I could find only one handsome Chinese shop in all Melbourne, and that was kept by a ‘celestial’ individual rejoicing in the name of Fong Fat. He indeed, had an excellent display of Chinese fancy goods, in the way of carved ivory work, ebony work, porcelain baskets — besides tea and tobacco. (Carter 1870, 54).

Eastern Arcade
View of the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1877. Photographer: NJ Caire. State Library Victoria, H84.3/11.

In 1873, four businesses in the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne, were listed as fancy goods dealers. Popular in arcades and in locations on the city streets, fancy goods stores had a wide variety of products for the home and personal use.

One of these was occupied by Chinese merchant and importer, Fong Fat, whose store occupied two shopfronts – numbers 11 and 13 – but his fancy goods were a little different to many of the products to be found in similar stores in colonial Melbourne and, indeed, in the Eastern Arcade.

Fong Fat was already well-established in the city as a fancy goods dealer, having run such a business at 98 Swanston Street since July 1868 (Herald, 18 July 1868, 1), before opening this second branch in the ostensibly prestigious location of the Eastern Arcade, in December 1872 (Argus, 18 December 1872, 2).

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 7.56.22 pm
Advertisement for Fong Fat’s Fancy Goods at 98 Swanston Street, Herald, 18 July 1868, 1.

In his stores, he carried Chinese (and some Japanese) products, including manufactured goods, such as carved ivory and ebony ware, porcelain crockery, silk and cotton, dress trimmings, fans, workboxes, tea caddies firecrackers, baskets, slippers, bamboo blinds and fishing rods, Japanese toothpowder, and Chinese crackers, but also consumables such as tea, tobacco, coffee, sugar, and spices.

Advertising indicates that he utilised connections in mainland China to import these treasures himself, for ‘All kinds of Chinese fancy goods [were] imported by Fong Fat direct from Canton … [including] chinaware, direct from the celebrated house of Messrs. Bow Hing and Co.’ for his Swanston Street store (Herald, 18 July 1868, 1). Later ‘he obtained all the newest novelties in China goods expressly for’ his new store in the arcade in 1872 (Argus, 18 December 1872, 2).

We gain an idea of what some of these goods may have looked like by taking a glance some of the imported Chinese items in the collection of Museums Victoria, including an ivory fan box, a silk and ivory fan, and a carved bone fan. Although these objects are of a slightly later date (1880), they perhaps represent some of what customers might be able to buy in Fong Fat’s shops.


Fan Box – Ivory, Carved Village Scenes, China, late Qing Dynasty, c1880. Museums Victoria, HT 22577.

The presence of a Chinese shopkeeper in a shopping arcade, a space that is perhaps imagined as a white, elite zone of occupation and leisure, may seem unusual, but such goods fed the desire for ‘Oriental’ and exotic goods in demand in Britain and Europe. But they were also desired, and available, in regional and metropolitan Australia during the latter half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth (e.g., Loy-Wilson 2014, 2017).

We can see from newspaper advertising that a surprising number of shops and businesses in the Australian arcades captured the Orientalist desires of the consumer in the settler colonial landscape. These included importers of Japanese and Chinese silks, furniture and other wares, Indian and Chinese tea shops, Oriental Bazaars, Turkish baths, and more. Many, but not all, were owned and run by non-British or European Australians like Fong Fat.

Fong Fat only lasted a year in the Eastern Arcade, vacating when his lease ran out at the end of 1873. The last we hear of him, as a fancy goods seller at least, is at his Swanston Street store in December 1874.

Swanston Street, 1872. Photographer unknown. State Library Victoria, H96.160/1721. Fong Fat’s store was four doors down from the Star Hotel, and is possibly that indicated with the arrow.

Who was Fong Fat and what happened to him after this last mention? Is he the man of the same name running a Chinese lottery and gambling den in Little Collins Street in 1875 (Weekly Times, 10 July 1875, 11)? Is he the Fong Fat who was fined for creating noxious gas in 1876 from his opium refinery? (PROV, VPRS 3181/PO/660/473)? Is he the Fong Fatee that appears with his wife on the Melbourne stage in the 1880s? Do we see him donating fruit and tea to the hospital fete committee in Hay, New South Wales, in 1893?

