The “Brawny Farmer from Dubbo” turned International Boxer

Alexia Rutkowski

Figure 1: The Three Cooks, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00132.

In the digitised images of the Stadiums Pty Ltd archive collection, Australian boxer, George Cook caught my attention as several photographs included portraits with his wife and daughter, Julie, therefore, relating to his personal life as well as his boxing career. Intrigued to learn more about George, I questioned how a man from Cobbora, Dubbo, New South Wales could have a successful international boxing career during the 1920s and 1930s. Matthew Taylor explores how boxers in the 1920s and 1930s became “transnational icons” as sporting labour became incorporated into global networks and provided motivations for migration from the mid-nineteenth century onwards (Taylor, 2014, p.171). After World War I (1914-1918), there were also improved transportation and communication services which helped form international competitions, causing a new transnational sporting arena during the inter-war years (Taylor, 2014). These factors enabled George to compete internationally as a boxer.

Born in Cobbora, New South Wales, Australia, on January 23, 1898. According to Boxer List, a database of title fights, George’s boxing career started on July 17, 1917, as he lost to Jim Tracey at Sydney Stadium. George’s last match took place in London at The Ring on Blackfriars Road on December 18, 1938. His career spanned twenty-years, and he boxed in Australia, America, Britain, and even in Europe. During international travel, boxers relied on journalists to share their experiences abroad through local and national newspapers, and updates on George’s career, in his matches and travel movements, can be traced through local Australian newspapers found in Trove, the National Library of Australia online search engine (Taylor, 2014).

Overall, George won 43 matches, lost 50, and drew 10 (BoxerList, 2023). The first image in the University of Melbourne collection that alludes to George’s international boxing career is however a photograph of his daughter, Julie, on a Miami beach.

Figure 2: Julie Cook Holidaying in Miami, undated, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00129.

While the photo is undated, and Julie’s age is unknown, other articles confirm that George was in Miami in February 1930. “Serving as a sparring partner” to Jack Sharkey, an American heavyweight boxer (“Boxing”, 1930). George reports to The Northern Miner and Sunraysia Daily, that he did not enjoy sparring with Jack as he had been “treating him rough”. Despite the family portraits suggesting George had an international boxing career which started in America, George started his international career with three title fights in New Zealand where he was acclaimed as the ‘brawny farmer’ from Dubbo, and then sailed to Britain on the Orsova. Arriving in Britain in early 1921, George met his wife, and an issue of British Pathé on April 27 1922 includes a short video reel with the caption: “Australia’s Champion Heavy Weight boxer and his bride pose for the Pathé Gazette”. From the video, we also learn that George, was living in London and that by 1922, he had a significant reputation as a heavy weight champion boxer with an international career. Furthermore, a newspaper article from April 19, 1922 in the Geraldton Express stated that George was soon to marry a Mrs. Rider a war widow, in London, who he met at a dance. Wed between April 19 and April 27, 1922, George’s marriage to a British woman and his career in Britain, could explain why he decided to permanently reside in Britain as opposed to moving back to Australia. Another publication by Taylor documents that many international boxers settled in London or surrounding areas as it became the ‘capital’ of the boxing world in the mid-twentieth century (Taylor, 2009).

In February 1937, with little explanation, it was however announced by the British Boxing Board of Control that George needed to retire. After his retirement, Britain declared war on Germany, and George claimed, “I am too old to be a soldier, but nobody is too old to fight fires” (“George Cook, Former Heavyweight Boxer”, 1943). George passed away on October 8, 1943, in Surbiton, Surrey. The Burnie Gazette reported that George died from a short illness, and that in his retirement he was a member of the National Fire Service. At his time of death, George’s investments in Britain included a public house, café, and a snack bar.

To trace George’s travel movements in this blog post throughout his boxing career, you can follow this story map:   https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/779c576b5c70d0218a17b0f004743d92/the-international-boxing-career-of-george-cook/index.html.

Alexia Rutkowski is a PhD candidate in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. She is undertaking research on the history of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, focusing on transnationalism and the role of individuals.

References

Taylor, M. (2009). Round the London Ring: Boxing, Class and Community in Interwar London. The London Journal 34(2), 167-170. http://doi.org/10/1179/174963209X442432.

Taylor M. (2014). The Transatlantic Migration of Sporting Labour, 1920-1939. Labour History Review 79(2). https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228187215.pdf.


“Watching the Gladiators”: Feminine Fandom in Mid-Century Melbourne

William Hoff

Figure 1: Crowd at boxing match, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00062.

