In October last year, along with other members of the Melbourne History Workshop (MHW), I presented at a public seminar, ‘Untimely Ends: Using Inquests for Family and Local History‘, at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), which focused on a specific collection of documents at PROV. We looked at the broader details of information you can find in these Inquests (Series VPRS 24) and how to use them in historical research. You can find more information on the MHW website, including the PowerPoint of the talk, which is full of useful material.

For my specific section, I talked about some research that I have been doing on Fong Fat, the Chinese owner of several Fancy Goods stores: two on Swanston Street and one in the Eastern Arcade in the 1860s and 1870s (although not all at the same time). The inquests research revealed more about his story but, more significantly, gave some greater detail about the women in his family: his daughter, Ah Chow; his first wife, Chinese-born Quinti; and his second wife, English immigrant Catherine Downey, formerly the family’s housekeeper and shop assistant.

In the last post on Fong Fat, I wrote about English-born New Zealander Charles Rooking Carter‘s comment on the shopping opportunities in the city of Melbourne in 1869:

he could find only one handsome Chinese shop in all Melbourne, and that was kept by ‘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, Victoria: The British ‘El Dorado‘ (1870)

Fong Fat’s shop, at 96 Swanston Street, near Little Bourke, was joined by another at 48 Bourke Street, in 1871 and then by another, in 1872, in the new and prestigious Eastern Arcade on Bourke Street. It was this shop that led me to Fong Fat and his story. In my research work on nineteenth-century Australian shopping arcades I came across advertisements for the wares that Fong Fat sold in the arcade, including imported Chinese homewares, bric-a-brac, fireworks, tea, and tobacco.

Advertisement for Fong Fat’s Eastern Arcade store, Herald, 20 December 1872, 4

While we imagine arcades in this period, and indeed Melbourne itself, as rather heterogenous and white, Chinese, Indian, Afghani and other non-European shops appeared in them to satisfy the taste for, to European eyes, exotic products from these regions. These shops and the stories of their proprietors demonstrate that Australia and its urban centres were more cosmopolitan that we often imagine.

The image we often have of the Chinese in Australia is of goldfields immigrants, sojourners that return or intend to return to China after making their money, who send their profits home, and whose Chinese wives that are left behind with the extended family. But, as scholars of the Chinese-Australian experience such as Sophie Loy-Wilson and Kate Bagnall, have explored, the story is far more complex. Many also decided to remain in Australia, becoming an integral part of Australian urban and regional life.

Fong Fat’s life is a one of those that little different to the Chinese sojourner trope, as is that of his family. Born in Canton around 1820, he came to Australia about 1857, presumably for gold, and established himself as a shopkeeper. He died in Stawell in 1884 after having married English-born widow Catherine Downey in 1872. This aspect of his story is really interesting, although not so highly unusual for Chinese-Australian men of the period; quite high numbers began relationships and had children with non-Chinese women. What intrigued me even more though was the story of his first family.

As I searched through Trove, as you do, for newspaper reports on him, I found some intriguing articles about two inquests in which he gave evidence. The first was that of four-month-old Ah Chow, the child of Fong Fat, who died in 1865 of inflammation of the lungs. The second, was that of his Chinese wife Quinti whose death, five years later, was caused by a stroke, and the newspapers claimed was probably the first inquest on a Chinese woman in the Australian colonies. These stories really intrigued me because our general story is that almost no Chinese women were present in Australia during this period. The Victorian census records indicate that there were eight Chinese women in 1861 (although 7% of the total population was China born), which grew to 31 in 1871. But there were a very very small number, of which Quinti was one .

Report on the inquest of Ah Chow, The Age, 10 July 1865, 4
Report on the inquest of Quinti, The Age, 17 May 1870, 3. The report mentions Catherine Downey, who was soon to become Fong Fat’s second wife

Interested in finding more, I obtained the inquest records (now almost all digitised!) from PROV, which told us a little more about the findings of the coroner, although the majority of the information was really quite well reported in the newspapers. But the inquests help to personalise this much more as we read the words of Fong Fat’s testimony for both his little daughter’s and wife’s deaths (the second was given through a translator). Like many testimonies, they seem dry, but we can imagine the probable distress of the father and husband at these events. Of Ah Chow’s death he stated:

The deceased female infant Ah Chow was my child. She was 28 days old. She was healthy up to the day before yesterday. She was in bed with her mother when I went home at 12 o’clock at night. My wife was crying. I saw blood coming from the child’s mouth. I went for a doctor but he was not at home. The child was alive then but lived only two hours.

