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).
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).
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 – Silk & Ivory, China, Late Qing Dynasty, c1880. Museums Victoria, HT 22651.
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.
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.
Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 3181 [Melbourne City Council] Town Clerk’s Files, Series I
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.
A passage from the 1852 Illustrated guide to Paris described the arcades as:
a recent invention of industrial luxury … glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings … Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need (in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 19)
The ideal of the arcade was that of an elegant modern bourgeois leisure space for promenading, where one could see and be seen and indulge in the consumption of luxury commodities. This idealised representation developed early in their history and continued to be perpetuated with each new example constructed. The emphasis on luxury, elegance and modernity is seen repeatedly in descriptions of the arcades in literature and the popular press. Newspaper reports about the arcades in Australia often emphasise this ideal, describing in great detail their handsome architecture, rich fixtures and fittings, modern conveniences and engineering, and the elegance, variety and beauty of the stores, merchandise and visual displays to be found within. The shops that lined their pedestrian ways were specialist retailers and similar types of stores are seen repeatedly in each new arcade that opened in Australian cities. They provided a diverse and sometimes surprising range of wares: from household goods to clothing and accessories, from luxury items to foodstuffs.
While the popular perception of the arcades often envisages these sites as retail spaces, they provided a far more diverse social and cultural role within the city than as simply a place to shop. Truly intended to be cities in miniature, they were designed as elegant social spaces that were idealised versions of the streets outside, housing an enormous diversity of tenants, including shops, refreshment rooms, wine bars, offices, studios, theatres, and galleries ensuring that they were busy late into the night. In keeping with this, the Eastern included space for two hotels, a theatre, a restaurant, dining hall and purpose-built photographic studios. The arcades were also important centres of public leisure and pleasure with a diversity of activities available within, including musical entertainments, exhibitions, displays, and other refined and educational amusements. Their location at the heart of the city also meant that these spaces were also key sites for the gathering of people during important celebrations and commemorations.
The Eastern Arcade, in Bourke Street Melbourne, was built in just six months. By 5 December 1872, just prior to opening:
the major portion of the shops [were] already let, and the others … sought after by numerous applicants daily. The proprietors have wisely decided not to let any of the shops to offensive businesses, such as butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, &c. (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 5 December 1872, 239)
This report shows a deliberate attempt to limit the types of tenants that could operate within the arcade, probably with the intent of keeping the coarser sights and smells that typified the immediate area of Bourke Street from invading the idyllic and luxury world that the arcade owners hoped to convey.
Tenancy records do not exist for the Eastern Arcade but some of the best resources for a comprehensive glimpse of the makeup of retailers and other businesses within are the city directories, which listed individuals and businesses in Melbourne and its suburbs. Supplemented by other sources, particularly newspaper advertising and articles, the directories provide a way to track changes in the makeup of the arcade’s tenants and the product of their businesses throughout its history.
The types of businesses found within the Eastern Arcade in its early years were similar to ones found in the city streets outside. But those in the arcade formed an assemblage that all had a particular emphasis – on the luxury, the exotic and the modern. While locally produced clothing, accessories, manufactured goods and foodstuffs were prominent, imported commodities also played a significant role in these businesses, demonstrating the international nature of the trade that circulated the globe between Australia, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa in the late nineteenth century.
In late 1873, 70 individual spaces were listed in the arcade, including 63 shopfronts on the ground floor and gallery, Mayall’s Photographic Studio, the Eastern Arcade Hotel, with its public bar fronting Bourke Street, and the Apollo Hall, an entertainment and theatre space. A significant number of businesses, 30 in all (60%) displayed and offered some type of commodity for sale. One third of these sold bespoke fabric, clothing and accessories and included a draper, dressmaker, tailor and umbrella maker. There were also businesses that sold large appliances for both commercial and domestic use, including an agent for the locally made Walkers Gas Stoves, agents for the popular Little Wanzer sewing machine, imported from Canada, and Blazey’s music salon, offering purportedly the finest pianos from England and Europe.