I’m asking these and other questions during the next few weeks, as I try to piece his story together. I have found some interesting information about his personal life already, gleaned from court records, newspapers, inquests, and other documents that I’ve been scouring. In Part Two of this post I’ll talk more about Font Fat’s Chinese wife, Quinti, and their daughter, Ah Chow, as well as his shop assistant, who was later his wife, Catherine Downey.

Select Bibliography

Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 3181 [Melbourne City Council] Town Clerk’s Files, Series I

Charles Rooking Carter, Victoria, the British ‘El Dorado’: Or: Melbourne in 1869 (London: Edward Stanford, 1870)

Sophie Loy-Wilson, ‘Rural Geographies and Chinese Empires: Chinese Shopkeepers and Shop-Life in Australia’, Australian Historical Studies 45.3 (2014): 407–424.

Sophie Loy-Wilson, Australians in Shanghai: Race, Rights and Nation in Treaty Port China (London & New York: Routledge, 2017)

Allom Lovell & Associates, The Royal Arcade: Conservation Management Plan (Melbourne: Allom Lovell &​ Associates, 1995)

Barbara Salisbury, The Strand Arcade: A History (Marrickville: Southwood Press, 1990)

Maps! So many of us love them. They take us places that we want to go or imagine that we would love to visit. But they also serve practical purposes for city planning. Recently I’ve been working on a project with a group of colleagues at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne History Workshop. This project has taken one block of the city and is investigating the history of the site from pre-colonial days to the present. The site is the block (actually two blocks!) bounded by Swanston, Collins, Russell and Bourke streets, bisected by Little Collins. We are working with maps, newspapers, images, historical texts, museum collections and other sources that can give us an idea of the multiple historical layers of the site. As well as ‘traditional’ historical archival materials, we utilise digital humanities platforms (becoming increasingly important for the work we do as historians) and the mapping of the site and its histories through GIS and geospatial technology.

There are some fantastic sites out there at the moment using these types of technologies, such as Cleveland Historical, Collage: The London Picture Archive; and Digital Harlem. Sites like these are both digital treasure troves and digital rabbit holes. The first day I looked at Collage I ended up doing about four hours of research for my thesis and found numerous important sources that I would not have found through traditional means – mainly due to my physical distance from them.

I have discussed before the importance of the idea of ‘layers of history’ to my project and the work on the project with the MHW team is part of my broader interest in researching the history of the city using this layered approach. Our inspiration for the project and the selection of the site came from a fire survey map that is in the collection of the State Library Victoria produced by surveyors Mahlstedt & Gee, which detail the buildings and even the occupants of those buildings in the city of Melbourne. They produced these maps over an approximately eighty-year period, once ever couple of decades, and by looking through them we can see the physical changes and growth that the city underwent. It’s quite amazing to see the increasing density and size of the built environment of the city through this period, as well as to explore what types of businesses were present.

After working on these maps for the block on which our project is focussed, I went back to the State Library’s website and collected them for the city blocks that each of the arcades were or are on. Below are a series of maps from Mahlstedt & Gee from the State Library Victoria, that show the evolution of the site on which the Queens Arcade in Lonsdale Street stood (they have even bigger zoomable versions on there, so I highly recommend having a look!). The first map is slightly earlier and is the land sale on which the properties owned by Rev James Clow, including the site of the Queens Arcade. Have a look at the changes that this city block underwent and let me know if you see anything that captures your attention!

City property plan of subdivision of Crown allotments 101112 13 section 21 City of Melbourne
City property plan of subdivision of Crown allotments 10, 11, 12, 13, section 21, City of Melbourne, 1873. Lithographer: H. G. DeGruchy. State Library Victoria.
Standard plans of the city of Melbourne, 1888. Malhstedt & Gee. State Library Victoria
Index to City of Melbourne detail fire survey
Index to City of Melbourne detail fire survey, 1910. G. Mahlstedt. State Library Victoria
City of Melbourne detail fire survey, Section 1. Compiled by the Insurance Planning Association; G. Mahlstedt & Son. State Library Victoria
City of Melbourne detail fire survey, Section 1, 1925. Compiled by the Insurance Planning Association; G. Mahlstedt & Son. State Library Victoria
Melbourne plans. Section 1, Version 1, 1948. Mahlstedt's (Vic.) Pty Ltd. State Library Victoria
Melbourne plans. Section 1, Version 1, 1948. State Library Victoria




Queens Arcade Melbourne
Queen’s Arcade, Melbourne, Interior. St Gill, 1856. State Library Victoria

I know I’ve been very very quiet lately! I actually have lots of prepped posts but have been super busy over the last six months madly writing my thesis plus conference papers plus journal articles (this is good!). Today I’m writing Chapter Two and came across just the best advertisement for the Queen’s Arcade, placed in the newspaper in its opening days in October 1853.

Nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements were often entertaining and appealed to the reader through a variety of methods, including in this case … rhyme. It shows that the arcade’s owners, a consortium of well-off middle-class Melbourne businessmen, aimed provide a the wide variety and mix of tenants and produce for the consumer who visited.

Much like today’s modern shopping mall, everything shoppers desired could be found at the arcade – clothing and accessories, fabrics jewellery, musical wares, art materials, luxury consumables and onsite refreshment rooms. This gave them (ideally) no cause to go elsewhere, and the diversity and variety available seemed to place the new novelty of the arcade in an ideal position to become the centre of shopping and social life in Melbourne.


THE Belles and Beaux of Melbourne’s Town to aid,
What can be better than the Queen’s Arcade for
A pleasant lounge in summer’s sultry days,
Well shelter’d from old Sol’s o’powering rays;
And when the hot winds drive dust helter skelter
What place than this more cool and fit for shelter?
When the wet season makes our town a swamp.
The Queen’s Arcade is dry and free from damp;
And here the Melbourne belles may walk at ease,
And choose what rare commodities they please.
I’ll run them over with your kind permission
First, we’ve G. Goldsmith’s Bonnet Exhibition,
To suit complexions whether dark or fair;
Jewels and ornaments, both rich and rare;
Scents of all kinds, exquisite and recherche,
With papier mache, too, and gutta percha;
Drapery, hosiery, splendid silks, and satin,
With books in English, French, German, and Latin.
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,”
And fewer bosoms. Here you’ll find the best
Quadrilles by Jullien, D’Albert’s waltzes fast,
The Arcade Polka, Winterbottoms’s last,
Bijouterie and articles of dress
On your attention, ladies, let me press,
That everything for widow, wife, or maid,
Is to be met with in the Queen’s Arcade;
And if the ladies’ smiles we only win,
Of course the gentlemen will soon drop In,
And they will find that them we’ve not forgot,
Havannahs and cheroots, a splendid lot,
With meerschaums, cutties, snuffs of every kind,
In short, all tastes will here be pleased; you’ll find
Rings, watches, pins, and studs in rich array.
Coats, trousers, vests of patterns neat or gay,
Canes, riding whips, and boots of patent leather,
With Mackintoshes to resist the weather.
To sum up all, an Universal Mart,
We mean to be a Gallery of Art,
And every exertion will be made
To please the public, in the Queen’s Arcade.
Refreshments of the best and choicest kind.
Will also be provided; you will find
Confectionery, pastry, jellies, ice,
Crackers, bon-bons, and everything that’s nice;
And taste it once, you’ll say such lemonade
You never drank but in the Queen’s Arcade.

The Banner, Melbourne, 7 October 1853 (via Trove)


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.

SLV H332 Gill The Block
Doing the Block, Melbourne. ST Gill, 1880. State Library Victoria.

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!).

Wynyard Square, Sydney. 1879. State Library New South Wales.

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).

Queens Arcade, Melbourne, Illustrated Melbourne Post, 29 October 1853, p4.
Queens Arcade, Melbourne, Illustrated Melbourne Post, 29 October 1853, 4

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.

Queens Arcade, Melbourne, Interior. St Gill, 1856. State Library Victoria
Queens Arcade, Melbourne, Interior. ST Gill, 1856. State Library Victoria.

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.

SLV H23929 Bourke Street Looking NE
Bourke Street Looking NE. Charles Nettleton, 1860. State Library Victoria.
SLV H23929 Bourke Street Looking NE detail
Bourke Street Looking NE (detail). Charles Nettleton, 1860. State Library Victoria.

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.