Inquest deposition of Fong Fat in the death of his daughter Ah Chow. Public Records Office Victoria, VPRS 24 P0000 Unit 167, 4

The inquests are also interesting as they not only have testimonies from Fong Fat but also non-Chinese associates. This includes, in the inquest of Quinti, their housekeeper and shop assistant in Fong Fat’s store, Catherine Downey. Name sound familiar? Yes, this is the English-born widow that he married in 1871 and was his wife until her death fifteen years later!

I approach the history of urban Australia often in through the avenues of family history such as this. Using the personal stories of individual personalities to tell bigger histories and revealing larger events, such as the goldrush and its aftermath, Chinese migration to Australia, and the history of the city. Someone like Fong Fat, making his way in a city we often envisage as European and the presence of his Chinese wife and child, gives a different complexion to our imagination of Australia during the period.

Once I had found the inquests, I sourced as many other documents as I could to build a picture of these people and their lives – more newspaper reports, including advertising for the shops, stories about a court case Fong Fat’s second wife brought against someone, records of Catherine’s burial in the Melbourne General Cemetery and the gold that is the death certificates of Ah Chow and Quinti, which told us a little about them. Quinti, we find was born in Canton in around 1846 and had come to Victoria in around 1864 or 5, presumably to be a wife to Fong Fat. She quickly bore her only child, Ah Chow, in the colony, only to lose her, and then to die herself five years later.

The inquests themselves are only suggestive of what life would be like for Chinese women in Australia. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of detail in these particular ones but … in many other inquests we would receive a wealth of other detail about individuals. The death certificates reveal a little more, but they add to the story we are building. Importantly to me they also disrupt the idea that Chinese women were not present in Australia at all and the trope of the single sojourner Chinese man.

I think they also put a human slant on the often racialised and sensationalised newspaper reports about the Chinese community in the colonial city.  Together with all these other documents, the inquests provide another window into the lives of Fong Fat, Quinti and their baby daughter, as well as his second wife, and show how these types of records can provide more detailed information and illuminate the stories of Australian families.

Hi all! I’m back after a hectic semester of teaching at three different universities. It is always really rewarding but leaves little time for blog posts. I thought though that I’d jump online to plug a couple of recent publications on various aspects of urban history that I’ve had come out over the last year.

Late last year saw my book chapter in a collected edition released after a couple of years in the pipeline. International Migrations in the Victorian Era was edited by Marie Ruiz and published by Brill.  It features some fabulous articles by scholars on migration and the Victorian period from all over the world.

International Migrations in the Victorian era. Edited by Marie Ruiz (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

My chapter, ‘Transnationalism, the Urban & Migration in the Victorian Era: The Lives of Henry & Sophia Morwitch’ (Chapter Six, pages 156–186), traces the lives of the owners of the two Brisbane shopping arcades, the Royal Exhibition Arcade and the Grand Arcade, which I’ve written about on the blog previously.

The chapter looks at the various migrations throughout the British Empire (and beyond) that Henry and Sophia made over a fifty-year period. It examines their identities as both migrants and citizens of the different places within which they lived and how they worked to construct these within a variety of urban communities.

High Street, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1862. Showing the premises of HE Nathan & Co. Nathan was Sophia’s uncle, as well as an early Dunedin pioneer and successful businessman. Henry & Sophia married in Dunedin in 1864. Photographer: William Meluish. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 0.001627

I’d love to do a longer post on them soon looking at their lives and experiences – particularly as I’ve found quite a lot more out about Sophia since I wrote this book chapter three years ago. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, enjoy reading my chapter and several others from the book in Google Books.

Intersection of Pitt & King Streets, c1914–1917, showing Mayman’s Liverpool Arms Hotel, owned by Henry & Sophia since 1896, on the right. National Museum of Australia, 1986.0117.0541

The second, more recent, publication, released in April this year, was an article written with Professor Andy May at University of Melbourne  and George Vanags (MA2011) – ‘Returning to the city: World War One, the repatriation of soldiers and the shaping of Melbourne’. This was written for a special issue of History Australia ‘Coming Home’,(Vol. 16 No. 1), which focused on life after the end of World War One.

Welcoming returned wounded soldiers, Melbourne, 1918. Photographer Unknown. State Library Victoria, H29159

Our article examined the return of soldiers to Melbourne both during and after the war and how they assisted in shaping the postwar city.