Fancy goods dealers were extremely popular in arcades and elsewhere and there were four located in the Eastern Arcade in this year. The diversity of goods available in these shops is demonstrated in the advertisements of Chinese merchant and importer Fong Fat, who was one of the first tenants to open in 1872. He ‘obtained all the newest novelties in China goods expressly for the Arcade’, which included carved ivory pieces, crockery, silk and cotton, fans, firecrackers, tea, ginger, and possibly tobacco, coffee, sugar.There were also two watchmakers and jewellers, a rubber stamp manufacturer, a gilder and painter, and Henry Watts an award-winning perfumer. Three other businesses had luxury consumables – a confectioner, a tobacconist and the India & China Tea Company, which sold exotic sounding blends like ‘Emperor’s Bouquet’ and ‘Mandarins Choice’. Health and beauty were the focus of other tenants, who included a chiropodist, a hairdresser and phrenologist, Professor Hume. A handful of other shops in the gallery level were used as offices by a designer, an architect, a mining agent, and the office of Hiram Crawford, the American owner of the arcade, who was also a well-known coach operator.
Despite the assurance that there would be no noxious trades such as grocers, in the end there were two grocers, including Rankin & Co, which took up four stores. Another potentially noxious and noisy business was the shop of the bird fancier David Kinnear, a long-term tenant who ran the business until 1895. In 1893 the City Health Inspector received a complaint from another shopkeeper about the “‘erection of incubators and chickenhouses’ within the arcade, citing that it was unhealthy for the business proprietors and would “oblige them to leave”‘ (Encyclopedia of Melbourne citing Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 3181/P0000/Unit 676, File 4084, 29 September 1893 at http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM01785b.htm). It may have been that the building’s owner had to lower his principles in this regard as, despite reports to the contrary, there was almost a 20% vacancy rate in the year after it opened.
Over the course of the next twenty years the arcade housed a similar mix of businesses with some slight shifts. The directories reveal that rapid turnover in tenants was not unusual and some businesses only lasted a year before another moved in. A common occurrence in many arcades, including the Eastern, was to see one proprietor leave and another take their place in the same type of business. Advertisements show that proprietors would sell their whole business, including fixtures, fittings and stock, allowing easy mobility for the new proprietors to simply move in and start trading, taking advantage of the fact that this was a known business probably with regular customers.
In some arcades, such as the Royal Arcade further down Bourke Street, the combination of businesses stayed extremely static, sometimes for decades, suggesting that there was a deliberate policy by the arcade owners to maintain a particular mix that proved successful and might attract the broadest range of customers. Indeed, some of the Eastern Arcade’s tenants also stayed for many years, such as Madame Weigel’s American paper patterns, made in Richmond; The Melbourne Tailoring Company; and Youl’s Hosiers. Others only remained a year or two.
In the early 1890s some visible changes begin to occur. Most noticeable was the rise in vacancies, probably as a result of downturn in trade due to the 1890s depression, fuelled by the collapse of the land boom of the late 1880s. By 1893, 54% of the shops were vacant and this situation continued for several years. During this period the decision was made to significantly update the architecture of the arcade in keeping with more modern styles. In early 1894 the entire façade of the building was demolished and rebuilt and while the interior layout probably remained relatively untouched, the interior fixtures and fittings may have been modernised. Some businesses remained after the renovations, but a distinct change in the types of establishments becomes more obvious towards the end of the century and by the early 1900s the mix of tenants had completely changed from that of earlier years. There were fewer selling commodities and less of an emphasis on luxury goods, with a rise in tradesmen and service providers. These included diverse businesses such as music teachers, a picture frame maker, a signwriter, a printer, Meyers, the botanic druggist, and a journalist.
Of those that still sold commodities there were notably less selling clothing and accessories. In the 1870s these had accounted for around 20% of businesses but by 1900 there were only five, two of which were theatre costumiers. At the turn of the century, Bourke Street’s continued character as the heart of Melbourne’s entertainment district was reflected in the businesses within the arcade. Those involved in the theatre and music industries significantly increased and included music schools, dancing rooms, a theatrical agent and several theatrical costumiers, including Ford & Son, which occupied six shops in 1901. In 1914 the Kansas-born Whitney Bros’, who owned concessions at Luna Park, opened their Joy Parlour, an amusement arcade that took up nine storefronts on the ground floor. By the early twentieth-century, the carnival of Bourke Street had well and truly invaded the space of the arcade.