The subjects of this photograph are attending a boxing match at West Melbourne Stadium, but their identities are anonymous. In the metadata, there are no known details for the unseen athletes, nor any definitive transcription of the handwriting on the back of the object. Taken from the Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd collection, held in the University of Melbourne (UoM) Archives, this photograph is logged in the catalogue as being taken in 1950—with a broad estimate between January 1948 and December 1952—with a unique catalogue number: Sixty-Two. This anonymity, however, does not prevent the image from telling a compelling story of women and sporting spectatorship in post-war Melbourne.

Presumably, the man with the cigar, centred in frame and in focus, was the intended subject of the photograph. Perhaps the man on his left, who wears a dinner jacket and bow tie, was an additional subject—a row of men watching this most masculine of sports. Internationally, Australia was the perfect breeding ground for these gladiators—“Australia itself [tests] physical endurance and strengthening character [with] floods, droughts, bush fires and pests”, boasted the Horsham Times in June 1950. Add to this the voyeuristic lens of class, being primarily a working classes’ and immigrants’ game. Prime candidates for the enjoyment of the sport, both men in the photograph are instead obscured by the woman leaning forward in her seat, encouraging, or criticising, the unseen athletes in full-throated fandom.

The moment is powerful not only for what it captures but what it reveals. Had the woman not leaned forward in her seat, the camera would not have captured the older woman behind her—the woman whose furrowed brow and tightly pursed lips reveal a concern, or a disgust, for the scene before her. The women have more in common than not—both are emotively struck by the spectacle.

Sixty-Two is the most striking of the images in the Stadiums collection which, for the most part, depict the boxers, all male, who were the heroes of the West Melbourne venue now known as Festival Hall. The photograph is notable as it acknowledges women’s attendance at, or involvement in, Melburnian boxing matches, though women’s spectatorship in fighting sports was not always as enthusiastic. The Australian Woman’s Mirror ran a piece by ‘Ringie Rosie’ in August 1939 in which the author described being invited by a male friend to attend a wrestling match, after being assured that women were a large part of the audience.⁵ Rosie detailed her shock at seeing women file into the stadium “quite on their own, by twos and threes, sometimes even singly, just as if this was the pictures”. Opening the evening were several bouts of boxing, which the audience seemed not to appreciate: “I wasn’t much interested. Neither were the women round me. [One] of the fur-coated girls in front of me remarked [on the match] in a superior and rather bored voice”. Hardly the promise of “watching the gladiators”!

Women can be spotted in several of the Stadiums collection’s wider-angled photographs (Figures 2 and 3), though they are outnumbered by male spectators. Fights were certainly marketed to women. A 1954 issue of Sporting Globe advertised a fight at West Melbourne Stadium with the headline “This’ll Suit the Women”, promising Canadian Doug Dawkins was “a real glamour boy [and] good-looker”. As a shallow but typical advertisement for the time, it attempts to draw in female audiences while undermining the rugged masculinity of the visiting sportsman.

Women’s engagement in this hypermasculine space was clearly significant and not always as passive viewers, but to be cultivated as avid fans. Indeed, Pix would report in 1950 that the bleachers, which once were sites of drunken brawls, were now pacified by waves of female fans.

An additional image, taken prior to 1954, shows several women of various ages spectating ringside:

Figure 2: Frank Johnson versus Frank Flannery, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00089.

To the right of the ring, a younger woman holds her clenched hands to her face, reacting sympathetically to the fallen man on the canvas. To the bottom right are several older women in floral dresses, averting their concerned gazes, and by way of contrast to the more stoic faces of the men beside them. Smaller events had their female spectators, perhaps even as private contests, as the image below shows:

Figure 3: Photograph of a boxing match taking place inside a ring, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00288.

Visitors to Australia even commented on the keenness of the female fans. American fighter Joe Campbell told the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1950 that “Australia is the only country where I’ve seen women turned out of a fight [by] policemen” for rowdy behaviour. And female fans ranged from “white-haired women [who] harangued the contestants” to small children—the Argus ran a piece on six-year-old boxing fan Judy Whitworth in 1953, who cheerfully recounted, “My daddy gives me a lesson whenever he can, I’d sooner see [favourite fighter] Micky Tollis than Santa Claus”.