Victoria Arcade, Bourke Street Melbourne. ST Gill for JS Campbell & Co, Lithographers, 1853. State Library Victoria
Victoria Arcade, Bourke Street Melbourne. ST Gill for JS Campbell & Co, Lithographers, 1853. State Library Victoria

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.

E. Gaunt, Album of security identity portraits of members of the Victorian Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. State Library Victoria. H28190/2
E. Gaunt, Album of security identity portraits of members of the Victorian Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. State Library Victoria. H28190/2
E. Gaunt, Album of security identity portraits of members of the Victorian Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. State Library Victoria. H28190/256
E. Gaunt, Album of security identity portraits of members of the Victorian Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. State Library Victoria. H28190/256


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

I have a friend in Sydney who I met through Flickr. He’s a postcard collector and a very generous one at that! A couple of years ago he sent me a fantastic one of Birmingham’s City Arcade, which is the header for this site. In the mail the other day I got the lovely surprise of two fantastic vintage postcards. One shows the Passage du Commerce in Niort, Western France and the other the Mutual Arcade in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Passage du Commerce, Paris. c1912. Photographer unknown. Carte de Visite, front.

Passage du Commerce, Paris. c1912. Photographer unknown. Carte de Visite, back.

The Passage du Commerce is a version of the famous Parisian arcades, translated to the provincial town of Niort in western France. Many regional French towns quickly followed the fashion of the capital and constructed arcades, especially in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Niort was no different and a 1820 Royal decree ordered the construction of a communicating passage between The Rue des Halles and La Place de la Préfecture  on the site of a tavern, des Trois-Pigeons (the Three Pigeons). The arcade was completed in 1829 with 20 shops in total. Despite twice falling victim to fire, Passage du Commerce still exists today.

83223. Arcade Interior, Port Elizabeth by T. D. Ravenscroft (c.1900)

The South African arcades are really interesting. In the nineteenth-century some, such as the Johannesburg Arcade were shipped in pieces from Great Britain. This arcade was built around 1898 and designed by English expatriate architect William Stucke. It shows some of the interesting features that are typical of these later turn of the century arcades – where the shopping section itself is becoming less important than the buildings within which it’s being built.

This later leads to the arcades really being subsidiary to the rest of the building and developing into arcades with fake glass roofs – or none at all. Australia and South Africa can often provide interesting comparisons on the urban development of different British colonies and it will be great to delve into this a little more.

These postcards now take pride of place on my wall at work – and are a not subtle reminder to me each day that I need to write!

Below is another of PellethePoet’s arcade postcards: the exterior of the Block on Collins Street, Melbourne.

But, you MUST check out his Flickr Photostream to see more of his astonishing collection of vintage postcards!

300223. The Block, Collins Street, Melbourne (c.1910)

On 8 March it was International Women’s Day and the AFL kicked off with the NAB Cup … In honour of these, a bit of trivia:

In 1911 & 1912 both suffragist Vida Goldstein & the Victorian Football League had offices in the Block Arcade Melbourne. You can find information about these and many other tenants of buildings throughout the state in the Sands & McDougall Directory of Victoria at the State Library of Victoria.

The Argus, 25 April, 1912, p5. Accessed on Trove at  http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/11670383
The Argus, 25 April, 1912, p5. Accessed on Trove at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/11670383

I’m doing a LOT of travelling as part of my research for my thesis. Recently, I did a trip to Queensland to look at the history of the nineteenth century arcades there. It was a fruitful journey that answered a number of questions that couldn’t be resolved through online research.

It allowed me to visit the sites & understand their location and placement within the cityscape of both the nineteenth century & today, and I also collected reams of information, images, plans, maps, directories, council records and other resources that will assist with my research.

Additionally I was able to gain valuable information through direct contact with the staff of the archives and libraries there that yielded some revelations. Some of the information was contextual and this was vital. Despite growing up in Brisbane, I knew comparatively little about its history compared to Sydney & Melbourne, as that has been  where my history and heritage work has focused up until recently.

There were four arcades constructed in Queensland prior to 1901 – while I say nineteenth-century a lot,  my study actually extends to 1901, in order for me to consider one of these specific Queensland sites, constructed in the year of Federation and on the cusp of the new century that brought great changes to the Australian urban landscape.