By 1921 businesses in the Eastern Arcade began to disappear from the Sands & McDougall Directories, one of the primary sources of information about tenants in the building. Although not listed as vacant, their absence indicates that businesses were closing down or that business was not sufficient that they were willing to spend the money on the listing. The arcade had, according to one source in 1924, ‘been notoriously neglected’ (The Argus, 12 June 1924, 14) and one of its tenants Madame Gurkha, a phrenologist, when taken to court for debts in the same year testified that her business was extremely unprofitable. By 1925, even the hotel was vacant, and only a handful of businesses remained including: long term tenants Meyers Botanic Depot; Duncan McIver, hairdresser; Pain & Co Theatrical Costumier; as well as a theatrical agency, a floor polisher, a cleaning company, an advertising agent and a shopfitter. By the next year the tenants were all gone and Clauscen & Co’s Furniture Emporium occupied the whole building.
The next several posts will introduce you to an extended version of a paper that I gave earlier in the year at the University of Melbourne. It explores one of the forgotten arcades of Melbourne – the Eastern Arcade on Bourke Street and forms the beginnings of a case study that should help me to coalesce some of my ideas on the themes I’m going to look at in Chapter Two. The chapter will concentrate on the retail shops that were present in the arcades in Australia, exploring the types of shops, what goods they sold & what they tell us about the circulation of goods between Australia and the rest of the globe. It also tries to illuminate some of the changes that these spaces underwent during their history and their relationship with/how they were affected by the city streets around them and broader developments within the immediate urban space & beyond. This is still very much a work in progress, so any feedback would be totally appreciated!
… the sooner the arcade is demolished the better. It had an unenviable reputation. The locality will go up several steps of the ladder of dignity if a theatre be built there*
A photograph from the Victoria Police Museum shows an empty arcade; it appears dirty, dusty and down at heel. Despite the gloom, the glass panes in the roof let in a surprising amount of light and allow us glimpses of its interior. Shopkeepers’ signs can be seen along the promenade: J. Meyers Botanic Druggist, a costume hire shop, a barber and numerous unreadable signs in the lower promenade and upper galleries. At the end of the building a sign proclaims its location: The Eastern Arcade. This somewhat melancholy image towards the end of its commercial life and was taken for police evidence in the December 1921 murder of a twelve-year-old girl, allegedly carried out in the arcade’s wine shop. On December 30, 1921 The Gun Alley Murder, as it came to be known, sent shockwaves through Melbourne and indeed the whole of Australia. Soon after, a small article in the Argus newspaper suggested that ‘the sooner the arcade is demolished the better. It has an unenviable reputation. The locality will go up several steps of the ladder of dignity if a theatre be built there’ (The Daily News, 25 May 1922, 4). Within four years, the arcade’s tenants were gone and the site was entirely occupied by a furniture store. This supposed reputation and its end was in stark contrast to the high hopes that had been entertained for it when constructed just over fifty years before.
Given the popular ideas of the nineteenth-century shopping arcade as a refined, dreamlike place for middle class visitors to indulge in the purchase of luxury goods, this characterisation of the Eastern Arcade by the Argus may initially seem surprising. Today, Melbourne’s nineteenth-century shopping arcades are among its best-known heritage sites, attracting locals and tourists alike. Their marketing and presentation places a heavy emphasis on their role as an ‘authentic’ representation of the idealised nineteenth-century shopping arcade. But does an examination of the history of the Eastern Arcade, and the businesses and people that inhabited it, validate these idealised representations? What does its historical trajectory – from vaunted site of elegant shopping, leisure and pleasure to one of supposed undesirable characters and unenviable reputation – tell us about the role that these spaces played within the urban environment of the city?