In Melbourne, a city in which World War One permeated everyday life, programs for the reintegration of soldiers into the community characterised the home front and continued after war’s end. This article explores the manifestation of the returned soldier, utilising the city as a particular and novel frame to discuss the complex place of these men returning to a changing urban landscape that needed constant definition and renegotiation. It examines how the return of these men reshaped the city itself and contributes to our understanding of what it meant to be soldier, as well as a citizen, in the post-war period. (‘Returning to the City’, 132)

Although this is a little removed from my PhD thesis, I’ve been exploring the impact of war on the city of Melbourne for several years in a number of related projects with the Melbourne History Workshop. This has included the online exhibition The Everyday War, which displays of hundreds of digitised records from the City of Melbourne, held by Public Record Office Victoria, that show the way that the war was intertwined with the everyday life of the city.
I’ll also be exploring the idea of the war and its relevance to the arcades in my thesis a little. It’s interesting to note how much urban spaces were layered with activities that were related to World War One, including fundraising efforts, parades for departing and returned soldiers, patriotic imagery, and even anti-war protests. The arcades in a number of cities were intertwined with these events and experiences of war and I’ve got a wealth of information there to share at a later date.


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

Previously I’ve given an outline of the nineteenth-century shopping arcades built in both Victoria and Sydney. By the mid-1870s,  five shopping arcades had been built in Victoria, the most recent being the Victoria Arcade & Academy of Music on Bourke Street (1876). Although Sydney had been promised an arcade as early as 1859 (Illawarra Mercury, 24 March 1859, 2), one was not actually built until 1880.

While it is probably not a surprise to many that the first arcades in the Australian colonies were built in the booming goldrush metropolis of Melbourne, the second city where they were constructed is probably more of a revelation. Today we move further north to Queensland, to briefly touch on the three arcades built there in the nineteenth-century, and another that just sneaks into my research end date of 1901.

It was in the small colonial capital of Brisbane that one entrepreneurial man built both of the first arcades in Queensland – the Royal Exhibition Arcade (1877) and the Grand Arcade (1885) both within a few doors of each other on Queen Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. The story of these arcades is inseparable from the life of their owners, Henry and Louisa Morwitch, about whose lives I’ve recently written a book chapter, and about whom I will write more in another post.

An advertisement for Professor G.W. Gibson, Botanic Physician, from the Queensland Figaro newspaper, 20 April 1889, 601. He was based in the Royal Exhibition Arcade, seen at left.

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.

Firstly, the Royal Arcade was constructed in Charters Towers, nearly 1400 km from Brisbane, in the mining country of Far North Queensland, by businessman Alexander Malcolm and designed by Sydney architect Mark Cooper Day.  In 1888 the town was rapidly expanding, with a population drawn by lure of new gold discoveries (and displacing the traditional owners, the Gudjal people).

Although it was never finished (it still is missing it’s back half!) it is in fact, the only of the four Queensland arcades that I’m studying that still exists. Because it housed the Charters Towers Stock Exchange for a number of years, it’s now known as the Stock Exchange Arcade and is again operating as an arcade, run by the National Trust of Queensland.

Charters Towers Stock Exchange building (former Royal Arcade), c1890. Photographer unknown. State Library of Queensland

The Stock Exchange Arcade, Charters Towers, 2014. © Nicole Davis. Note the missing back half!

The final arcade in Queensland that I will look at is the Town Hall Arcade in Townsville, which was built by Townsville’s city council as part of a large development known as the Market Reserve Buildings, which included a Town Hall, Arcade, Theatre Royal and Central Hotel. The theatre was completed in 1900 and the complex was opened by Lord Hopetoun in September the next year (who raised the new flag of the federated Australia above it).

It was a magnificent example of very early Federation architecture and must have been quite a site to behold. This amazing collection of buildings (see an image here) was partly demolished in 1973 and tragically destroyed by fire in 1978. Today, the current municipal buildings, a typical example of 1980s civic architecture, stand in its place (Townsville Bulletin, 15 February 2015).

Town Hall, Flinders Street, Townsville, 1914. Photographer: W.J. Laurie. City Libraries Townsville, 315258. The Arcade entrance is below the tower.

Arcade building and premises of Brownhill, Kirk and Company, Market Reserve Building, Flinders Street, 1913. Photographer unknown. City Libraries Townsville, 323846.

If you want to read a little bit more about these Queensland arcades, head to my post detailing the big road trip I took to do site visits and archival research on all four in 2014. In the future, I’ll be doing profiles of each of the arcades as well – in that previous post, the Townsville arcade was a particular mystery, but I’ve found out a lot more since then!

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
T. 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
The Argus, 25 April, 1912, p5. Accessed on Trove at