Two were constructed in Brisbane and both were the brainwave of enterprising businessman Henry Morwitch, who lived a truly international life throughout the British Empire and beyond. Born in Poland, he migrated to England, then Victoria, followed by New Zealand, back over to Brisbane (with a sojourn in Gympie), then to Sydney and, at the end of his life, returning to Britain. His two arcades were built on the busiest commercial street in Brisbane, Queen Street, in close proximity to each other.

These were the Royal Exhibition Arcade, constructed in 1877 and demolished in the years around World War I, and the Grand Arcade (fronting Queen and Edward Streets), built in 1885 and demolished in parts between the mid 1920s to late 1930s.

Grand Arcade (front right) & Royal Exhibition Arcade (fourth building from rh corner), both featuring wrought iron verandahs, Queen Street, Brisbane, c1908, State Library Queensland.

Both sites are now taken up by commercial buildings featuring similar tenants, although certainly on a different scale. The Royal Exhibition Arcade was on the site of Macarthur Central, a large, recently constructed, shopping centre with diverse shops and eateries. As for the Grand, the Tattersall’s Arcade, part of the Tattersall’s Club buildings constructed between World Wars I and II, sits on the exact footprint of the Grand Arcade.

Macarthur Central, 255 Queen Street Brisbane. Site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade. Nicole Davis, 2014. Macarthur Central, site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade & several other buildings, 255 Queen Street Brisbane. Site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade. Nicole Davis, 2014.

The other two arcades that were built in Queensland were in seemingly unlikely locations, but at the time of their construction represented the progress and modernity of two regional towns that were booming, both economically and in terms of population.

The first was constructed in Charters Towers, nearly 1400 km from Brisbane, in the mining country of Far North Queensland. In 1888 the town was a city with a rapidly expanding population, drawn by rich lure of its gold discoveries and usurping the land of its traditional owners. By 1899 it had a population of 25,000 and was one of the biggest cities in the Australian colonies.

Entrepreneurs in Charters Towers used the gold wealth to create a European-style city, commissioning architects, often from the cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, to design buildings in the manner of the high boom metropolises far to the south. One of these was the Royal Arcade, today known as the Stock Exchange Arcade, constructed in 1888 for businessman Alexander Malcolm and designed by Sydney architect Mark Cooper Day. It was never completely finished due to Malcolm becoming insolvent, and today the back remains open to the land and laneway at the rear. It’s the only remaining arcade from the nineteenth century in Queensland and both it and the town, with its mining history and several heritage sites, are fantastic spots to visit.

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 1.26.52 pm
Charters Towers Stock Exchange building (former Royal Arcade), c1890. Photographer unknown. State Library Queensland

The last site I visited was in Townsville, 140 km east of Charters Towers on the coast. It’s a quite expansive city of 170,000 people. In 1901, the year of Federation, the Earl of Hopetoun, first Governor-General of Australia, opened the large municipal civic buildings constructed on Flinders Street. The structure, which took up a significant section of the block, included a Town Hall, a theatre, a licensed hotel, a market and a shopping arcade.

Unfortunately, not much survives in records nor in the collective memory about this arcade and before I arrived I doubted that it even was a real arcade in the sense that I was defining them. But I found some tantalising evidence in the Townsville City Library that did confirm it was an ‘authentic’ shopping arcade. This photocopy of a cross-section came from the original plans, which certainly existed in the 1990s, but now appear to be lost.

This amazing collection of buildings, built during a period of intense change for Australia, were unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1978 and today, the current municipal buildings, a typical example of 1980s civic architecture, stand in its place.

Despite the fact that the majority of these arcades no longer exists, seeing the sites on which they stood (and still stand, in the case of the Royal Arcade), allowed me to better understand their placement within the urban environment that no amount of looking at images or maps can provide. I also feel much more illuminated as to their place within the history of the cities in which they were built and the overarching historical narrative of those places.

The experience of road tripping to Charters Towers in particularly was fascinating as the bitumen road from tropical seaside Townsville took me to the dry almost outback of western Queensland and allowed me to understand the true feat of what was constructed in this now small town in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

I’m currently collating all the material and information gathered and this will figure in a longer case study of specific arcades that will contribute to my thesis.