This paper is part of a broader project that explores the social history of shopping arcades built in Australian cities and towns between 1853 and 1901. Through an examination of the people and businesses that inhabited them, it contends that the arcades were significant sites of modernity within the urban landscape. It argues that they were inextricably connected with the metropolitan life that surrounded them and that their histories frequently transgressed the stereotypes with which they were labelled. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges the constructed ideal of the arcade as a rarified and exclusive shopping space and argues that this stereotype elides their complex, diverse, multilayered and sometimes uneasy histories. This paper explores these themes through a case study of one of its forgotten specimens: the Eastern Arcade.
On 5 June 1872 architect George R. Johnson advertised for ‘tenders for the ERECTION of an ARCADE, Bourke-street east, for H. A. Crawford, Esq’ (The Argus, 5 June 1872, 3) that would run between Bourke and Little Collins streets and was situated next to the Melbourne City Corporation’s Eastern Market. The tender was won by builder George Cornwell, who had also constructed the previous building on the site, the Haymarket Theatre, an icon of the Melbourne theatre scene, large centred in this area of the city and which was destroyed by fire in 1871. The Eastern Arcade, as it was to be known, would be the fourth of its kind in the city of Melbourne, after the 1853 Queens Arcade, 1854 Victoria Arcade and the 1870 Royal Arcade, although only one was still in operation – the Royal Arcade two blocks away.
The new arcade was in an apparently highly advantageous position for attracting customers, located on one of Melbourne’s busiest streets, at the heart of its entertainment district, and next door to the Eastern Market – a hub for citizens of all classes both night and day.
The market gardeners, live animal sellers and grocers selling a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs occupied the space on Wednesday and Saturday morning followed by the hay salesmen, while some poulterers, butchers, fruiterers, potato salesmen, oyster sellers and fishmongers seem to have been permanently present. Other types of businesses were also present, including an ironmonger, a nurseryman & florist, a shoemaker, a hay salesman, and the notable bookseller, E. W. Cole. The market was a centre for the sale of produce and goods but was also renowned as an entertainment quarter. On Saturday nights it was turned into Paddy’s Markets, with household goods, bric-a-brac, and cheap clothing for sale, alongside oyster sellers, hot food carts, musicians, magicians, the pigeon exchange. The market had also developed as a centre for evangelistic speeches on Sundays. Numerous newspaper articles describe the life and colour of the immediate surrounds of the Eastern Arcade both during the day and at night. One portrays the atmosphere on market days, when the proprietors of produce and other goods entirely took over Bourke Street:
The pavement is edged with live chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, with cases of new-laid eggs, with trays of cowslip-hued butter and pens of youthful porkers … All these things, however, though pleasant to the carnal eye, and though suggestive of rural scenes and rustic abundance, do strike one as misplaced, and as inconveniently obtrusive in the principal thoroughfare off the city, one of the avenues to which is blockaded, on certain days of the week, with hay-carts ; while on Wednesdays and Saturdays the south side of Bourke-street, from the Poly-technic to Stanford’s, is occupied by a continuous line of country wains and drays, overflowing with fruit, vegetables, poultry, and dairy produce. … By daylight, all is animation in the Eastern Market. Surburban [sic.] greengrocers, fruit hawkers, restaurant-keepers, thrifty housewives, costermongers, and a miscellaneous gathering of purchasers who admit of no satisfactory classification, are skimming the cream off the produce exposed for sale, and carrying away with them in carts, in cabs, on trucks and in bags and baskets, the bloom, the freshness, and the fragrance of the market. What remains seems to have lost the odour and the savour of the country. (Charles Rooking Carter Victoria, the British el Doradoor Melbourne In 1869 (London, 1870: Edward Stanford) 31-35)
At night, particularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Bourke Street was packed with people from all walks of life, soaking in the urban atmosphere. One newspaper correspondent took a Friday night turn around Melbourne, exploring its various streets and observing their denizens. As he strolled Bourke Street he ‘felt a sort of contentment in mixing with the busy crowd, and even looked upon the rough shouldering of rollicking larrikins in the light of companionship.’
