Being a researcher of any sort takes a large degree of doggedness, obsessiveness, and lots of eye strain. From scientists to historians, professionals, and amateur enthusiasts, anyone who researches has experienced this. We also understand the need to go over our material again and again, looking for new angles and evidence.
So my quest to explore the history of Australia’s shopping arcades. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve trawled through Trove, Google Images, library websites, and books looking for images of these buildings. In addition to that, I’ve looked through hundreds of dusty old archival files, maps and plans that I’m terrified will crumble in my hand, astonishing but delicate and hard-to-see 100-year-old glass plate negatives and the most unsexy and eye-killing of research tools – the microfilm. Every time this was in pursuit of myriad tiny bits of information that a historian pieces together to tell as coherent a story as possible about their subjects.
But I also really really want to find some photos – because they are of course half the story and what helps bring to life these stories for your readers. Being an urban historian, this has often involved scouring street scenes of numerous Australian towns to hope that you’ll finally catch a glimpse of that building that you know existed but no-one thought it worth keeping an image of, or it hasn’t been tagged in digital files in order for you to find.
As an urban historian and curator first starting out, I spent probably over 100 hours looking at street scenes of Sydney for the Sydney’s pubs exhibition, trying to find elusive pubs that no-one knew about. I had eureka moments, when I spotted the Imperial Hotel on Wynyard Park, and crashing defeats in others, such as the Blue Anchor on George Street. Nine years later I still find myself looking for ones that escaped me, or getting excited about new images of those I already had found (that’s the obsession part!).
Now I’m back to scouring for this project. Realistically, most of the Australian arcades I’m researching have exterior images that are relatively easy to find. Interior images decidedly less so. For the last few years I’ve been searching for images of the first arcade built in Australia, the Queens Arcade, built on Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, in 1853. And believe me I’ve looked. I feel like I can see the changing urban portrait of Lonsdale Street from the 1850s to the 1890s in my mind like a palimpsest over today’s streetscape. But I had very little success in finding any image of any part of the building. The camera was always facing not quite the right way or the photo I found was of the site after the arcade had been demolished. And definitely no interior was to be found.
The first breakthrough was when I was trawling the internet yet again and found an old illustration in an old lecture Powerpoint that eminent urbanist Miles Lewis had put online. The Illustrated Melbourne Post is one of those rare newspapers that hasn’t been put online and you need to go to and find it in the State Library of Victoria on a microfilm ‘in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”‘ (Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1979).
But frustratingly, I could never find anything else. Until the other day. I just decided to randomly look on the State Library of Victoria’s site again and up popped a new image of the interior of an arcade from 1856 – the Queen’s Arcade. The image shows it’s curved corrugated iron roof (one of the first galvanised iron structures made locally in Melbourne) as well as the lighting, which was achieved using clerestory windows rather than a glass ceiling. This was a simple interpretation of the arcade form, inspired by European examples but built using local materials.
Additionally the description of this item mentioned another image – a panorama of Little Collins Street by Melbourne photographer Charles Nettleton – that also shows the arcade from its back entry at far right. I may have looked at this photograph before but never picked up on the arcade being in it – it also didn’t come up in searches, as the description is not labelled it with the name of the arcade. Here you can see clearer the curved roof and clerestory windows, as well as the rather ornate back entrance on Little Bourke Street.
The image of the interior was by celebrate illustrator ST Gill, who captured the life and rhythm of mid- to late nineteenth-century Melbourne and Ballarat. Currently the library is hosting a fantastic exhibition of Gill’s work, which I’ve lately found to be one of the visual inspirations for my thesis in the way it brings to life the city streets and their inhabitants. The Gill drawing probably went up online as part of the library’s research for the exhibition and my finding of it shows that its worth (re)searching again and again for images (and other historical information), as institutions like the library are always working on new exhibitions and research and, therefore, putting up new digitised images and other information for us to discover.
Addendum: ST Gill also drew this illustration of Melbourne’s second arcade, the 1854 Victoria Arcade, which doesn’t have appeared to have lasted long and may have never really got off the ground.