This trip was made possibly by a Graduate Research Arts Travel Scholarship from the University of Melbourne. Lastly, a big shout out to those who assisted so much in my research on this whirlwind two week trip:

Brisbane City Archives

State Library of Queensland

Trisha Fielding and all the staff at Townsville City Libraries (Trisha, a historian, also has a fantastic North Queensland history blog in which she discusses the Town Hall buildings)

James Cook University Special Collections

Charters Towers & Dalrymple Archives Group, especially archivist and curator, Michael Brumby, who was excessively generous with his time and resources, and was willing to have great long chats about history with me.

Charters Towers Library

National Trust Queensland volunteers at the Stock Exchange Arcade and Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers and the Hou Wang Temple in Atherton

The Stock Exchange Arcade Gallery (which allowed me to see the upstairs of the Royal Arcade)

And to the Royal Hotel and the Stock Exchange Arcade Cafe in Charters Towers, for giving me a luxurious place to lay my head and excellent coffee to fortify me!

Demolition of the Eastern Arcade, 2008. Courtesy Melbourne Heritage Action. http://melbourneheritage.org.au/?attachment_id=245
Demolition of the Eastern Arcade, 2008. Courtesy Melbourne Heritage Action. http://melbourneheritage.org.au/?attachment_id=245

In my previous post I discussed the mix of businesses that occupied the Eastern Arcade during its 50 year existence in it’s intended form. We left off the story in 1926 by which time tenants were all gone and Clauscen & Co’s Furniture Emporium occupied the whole building. But the arcade’s story does not end there.

For the next 83 years it was occupied by a succession of Melbourne homegrown businesses: first Clauscen & Co’s, then Fletcher Jones, later Allans Music and finally Dimmeys. The promenade was built over and it its interior gutted, but its walls and unique façade remained. As an arcade it was largely forgotten and was mainly remembered in the press and popular imagination for its associations with the Haymarket Theatre and the Gun Alley Murder. It was only in 2008, after a hard fought battle by heritage groups, that the entire arcade was demolished and replaced by the Citadines Hotel.

While these dramatic changes occurred within the Eastern Arcade over the space of half a century, two blocks away at the Royal Arcade, things had changed relatively little since it opened in 1870. The same general mix of shops from this time had endured and the arcade had even been expanded at the turn of the century. What were the conditions that rendered the story of the Eastern Arcade so different to its nearby counterpart?

A complex interplay of factors probably acted together to precipitate these changes but the location of the arcade may have played a key role. Initially it seems to have been the 1890s depression that made a significant impact on trade, resulting in a large vacancy rate between 1893 and 1895, followed by a distinct change in the types of shops that occupied it after 1896. Although only two blocks away from the Melbourne’s shopping heart, the block bounded by Collins, Swanston, Elizabeth and Bourke Streets, this distance may have also played a role in the decreasing popularity of the Eastern Arcade. While it is a common claim that the arcades were outmoded by the development of more modern forms of shopping, such as large drapers and department stores, the Victorian Era arcades located in this central section of the city – Block, the Royal and Queens Walk Arcades – continued to be destinations for customers for decades. In fact, for these arcades, the crowds that flocked to the new fashionable department stores built in close proximity to them from the 1890s onwards were probably highly beneficial. The Block and the Royal are still busy thoroughfares today, as well as shopping destinations in their own right and this use of them as a shortcut through the large Melbourne city blocks has long been an advantage.

The very emphasis on the area surrounding the Eastern Arcade as an amusement district may have also had an impact. We might surmise that visitors wandered up Bourke Street more for its entertainments than its shops but also that this location affected its reputation among shoppers. The Eastern Market, which had eventually been rebuilt in 1879, and the area surrounding the arcade continued to attract the condemnation of some. One Tasmanian visitor in 1888 commented on the noticeable ‘larrikin element’ in Melbourne and that at the entrance to the Eastern Arcade he had seen

a crowd of 1000, principally of this class … assemble one afternoon … as if by magic, because two policemen were apparently trying to arrest some one. (Launceston Examiner, 8 August 1888, 3)

In the 1890s the Hanover Hall within the arcade itself was a magnet for larrikins wanting a boisterous and boozy night on the town. In 1901 Bourke Street was described as ‘a non-stop vaudeville show’ with a wide variety of entertainments ranging from music halls to shooting galleries (quoted in Kristin Otto, Capital: Melbourne When it Was the Capital City of Australia 1901-27 (Melbourne, 2009: The Text Publishing Company) 47-48). The shooting galleries of the Eastern Market and the presence of an amusement parlour in the arcade itself probably attracted a number of visitors who did not fit the ideal.

