An Unenviable Reputation Part Two: Shopping in the Eastern Arcade

A passage from the 1852 Illustrated guide to Paris described the arcades as:

a recent invention of industrial luxury … glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings … Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need (in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 19)

The ideal of the arcade was that of an elegant modern bourgeois leisure space for promenading, where one could see and be seen and indulge in the consumption of luxury commodities. This idealised representation developed early in their history and continued to be perpetuated with each new example constructed. The emphasis on luxury, elegance and modernity is seen repeatedly in descriptions of the arcades in literature and the popular press. Newspaper reports about the arcades in Australia often emphasise this ideal, describing in great detail their handsome architecture, rich fixtures and fittings, modern conveniences and engineering, and the elegance, variety and beauty of the stores, merchandise and visual displays to be found within. The shops that lined their pedestrian ways were specialist retailers and similar types of stores are seen repeatedly in each new arcade that opened in Australian cities. They provided a diverse and sometimes surprising range of wares: from household goods to clothing and accessories, from luxury items to foodstuffs.

While the popular perception of the arcades often envisages these sites as retail spaces, they provided a far more diverse social and cultural role within the city than as simply a place to shop. Truly intended to be cities in miniature, they were designed as elegant social spaces that were idealised versions of the streets outside, housing an enormous diversity of tenants, including shops, refreshment rooms, wine bars, offices, studios, theatres, and galleries ensuring that they were busy late into the night. In keeping with this, the Eastern included space for two hotels, a theatre, a restaurant, dining hall and purpose-built photographic studios. The arcades were also important centres of public leisure and pleasure with a diversity of activities available within, including musical entertainments, exhibitions, displays, and other refined and educational amusements. Their location at the heart of the city also meant that these spaces were also key sites for the gathering of people during important celebrations and commemorations.

View of the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne, NJ Caire, 1877. State Library of Victoria
View of the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne, NJ Caire, 1877. State Library of Victoria

The Eastern Arcade, in Bourke Street Melbourne, was built in just six months. By 5 December 1872, just prior to opening:

the major portion of the shops [were] already let, and the others … sought after by numerous applicants daily. The proprietors have wisely decided not to let any of the shops to offensive businesses, such as butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, &c. (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 5 December 1872, 239)

This report shows a deliberate attempt to limit the types of tenants that could operate within the arcade, probably with the intent of keeping the coarser sights and smells that typified the immediate area of Bourke Street from invading the idyllic and luxury world that the arcade owners hoped to convey.

Tenancy records do not exist for the Eastern Arcade but some of the best resources for a comprehensive glimpse of the makeup of retailers and other businesses within are the city directories, which listed individuals and businesses in Melbourne and its suburbs. Supplemented by other sources, particularly newspaper advertising and articles, the directories provide a way to track changes in the makeup of the arcade’s tenants and the product of their businesses throughout its history.

The types of businesses found within the Eastern Arcade in its early years were similar to ones found in the city streets outside. But those in the arcade formed an assemblage that all had a particular emphasis – on the luxury, the exotic and the modern. While locally produced clothing, accessories, manufactured goods and foodstuffs were prominent, imported commodities also played a significant role in these businesses, demonstrating the international nature of the trade that circulated the globe between Australia, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa in the late nineteenth century.

In late 1873, 70 individual spaces were listed in the arcade, including 63 shopfronts on the ground floor and gallery, Mayall’s Photographic Studio, the Eastern Arcade Hotel, with its public bar fronting Bourke Street, and the Apollo Hall, an entertainment and theatre space. A significant number of businesses, 30 in all (60%) displayed and offered some type of commodity for sale. One third of these sold bespoke fabric, clothing and accessories and included a draper, dressmaker, tailor and umbrella maker. There were also businesses that sold large appliances for both commercial and domestic use, including an agent for the locally made Walkers Gas Stoves, agents for the popular Little Wanzer sewing machine, imported from Canada, and Blazey’s music salon, offering purportedly the finest pianos from England and Europe.

Fancy goods dealers were extremely popular in arcades and elsewhere and there were four located in the Eastern Arcade in this year. The diversity of goods available in these shops is demonstrated in the advertisements of Chinese merchant and importer Fong Fat, who was one of the first tenants to open in 1872. He ‘obtained all the newest novelties in China goods expressly for the Arcade’, which included carved ivory pieces, crockery, silk and cotton, fans, firecrackers, tea, ginger, and possibly tobacco, coffee, sugar. There were also two watchmakers and jewellers, a rubber stamp manufacturer, a gilder and painter, and Henry Watts an award-winning perfumer. Three other businesses had luxury consumables – a confectioner, a tobacconist and the India & China Tea Company, which sold exotic sounding blends like ‘Emperor’s Bouquet’ and ‘Mandarins Choice’. Health and beauty were the focus of other tenants, who included a chiropodist, a hairdresser and phrenologist, Professor Hume. A handful of other shops in the gallery level were used as offices by a designer, an architect, a mining agent, and the office of Hiram Crawford, the American owner of the arcade, who was also a well-known coach operator.