At the Eastern Market he stops at the stall of Chinese Cheap John who enthralled the diverse crowd which included ‘the dirty loafer … side by side with the comfortable mechanic … and the professional thief … in tempting proximity to a comfortable and ponderous female, anxious to catch the vendor’s eye to make a bid for a Lilliputian mirror’ (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 20 May 1873, 68). In 1868 Marcus Clarke’s ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ described the scene and compares it with the major streets and public leisure places of the European cities.
Do you ever walk down Bourke-street on a Sunday evening? I do, and am bewildered weekly. I have attempted comparison with the Plaza Mayor, with the Boomjees, with the Roccio, with the Haymarket – in fact with all the streets that I have seen, read of, or dreamt of – but I have not arrived at a satisfactory conclusion … I think Bourke-street is unique. I want to know why Bourke-street is always crowded on Sunday evening … I am curious to know what brings all these people out. It is difficult to walk on the footpaths on a Sunday evening and sometimes the road is crowded with couples. The town looks like the Greenwich fair during a total eclipse, and I sometimes wonder that the merry-makers do not roll down the hiss after the manner of Richmond. (The peripatetic philosopher (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1869) 63-66)
Other shops on Bourke Street boasted equally diverse trades and businesses. The Sands and McDougall Directory for 1872 lists the ruins of the Haymarket Theatre and in the same section of the street, between Russell and Stephen (now Exhibition) Streets are listed a variety of businesses, which mixed retail trade with manufacturing – the American importer, a chemist, an ironmonger and lamp warehouse, a bookseller, a hat manufacturer and tailor, a bootmaker, seedsman and florist, draper, pastrycook, tobacconist and billiard saloon, grocer, hotel, fancy repository, fishmonger and oyster dealer, wine rooms, a plumber, a pawnbroker, hairdresser and more. The area had also been centre of Melbourne’s entertainment district since the 1840s and a cluster of theatres and other entertainments were to be found nearby. On Bourke Street alone, these included the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, the newly opened Opera House, the Royal Colosseum, the Polytechnic-hall with its theatre shows and exhibitions such as the Cyclorama of the Franco-Prussian War, Kreitmayer’s Waxworks and a variety of more low brow entertainment hotspots. Restaurants and drinking establishments such as the Theatre Royal’s Café de Paris, the Nissen Café, Hummun’s Hotel, the Bendigo Hotel, the Spanish Restaurant enabled imbibing throughout the day and night. The experience of a night out at the theatre, bar and restaurant was accompanied by all manner of street entertainers and sideshows, snack vendors and coffee-stalls to keep people amused and satiated.
But, coupled with the portrayal of the area as the lively bustling district of excitement, was a moral distaste for the activities, events and smells that went along with it. While some romanticised the street scenes, others complained of the stench that went with market’s rotten vegetables, livestock dung, decaying debris littering the street, and the stench of urine wafting out from nearby laneways. Others despised the noise and supposed inconvenience of the many hawkers selling their diverse wares in the city, including those that clustered around the theatres and market of Bourke Street. Newspaper reports and letters to the editor visualised it as a den of vice with gambling, drinking, pickpockets, larrikins and prostitutes, causing disturbances and discord for the honest citizens who visited it. These tropes in the newspapers were a favourite for Melbourne’s reporters such as Marcus Clarke and John Stanley James (alias Vagabond), who were influenced by European writers such as Balzac, Baudelaire and Dickens, and wrote about the city’s ‘Lower Bohemia’, titillating the middle class readers with stories of the lower orders of society.
