Part of my intent in undertaking this project is to use the arcade as lens through which to explore the history of the Australian city and its inhabitants. Within the arcades we find goods, ideas and people that came from all over the world, encapsulating ideas of global trade and migration, and even political and social changes, into a contained space.
The fourth chapter of my thesis is going to do address the people of these arcades and do what a lot of urban histories often don’t – putting people back into the place. The city isn’t just an accumulation of buildings, roads and structures but a living breathing space where people live, love and laugh. One of the ways that we can explore this is to focus on individual lives within the sweep of broader histories of the the city and the world. Within this context I want to look at the lives of a variety of people who were involved with, encountered and inhabited the arcades, many of whom have often been forgotten about in the discussions of the architecture and goods to be found in the arcade spaces – the owners, architects, shopkeepers, customers, workers, and undesirable others.
What some of my initial examinations of a handful of these people have revealed is that many of these characters, particularly in the early years of the arcades’ histories, hailed from all over the globe. Along with the display of goods and ideas (of architecture, culture, consumption) that exhibited international origins and/or influences, many of those who inspired and brought these spaces were also evidence of Australia’s close connections with the rest of the world.
In the mid- to late nineteenth century, people were constantly arriving in (and leaving) the Australian colonies and a large percentage were overseas born. Recently, studies have explored the idea of combining aspects of historical biography, architectural history, cultural practices and material culture, in order to reveal new ways of thinking about history. These studies have also taken a decidedly transnational turn, in order to reveal the broader stories of nation, empire and global events through the lives of individuals whose lives were ‘formed … across a global canvas’ (Deacon, Russell & Woollacott 2010, 2).
To look at some of these ideas I’ve so far examined the lives of several people – Fong Fat, a Cantonese immigrant who opened a fancy goods store in the Eastern Arcade; Hiram Crawford, owner and tenant of the same building; Henry Morwitch, the builder of the Brisbane arcades, who lived a highly mobile life moving multiple times between colonies and continents; and Herr Rasmussen, the Danish medical botanist, who sold his Danish vitality pills to Sydney in the Central Arcade, George Street. I’ll be posting a more detailed look at the life of one of these very soon.
One of the things I really got excited about was trying to identify some images of some of these characters. I haven’t had any luck so far with those mentioned above but there was one valuable resource that I was made aware of recently. A number of these manufacturers and retailers with shops in the arcades exhibited at various international exhibitions. The State Library of Victoria has a fantastic collection of security photographs of exhibitors from the 1888 Melbourne exhibition and these include some of the people that inhabited the arcades, including the Messrs. Gaunts of Thomas Gaunts famous watch, clock and jewellery shop in the Royal Arcade, Melbourne. I’m hoping in the future I’ll be able to put some more faces to names – and people into these places – by looking through this collection and other images yet to be found.
Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott, ‘Introduction’, in Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott (eds.) Transnational Lives Biographies of Global Modernity, 1700-present (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2