Despite the assurance that there would be no noxious trades such as grocers, in the end there were two grocers, including Rankin & Co, which took up four stores. Another potentially noxious and noisy business was the shop of the bird fancier David Kinnear, a long-term tenant who ran the business until 1895. In 1893 the City Health Inspector received a complaint from another shopkeeper about the “‘erection of incubators and chickenhouses’ within the arcade, citing that it was unhealthy for the business proprietors and would “oblige them to leave”‘ (Encyclopedia of Melbourne citing Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 3181/P0000/Unit 676, File 4084, 29 September 1893 at It may have been that the building’s owner had to lower his principles in this regard as, despite reports to the contrary, there was almost a 20% vacancy rate in the year after it opened.

Over the course of the next twenty years the arcade housed a similar mix of businesses with some slight shifts. The directories reveal that rapid turnover in tenants was not unusual and some businesses only lasted a year before another moved in. A common occurrence in many arcades, including the Eastern, was to see one proprietor leave and another take their place in the same type of business. Advertisements show that proprietors would sell their whole business, including fixtures, fittings and stock, allowing easy mobility for the new proprietors to simply move in and start trading, taking advantage of the fact that this was a known business probably with regular customers.

In some arcades, such as the Royal Arcade further down Bourke Street, the combination of businesses stayed extremely static, sometimes for decades, suggesting that there was a deliberate policy by the arcade owners to maintain a particular mix that proved successful and might attract the broadest range of customers. Indeed, some of the Eastern Arcade’s tenants also stayed for many years, such as Madame Weigel’s American paper patterns, made in Richmond; The Melbourne Tailoring Company; and Youl’s Hosiers. Others only remained a year or two.

In the early 1890s some visible changes begin to occur. Most noticeable was the rise in vacancies, probably as a result of downturn in trade due to the 1890s depression, fuelled by the collapse of the land boom of the late 1880s. By 1893, 54% of the shops were vacant and this situation continued for several years. During this period the decision was made to significantly update the architecture of the arcade in keeping with more modern styles. In early 1894 the entire façade of the building was demolished and rebuilt and while the interior layout probably remained relatively untouched, the interior fixtures and fittings may have been modernised. Some businesses remained after the renovations, but a distinct change in the types of establishments becomes more obvious towards the end of the century and by the early 1900s the mix of tenants had completely changed from that of earlier years. There were fewer selling commodities and less of an emphasis on luxury goods, with a rise in tradesmen and service providers. These included diverse businesses such as music teachers, a picture frame maker, a signwriter, a printer, Meyers, the botanic druggist, and a journalist.

Of those that still sold commodities there were notably less selling clothing and accessories. In the 1870s these had accounted for around 20% of businesses but by 1900 there were only five, two of which were theatre costumiers. At the turn of the century, Bourke Street’s continued character as the heart of Melbourne’s entertainment district was reflected in the businesses within the arcade. Those involved in the theatre and music industries significantly increased and included music schools, dancing rooms, a theatrical agent and several theatrical costumiers, including Ford & Son, which occupied six shops in 1901. In 1914 the Kansas-born Whitney Bros’, who owned concessions at Luna Park, opened their Joy Parlour, an amusement arcade that took up nine storefronts on the ground floor. By the early twentieth-century, the carnival of Bourke Street had well and truly invaded the space of the arcade.

By 1921 businesses in the Eastern Arcade began to disappear from the Sands & McDougall Directories, one of the primary sources of information about tenants in the building. Although not listed as vacant, their absence indicates that businesses were closing down or that business was not sufficient that they were willing to spend the money on the listing. The arcade had, according to one source in 1924, ‘been notoriously neglected’ (The Argus, 12 June 1924, 14) and one of its tenants Madame Gurkha, a phrenologist, when taken to court for debts in the same year testified that her business was extremely unprofitable. By 1925, even the hotel was vacant, and only a handful of businesses remained including: long term tenants Meyers Botanic Depot; Duncan McIver, hairdresser; Pain & Co Theatrical Costumier; as well as a theatrical agency, a floor polisher, a cleaning company, an advertising agent and a shopfitter. By the next year the tenants were all gone and Clauscen & Co’s Furniture Emporium occupied the whole building.

Next post: The Afterlife of the Eastern Arcade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s