Others echoed this construction of the low life of the city, particularly in letters to the editor that complain about the dangers of the street in the area. One correspondent to the editor deplores what he saw in the Eastern Market one Saturday night:
The Legislature have lately been occupied with the question of what shall we do with our larrikins; but the encouragement that our city corporation is showing, by allowing the Eastern-market to be converted into a gambling rendezvous must in a great measure conduce to the evil. I walked through the market on Saturday night, and saw four skittle-alleys doing a very large business. They mostly were attended by youths from 14 and upwards. … having travelled a great deal, must certainly say that in no British dominions would gambling on such a large scale as I saw there be allowed in any public market; for no doubt it has a very great tendency towards demoralising our youths, for the money they earn and ought to take home finds its way into the pockets of the proprietors of these alleys, who care not where it comes from. (The Argus, 30 May 1871, 6)
‘The Eastern Market on Saturday morning is a place very much affected by pickpockets, as amid the stir and bustle going on there is ample opportunity for the safe exercise of their calling’ and newspapers regaled the public with cases of pickpockets being brought before the courts and sent to jail. Others complained about Bourke Street being the city’s biggest urinal with the lanes around the theatres and bars, the only place for people to relieve themselves. The laneways that ran behind the Bourke Street blocks, Little Bourke and Little Collins were also considered to be a dangerous and nefarious place where robberies and houses of ill repute abounded. These essential arteries of the city were a world apart from but tangibly close the elegant main boulevards and both repelled and fascinated respectable Melburnians.
In the eyes of some this supposed moral decay was synonymous with the physical decay of the locale. In the contemporary press, there was a feeling that the streetscape of popular Bourke Street did not match the rest of the city’s grandeur, nor its aspirations. The Argus, which reported the story of the future arcade, envisaged that this new structure, one of the epitomes of metropolitan town life in Europe would, along with the development planned for the adjacent Eastern Market, lend a much needed air of improvement to this section of Bourke Street which would:
be much bettered in appearance by a building of the character above described. When it is finished the City Corporation will have to be active with their schemes for the improvement of the Eastern Market, and the replacement of the rookeries by something more in keeping with business requirements and public taste. (The Argus, 8 September 1871, 4)
This desire for ‘improvement’ was a persistent catchcry in the city of Melbourne, with such aspirations expressed each time a new building was constructed. The construction of public institutional buildings such as the Public Library, the General Post Office and the Houses of Parliament during the 1850s and ‘60s were proof of Melbourne’s status as a city. Likewise, in the discourse surrounding the city’s arcades, they were often compared to those of Europe from which they drew their inspiration and touted as verification of Melbourne’s claim to be a modern, cosmopolitan city. When Anthony Trollope visited Melbourne in 1871/2, he sang the city’s praises stating that it was ‘exceedingly well built, with handsome banks, pleasant gardens, broad streets, and a claim to city well-being which [could] hardly be seen in towns of similar population at home’ and praising its lack of squalor. Bourke Street impressed him; he compared favourably to Oxford Street, and Cheapside, two of London’s most popular entertainment and shopping districts (Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, (Leipzig, 1873: Bernard Tauchnitz), 37 & 40). But in the contemporary Melbourne press, there was a feeling that the streetscape of popular Bourke Street did not match the rest of the city’s grandeur, nor its aspirations:
The visitor to Melbourne who has passed through Collins-street from west to east, who has admired the palatial façades of the banks which flank that thoroughfare, has had his attention arrested by the New Town-hall and the campanile tower of the Independent Church, and who, pursuing his walk, turns into Stephen-street, and enters the Eastern Market, must be equally struck by a similar contrast suggested by the meanness and inappropriateness of the structures which constitute or fringe the Eastern Market. (The Argus, 11 April 1871, 3)
It was within this setting that the new arcade was to be built, replacing the ruin of the Haymarket Theatre. The Eastern Arcade was to feature a French Second Empire influenced façade, and was touted as ‘one of the best examples of street architecture … in the city’ (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 5 December 1872, 239).
It had a galleried promenade illuminated by a skylit roof and was to have 35 glass-fronted shops on the ground level and 28 in the gallery but would also feature other spaces of leisure and pleasure, including:
[on Bourke Street] accommodation for an hotel … Above the hotel there will be a large hall … the Apollo hall of former days, with various improvements and additions … It is to be covered with a mansard roof, and on the top will be an observatory, from which a comprehensive view of the city and suburbs will be obtained. … The frontage to Little Collins-street provides for an hotel on the ground floor; a restaurant with a dining-hall … on the first floor; and on the second floor, a set of rooms prepared for Messrs. Mayall and Sons, the photographers …
Next post: Shopping in the Arcade
*PS If you would like a copy of the full footnotes, or a PDF of the full paper, please let me know.