The presence of women in male-oriented sporting environments was, however, worth commenting upon in the tabloids. The wife of Giulio Avelli caused a stir by attending her husband’s training sessions in June 1951, with trainers bewildered as to why she bothered attending at all. When questioned, Avelli dismissed them with a wonderfully dry response: “I come to the gymnasium because I like boxing, and because I like my husband”. The accepted presence of women would not only be relegated to spectatorship but, ironically, to business. E. L. Cook would act as a manager to her husband, prize fighter George Cook, a role she assumed in 1925 with her Australian licence confirmed in 1933.

Figure 4: Mrs Cook Manager for George Cook, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.00128.

Cook would appear to be something of a pioneer, spending her earlier management career attending her husband’s training in his London gym, and despite this apparently progressive presence in the men’s world of boxing, not one article describing this endeavour, whether in Australia or abroad, used Mrs Cook’s given name, therefore it cannot be included in the present article. Despite women’s clear interest and investment in the sport, even accounting for Ringie Rosie’s disparaging commentary, acts of documentation from this time have ensured their anonymity and, for most, their absence from the historical record.

Such is the legacy left by the records for Sixty-Two, in which an avid female boxing fan is similarly anonymised. She is not just a member of the unhelpful description “crowd at a boxing match”. A more accurate, if not more detailed, impression of the narrative inherent in the image would specify exactly what is happening in the photograph: “Female boxing fan engaging with athletes”. Such a description in the metadata would both confirm and validate the presence of women in typically masculine spaces, not through transgression or sexualised ogling, as the tabloids would patronisingly claim, but through a fandom earnestly and passionately felt.

William Hoff is a PhD candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, and is undertaking research on popular constructions of the Middle Ages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, using
Robin Hood as a comparative case study.

References

“Snatching Happiness”, The Horsham Times 3 June 1950, accessed 9 October 2023, p. 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72802758.

Peter A. Horton, “The ‘Green’ and the ‘Gold’: The Irish-Australians and their Role in the Emergence of the Australian Sports Culture”, Sport in Australasian Society: Past and Present, ed. J. A. Mangan and John Nauright (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 69, 82–83.

“Watching the Gladiators”, The Australian Woman’s Mirror Vol. 15, no. 39, 22 August 1939, accessed 27 August 2023, p.12, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-506249586.

“This’ll Suit the Women”, Sporting Globe, 26 May 1954, accessed 27 August 2023, p.20, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article176557234.

“The Stadium”, Pix Vol. 25, no. 25, 16 December 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.26–27, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-471671578.

“Women Fight Fans Are Really Keen”, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 17 May 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article135306512.

“Judy Meets Mickey–Her Boxing Hero”, The Argus, 27 February 1950, accessed 28 August 2023, p.3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22813003.

“An Italian (g)love story”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1951, accessed 30 August 2023, p.5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page27461604.

“Secrets of Boxer’s Wife”, The Telegraph, 11 November 1927, accessed 30 August 2023, p.16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page20092765.

“First Woman to be Boxer-Manager”, The Herald, 19 December 1933, p.9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page26385407.


Shifting Racial Attitudes Through Music: African American Performers at West Melbourne Stadium

Shannon Peters

On the evening of Sunday July 25th, 1954, an enthusiastic crowd of around a thousand people gathered at Sydney’s Mascot Airport, eager to catch a glimpse of celebrated jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s arrival in Australia had been delayed by a few days due to her mistreatment by prejudiced Pan American airlines’ staff, who had refused to validate her first-class ticket.1 Despite this controversy, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that she ‘waved happily to the crowd and signed autographs for her fans’ before departing on a transfer flight to Melbourne.2 Although this event may have seemed like a typical fan meeting with a popular musician, it in fact held deeper significance. Fitzgerald’s visit marked an important milestone in Australian entertainment and social history, signifying the end of a two decades-long ban that prohibited African American performers from touring Australia. Indeed, as revealed by the University of Melbourne Archives’ collection “Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd” (1987.0094), Fitzgerald’s tour became the first of a succession of music concerts featuring African American performers held at West Melbourne Stadium throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Figure 1: Chuck Berry – Promotional Concern Booklet, January 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022.

As the “Records of Stadiums” collection demonstrates, West Melbourne Stadium, which opened in 1913 at 300 Dudley Street, West Melbourne, was originally used in the early twentieth century as a venue for much publicised boxing tournaments. However, by the mid 1950s onwards, the venue was increasingly used to host musical performances, resulting in its renaming as “Festival Hall.” Many famous American music stars were brought to Melbourne to perform at Festival Hall in this period by American music promoter Lee Gordon, called by Harry M. Miller ‘the pioneer’ of large-scale arena concerts in Australia. Lee had arranged a deal with Stadiums Limited to use their stadiums in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane to host visiting acts from the United States.3 Gordon was responsible for bringing both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Australia in 1954, followed by a range of other African American artists over the next decade, including Nat King Cole, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and Sammy Davis Jr. While Lee Gordon appears to have been motivated by financial gain rather than by any overt desire to combat racial prejudice, his efforts nonetheless had the effect of helping to challenge the stronghold of ‘white Australia’ through the unifying power of music. A rival company, Headliners, soon began emulating Gordon’s approach, bringing over stars such as Chuck Berry and Johnny Mathis.

