Monday, August 11, 2014

Doing the Block

In Australian slang, doing your block is getting very cross and angry and reacting. But Doing the Block is entirely different and was a Melbourne evening and weekend pastime where in Victorian and Edwardian times women and their beaus would parade their latest fashions and more in a certain circuit in the city. Part of 'doing the block' was walking through the Block Arcade.

Block Arcade was modelled on Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which Hels made mention of here but it was somewhat different as Italians from Melbourne's sister city of Milan pointed out. Why does it turn to the left, quite different to Milan's? Some trickery ensued in the early nineties and a fake photo was produced that did somewhat emulate the layout of the Milan's Galleria Vittorio. The photo has puzzled many people as they searched for the location where the photo was taken from and they cannot find it. I thought a copy of the photo would be easy to find online, but it seems not.  Hels also wrote a little about Royal Arcade here.

Some time ago I saw Eileen Ervine on our ABC TV talking about The Block Arcade. She was clearly quite knowledgeable about The Block and full of enthusiasm for the beautiful arcade. I heard she conducted tours of The Block. I wanted to take the tour and kept it in the back of my mind for quite a time. My and later our tour of Melbourne Town Hall was terrific.

There was another couple taking the tour and we had to pay a measly $9 each which included a Devonshire Tea at the conclusion of the tour.

Eileen can talk the leg off an iron pot, which is I suppose how tour guides should be. The facts, the suppositions and the anecdotes flowed endlessly, all terribly interesting. She was terrific. But she was not the first guide of the Block Arcade. Beth Jackson who lived a two hour train ride away in Bendigo was the first and she continued showing people the building where she worked as a lift operator and and later a guide until she was 90 years old.

Apart from the obvious that everyone sees as they walk through The Block Arcade, above is rabbit warren, with the quite a lot of the interior ill adapted to the external of the building, meaning that a floor will only have half a full sized window. There have been some very famous tenants of spaces in The Block, such as Helena Rubinstein and Prue Acton among many. It is where the recently referred to Tapping Man is in the window of the Adelaide based family firm shop of Haig's Chocolates, the oldest survivor having learnt his trade at Lindt in Switzerland.

The Block Arcade is also where people queue to take tea at the Hopetoun Tea Rooms, with its monster mirror made in Genoa in the very early 20th century. Ah, I remember an anecdote. The mirror was coated with molasses as a cushion for its travel to Australia. It is untrue that once it arrived in Melbourne, baby pigs cleaned off the molasses.Yes, the anecdotes and information flowed freely.

There are some fabulous photos of The Block around, such as Joe's. Mine are a little ho hum.  This is the fa├žade of the Block Arcade with Block Court to your left.

The entrance with its copy of the original ironwork. The firm who made it  is still operating in Moorabbin.

This was originally a Singer sewing machine store. I can't make it out in the photo, but Singer is written around this ceiling mural painted by Phillip Goatcher.

On each side of this mural, are the words mathematics, chemistry, medicine and astronomy.

Next door to Block Arcade is Block Court, a lovely Art Deco arcade.

Block Court is only a short arcade. Originally it did or was planned go through to Little Collins Street.

I have often wondered about this clock next to Block Court. I know nothing more now. Do tell, if you know.

The weirdness in Block Arcade, multiple cornices. It was renovated last century, 1980s I think, to a very high standard and as you can see, sprinklers were added.

Linking across to the next building.

We crossed on an open walkway to the building next door where we saw a slide show and some ephemera. Block Arcade has its own history room. In this lane below are cafes and a noted musical record shop. I don't know why, but I have no knowledge of this lane off Little Collins Street. Seems it is called Balcombe Place. Everywhere we went, except for the above mentioned history room, is not locked against the public and you are free to roam if you want. Later edit: I am an idiot. The lane is Block Place, at the end of Block Arcade. The music shop is the well known Basement Discs.

The tour concluded with a Devonshire tea in Charles Dickens Tavern at the next door Block Court and I have solved a mystery I have wondered about for a long time. I asked Eileen about a basement cafe we once dined at in the early 1980s. I recall it as being called the Athenaeum Cafe. I thought it was nearer to the corner of Elizabeth Street. Eileen has worked in the city for most if not all of her working life and would surely know of it. She replied, you are sitting in where it was.


  1. I love that so many of your photos look up - and show us a perspective that is often missed. And those multiple cornices are fascinating.
    The tour sounds excellent too.

    1. EC, I spend rather a lot of time looking up. It is a wonder I don't crash into things. Thanks.

  2. Andrew, The Block of Arcade is very interesting building and your photos show the most interesting part. The walls paintings are very nice and similar to paintings which you can find in European churches. Phrasal verb doing the block is very interesting. I didn't know what does it mean but if I need I check the meaning in the English- Australian Cambridge dictionary -online of course.

    1. Gosia, with the extra word 'circuit', it would make sense to you. Doing a circuit of the block, the block being an area bounded by four streets, but not exactly in this case.

  3. Ahhh, it et my comment!
    My cousin and I have been trying to plan a trip for months to go stickybeak at The Block Arcade (again) and I shall mention the tour to her - who could resist such a knowledgeable guide and Devonshire tea!
    Love your pics, the artwork in those cornices is so gorgeous, such a pity architects don't employ this interior decoration these days.

    1. Jayne, and it is never as good the second time....I mean when you have to rewrite. You should go. Eileen is very nice and good to talk to.

  4. Anonymous4:06 pm

    Hello Andrew - great post about one of our Melbourne landmarks. Loved it!
    Last time we were in the Block Arcade was very early 2010 - at the time I was taken with the beautifully tiled floor and Haigh's Chocolate Shop lol

    Do you know if those tours are still available and where you organise them ?

    1. Cathy, some trivia. In the basement is a storage of tiles that will be all that will be required in future for any repair of the floor.

      We took the tour last week and I am sure the Melbourne Town Hall tour is still happening. Details at the end of this piece,

      Town Hall,

      The town hall tour was working on getting the organ to do a auto demonstration.

  5. In my world Doing The Block was the neighbourhood walk taken by most older people after dinner. The daily constitutional, if you like. I did it too when I lived in that neighbourhood, but not since and I really should.
    Perhaps if someone rewarded me with a Devonshire Tea after.

    1. River, it is kind of a generic term, but meant something quite specific here. I think here it also became generic in time. The Dev Tea was perfect.

  6. Fascinating. And what a beautiful place (and photos). Block is my last name, but I don't think I've ever been "done"... well, maybe once or twice.

    1. Once or twice Mitchell? Yeah, ok.


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