Haymarket Theatre. The Eastern Arcade was to feature a French Second Empire influenced façade, and was touted as ‘one of the best examples of street architecture … in the city’ (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 5 December 1872, 239).

It had a galleried promenade illuminated by a skylit roof and was to have 35 glass-fronted shops on the ground level and 28 in the gallery but would also feature other spaces of leisure and pleasure, including:

[on Bourke Street] accommodation for an hotel … Above the hotel there will be a large hall … the Apollo hall of former days, with various improvements and additions … It is to be covered with a mansard roof, and on the top will be an observatory, from which a comprehensive view of the city and suburbs will be obtained. … The frontage to Little Collins-street provides for an hotel on the ground floor; a restaurant with a dining-hall … on the first floor; and on the second floor, a set of rooms prepared for Messrs. Mayall and Sons, the photographers …

Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street
The facade of the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, ‘The illustrated Australian news for home readers’, 1872

Next post: Shopping in the Arcade

*PS If you would like a copy of the full footnotes, or a PDF of the full paper, please let me know.

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