These Festival Hall performances represented a considerable cultural shift, given the antagonistic treatment African American musicians had received a few decades prior, when the Musicians’ Union of Australia had called for the prohibition of black American performers.4 African American performers had not always been excluded, as evident in this timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia. However, a 1928 controversy involving vaudeville group ‘Sonny Clay and the Colored Idea’ had resulted in a quarter-century long ban restricting the entry of African American musicians. 5 The band’s abrupt deportation following several members’ sexual relations with white women in Melbourne was driven by heightened concern over the need to protect Australia’s status as a white nation. By the time Lee Gordon brought jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to the country in 1954, the early-twentieth-century fear over the morally and racially degrading effects of jazz music was giving way to similar concerns over a new genre, Rock ‘N’ Roll. The first appearance of Fitzgerald and Armstrong in Australia also coincided with the year most often considered the onset of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Figure 2: Ella Fitzgerald – Souvenir Programme, 1960, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003
Figure 3: Sammy Davis Jr. – Promotional Concert Booklet, April 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003

Included as part of the “Records of Stadiums” collection are an extensive range of souvenir concert booklets from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into the ways in which music promoters sought to generate excitement among Australian concertgoers towards the visiting African American stars. These materials are not currently available online but can be viewed in person by appointment with the University of Melbourne Reading Room. The booklets for each concert feature glossy, brightly coloured covers, photographs of the visiting musicians, multipage biographies, setlists, and advertisements for various airlines, radio stations, and albums. Given that the booklets were created as promotional materials, they fittingly include glowing praise for each artist’s impressive career achievements. A 1957 concert booklet, created for Nat King Cole’s third Australian tour, describes Cole as ‘a creative pianist with originality, sensitivity, artistry, and polish.’ Similarly, a 1960 concert tour booklet proclaims Ella Fitzgerald as ‘the foremost singer in the field of popular music,’ possessing instinctive technique and effortlessness. While the booklets include occasional references to the musicians’ struggles with racial and economic adversity, such as Little Richard’s triumph over ‘bone-aching poverty,’ they appear primarily aimed at portraying the artists in a relatable and endearing manner to Australian audiences. For instance, Sammy Davis Jr.’s love of photography was emphasised, as was Nat King Cole’s devotion to his family.

Figure 4: Louis Armstrong – Promotional Concert Booklet, March 1963, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022

Taken together, this collection of concert memorabilia provides a useful record of the impressive range of well-known African American musicians who performed at Festival Hall during a period of increased American influence on Australian popular culture. When considered alongside media coverage of the era, it is evident that these artists were widely embraced by the Australian public, thus helping to shift racial prejudices in a nation long defined by its commitment to whiteness. Nat King Cole attracted attention not only for his music but for his contributions to charity while visiting the country.6 Likewise, the 1960s shows of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were both televised as part of the Australian variety series BP Super Show, receiving much commendation.7 8 In addition to offering insight into shifting race relations, the memorabilia in the Stadiums Collection would also be of value for researchers interested in exploring the relationship between the entertainment industry and other aspects of society, such as gender, consumerism, advertising, and celebrity culture. While the souvenir booklets contain limited reference to the concurrent Cold War tensions or civil rights movement, they nonetheless offer an interesting glimpse into the role of music in facilitating a transformation of cultural attitudes amidst such a turbulent period of social change.

Click here for a timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia.

Shannon Peters is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. Her research explores the intersection between progressive education and social activism in early-twentieth-century New York City.

References

  1. “Ella Fitzgerald May Sue Airline,” Advertiser, July 27, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/48120429.
  2. “1000 to Greet Singer,” Daily Telegraph, July 26, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/248931261.
  3. “Leading U.S. Entertainers to Play Here,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 8, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18440369.
  4. See Deirdre O’Connell, Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age (Melbourne University Press, 2021).
  5. Kyla Cassells, “Sex, Scandal and Speculation: White Women, Race and Sexual Desire in the Colored Idea Scandal, 1928,” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 19 (2013): 4–17.
  6. Nat King Cole and patient at the Royal Children’s Hospital, 1950s, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences Museums Collection, MHM2021.4, Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.
  7. “Ella’s Show Best of Its Type Seen on Melbourne TV,” Age, January 19, 1961,
    https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3cBVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ULsDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7093%2C2631820.
  8. “Satchmo on Channel 7 Tonight,” Canberra Times, April 20, 1963, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/104250758.

