Thursday, January 31, 2013

Queer Melbourne City

Two Sundays ago we joined our fourth gay history walk, run by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. In the past we have walked in St Kilda, Carlton and South Yarra. This one focused on the city proper. We heard that similar walks are conducted in Sydney by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and in Adelaide a walk is led by Dr Gertrude Glossip.

We gathered at the forecourt of the State Library in a group of about forty, with Dr Graham Willett and Wayne Murdoch, both from ALGA, conducting the walk and alternating as speakers.

Our first stop was at the corner of Swanson and Lonsdale Streets. Society Five operated at a nearby building in Lonsdale Street. We moved on to the front of Myer in Bourke Street where we learnt about the amazing Myer window dresser Freddie Asmussen. Not only was he a VIP in the Myer Emporium, he was also a confidant of and party arranger for Dame Merlyn Myer, one of Melbourne's Baillieus, yes related to our Victorian State Premier.

We continued down Royal Arcade and what is now the second level of Koko Black was once the site of a men only Turkish Bath, right back into the 1870s. Plenty of shenanigans happened there. We exited from Block Arcade into Collins Street opposite what used to be the basement gay male only sauna, now a Foreign Language book shop. I recall in being called Caulfield Sauna 2, the other being in Glenhuntly Road and that one still operates.

 A little way along Collins Street was where the Australia Hotel stood. It seemed to be somewhat reluctant to embrace its gay male customers in its early days. Downstairs was the Woolshed Bar and upstairs was another bar for the professional and well dressed gay. It was also the site of a public gay kissing protest after a student at Melbourne University was booted out of Uni for gay activism.

Across the road used to be the Queensland Travel Agency, also the site of gay led protests when the despotic Joh Bjelke-Petersen ruled Queensland.

Now I have been inside Manchester Unity building on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets and I have never noticed the ground floor murals. I shall go back and take a look and maybe some photos. I understand they feature male nudity. I just searched and a couple of the murals can be seen here.

We paused again in the City Square and learnt about the dyke Harriet Elphinstone Dick (1858-1902). In the 1940/50s the stretch of Collins Street leading up to Spring Street was like Sydney's Oxford Street with many accepting cafes and flats when artistic types, gays and bohemian types resided.

As we walked up the hill we paused at this non-descript, nay ugly, office building. On the seventh floor was the University Club. It was once an ordinary gentleman's club, like the Melbourne Club and the Melbourne Savage Club, but the University Club had fallen on hard times and an enterprising person took it over and the University Club became a gay venue. I went there once and I can't really remember it, not for any reason other than it was so long ago.

Something else I had forgotten and re-learnt was a tale from the 1990s that happened at Collins Place where a tabloid journalist who broke a story about the late choreographer and ballet dancer Kelvin Coe having HIV was pelted with red paint by Coe's partner.

Across Spring Street, we found some nice rocks to sit on while we got and handle on the life of early 20th century venerealogist, birth control advocate and sex educator Dr Storer who lived opposite in Alcaston House. Trove, the digital newspaper archive, is chockers with reports of his deeds and misdeeds.

The walk wrapped up in Fitzroy Gardens and was where two gay lovers in the 19th century carried out their suicide pact with revolvers, except only one died. The other was hung after been found guilty of murder.

It was entirely a co-incidence that there was a fairy convention in nearby Treasury Gardens. I am a firm believer in No One Loves a Fairy When She is Forty.

This photo did not come out well, so why is it here?

Ah, St Andrews Square.

The Age covered one of the walks back in 2006, which talks about some of sites we visited during this year's walk.

The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives recently set up a Face Book page and it already has over 800 members. That is not quite the numbers for Lost Gay Melbourne on Face Book, but that is to be expected. There are Lost Gay.... FB groups for other Australian cities. ALGA has many items in its collections of interest to historians, who might learn things about Melbourne from quite a different angle. School children use its resources for projects, as do many others. It operates on a shoe string, purely on donations, memberships and bequests, and yes we are both members. Victoria's Public Record Office is not averse to using the resource too. ALGA has professional historians involved, which is great, as oral history is notoriously unreliable, yet we are inclined to trust oral histories.

I shall probably write a separate post one day on the above mentioned and quite fascinating Dr Robert Vivian Storer.

So thanks to those who put this year's walk together, which I have no doubt numbered than the two excellent presenters.


  1. In the 1960's Freddie Asmussen was very well known and a style standout. His shiny black door on the Myer admin level was a shrine (in the olden pre-computer days one had to go to that level to pay one's Myer account).
    Thank for yet another greatly interesting/informative post with surprise pictures (that poor bird), but am just hootling over the dyke called Dick.

  2. That's interesting Ann, because we were left with the impression that his office was in a rather obscure part of the Emporium. That would be level 6? I did not sit on and squash the bird.

  3. I used to work at St Andrew's Square. Just saying!

  4. Thanks for letting us join you. The Manchester Unity building does feature a lot of rather muscles young men on the friezes inside the foyer. One is even holding a sack of money. Nude, of course.

    1. Friezes, that is the word. I really am surprised I did not know about them Kath.

  5. I'm sorry I missed that walk. I was in a picture in The Age kissing on the steps of the Australia Hotel, and remember the University Club well.

    1. Wow Frank. That's right it was on the steps. Hotel management was not impressed. The walks are great, but a bit tiring as they always go longer than they are supposed to. I sort of wish I had taken notes this year, as someone did, but that was distract me from listening.

  6. Loved the Woolshed Bar and the University club. Woolshed was my first gay bar at 17yo. A eye opener! It was full of colourful characters.

    1. Thanks Brett. It was just before my time, or I just never went. The University Club was great.