Despite the life of the streets around it, the arcade does not appear to have been well frequented, at least during the day, and was seemingly uncared for by its owners. The Melbourne Guide Book of c1895 wrote that it was ‘a quiet recess, wherein is no great sign of business’ (Melbourne: McCarron, Bird & Co, 27-28), while another commentator ten years later hoped that it would be demolished as ‘it [was] time that dirty and dingy arcade was put to some good use’ (The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People, 2 February 1907, 3). The trustees that had owned the building had been apparently discussing turning it into a residential hotel for two decades by 1921 and it is not beyond the imagination that the neglect was intentional. Although clearly on the decline for many years, it may have been its association with the Gun Alley Murder that affected business most significantly in the end. From this time onward, most mentions of the arcade in the newspapers revolve around the murder and the characters involved in it. In the end the Eastern Arcade, rather than being a transformative space for this section of Bourke Street, appears to have been transformed by the city streets around it.

Today very few of the Australian arcades remain. A few well-known examples have operated continuously since the 1880s or have been recently rejuvenated for modern consumers. But the many others, even those that still stand, have largely faded from the collective memory. Some lost popularity and closed relatively rapidly, while others never quite met expectations. Many underwent changes during the twentieth century to the physical fabric of the building and/or the mix of tenants in order to attempt to make them viable or in step with architectural fashion. Numerous examples were demolished during the course of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first. Some, like the Eastern Arcade and the Prahran Arcade were transformed into buildings that would hold one large business, demolishing its individual stores and, in the case of the former, covering over its distinctive gallery space.

In the 1930s Walter Benjamin, in his work on the Parisian arcades, emphasised the idea of examining the afterlife of buildings within the city. He contended that, by examining the multiple historical layers of a site, we could better understand its place in the development of the city and by extension the history of the city that surrounded it. He used the arcades as a lens not only to tell the story of the nineteenth century but also to interrogate the social structures of his own era.

Examining the historical trajectory of the Eastern Arcade, we can see some of the changes that were inherent in the city surrounding it during a 100 year period. Not only from the 50-year period in which it operated as a shopping arcade and the changes in businesses, goods and inhabitants therein, but also from its subsequent histories, including the battle to retain it before its demolition in 2008.

While the contemporary discourse surrounding the arcades at the time of their construction makes it clear that these sites were intended as refined, elegant leisure spaces for middle-class clientele many, like the Eastern Arcade, reveal a more complex story. From websites, brochures and commissioned histories to heritage assessments to more serious historical studies, most promote an imagined view of the arcade, often focusing on the nineteenth century context and eschewing the afterlife of these sites. Marketing campaigns for those arcades that have been restored to or preserved in their so-called ‘original forms’ understandably focus heavily on such nostalgic perceptions in order to promote them as unique shopping experiences. The website for the Royal Arcade, Australia’s oldest, typifies the general bent of current popular discourse surrounding them:

Historical – Charming – Beautiful – Timeless. There are few words which can describe the feeling and olde-style charm captured in the Royal Arcade. Since 1869, the arcade has acted as a hub between Melbourne’s, Bourke St Mall, Little Collins Street and Elizabeth Street; The Royal Arcade houses some of the most well-known and beautiful shops in Melbourne (http://www.royalarcade.com.au/)

Unlike the Block and the Royal, which had maintained their existence as an arcade since their inception, the Eastern took a different trajectory; but the changes in tenants, architectural fabric, eventual transformation and even its demolition do not diminish its significance. Rather, I would contend that the histories of sites such as this are vital to our understanding of the development of urban space from the nineteenth century until today.

I argue that the layers of these spaces are essential to our perception and understanding of the past, even more so than their original newly-built form and that the idealised perception of nineteenth-century arcades disguise many aspects of their histories, rendering them and our urban history in a one-dimensional, mummified form.

With heritage buildings being regularly demolished in Melbourne, partly based on the argument that the original fabric has been lost, perhaps we must consider that it is not only the original fabric but the accretions of layers of fabric that are just as essential to our understanding of our city.