Shuttered Histories: The Odyssey of John O’Brien’s Hanover St Residence

Ronak Alburz

John Lockyer O’Brien (1905–1965), a distinguished historian at the University of Melbourne, curated a remarkable collection of photographs, capturing the late 1950s and early 1960s. During a sabbatical in 1959, O’Brien’s historical curiosity led him to explore bluestone buildings, a subject that plausibly resonated deeply with his expertise. Most of these images were likely taken during this year, as he traversed inner suburban landscapes to document these structures.

These photographs offer a unique glimpse into the architectural and urban evolution of inner-city Melbourne during a time of transition. This era marked the shift from its 19th-century layout and working-class character to the eventual emergence of Housing Commission high-rise blocks. The subsequent return of the middle class to the inner city, accompanied by renovations and gentrification, further transformed the landscape captured in O’Brien’s lens.

While exploring the collection, I found multiple photographs of John O’Brien’s own residence at 35 Hanover Street in Fitzroy (1965.0004.00279;1965.0004.00156; Fig. 3). These images capture various moments in the life of his house, including renovation shots, intriguing rooftop of the surrounding area views (1965.0004.00346; 1965.0004.00348; 1965.0004.00352; 1965.0004.00354; 1965.0004.00355; 1965.0004.00357; 1965.0004.00359; 1965.0004.00360 ) and many neighboring houses from the late 1950s. This stimulated my curiosity about his own house, given his role as a historian and the photographer and left me with the strong sense that there must be something truly special about House Number 35.

With a history that spans generations, this double-storey Georgian-style bluestone house – with its distinctive doric pilasters – has witnessed a series of ownerships. Originating in 1854, it was built by Edward Willis, a stonemason who supplied stone for the early parts of Parliament House and the first Princes Bridge (National Trust database, B0167), and the house’s parapet still bears his name. Joseph Gray, a skilled cooper, then acquired the property in 1868 and held onto it for an impressive 60 years. During Gray’s ownership, the house welcomed diverse tenants, including the Victorian Infant Asylum, later known as Berry Street, from 1877 to 1881. A fascinating photograph from around 1865 from Berry Street Archive, provides a window into the early life of the house, pre-dating images captured by John by 100 years (Fig. 4) 1 According to Laurie, in 1931, Sarah Nelis acquired the house, ultimately passing it down to her niece and nephew, Cliff and Edie Salmon, alongside the adjacent and ornate Montefiore Villa situated to the right of O’Brien’s bluestone house. While Cliff and Edie chose the villa as their residence, Number 35 saw life as a rental property again. The year 1956-57 marked a new chapter as John O’Brien and his soon-to be second wife Laurie (married in 1958) became the proud owners, continuing the rich legacy of this house.

However, a twist of fate unfolded as this era coincided with the onset of the slum abolition movement in Fitzroy, as illustrated in a news article published in the Herald newspaper (Fig.1), with the headline of “Slums are Up to You” noting the early work of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, an Anglican charity.

Figure 1: Article promoting slum abolition in Fitzroy from The Herald “Slums are up to you”, 5 August 1952. Source: Brotherhood of St Laurence Archives.

At the same time, the local residents were organizing their own campaign with a “Slum Newsletter’ (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Newsletter announcement of Fitzroy’s first Slum clearance project, October 1952. Source: Fitzroy History Society, originally from Brotherhood of St Lawrence Archives.

Accordingly, in 1957, the National Trust established its “Survey and Identification” committee, and John O’Brien found himself a participant in this committee, as his historical expertise evidently sought after by The Trust. The committee established four distinct categories for houses, strategically determining which houses held national significance and cultural heritage worthy of preservation.

Nevertheless, upon acquiring the house in 1956-57, John and Laurie received reassurances from the Housing Commission that no further property acquisitions would occur on Hanover Street. This promise, however, would prove to be short-lived. In an unexpected turn in 1964, the Commission descended upon the north side of Hanover Street, and numbers 27 to 47 found themselves recipients of a “Notice to treat,” a decree that encompassed John O’Brien’s blue-stone residence too.

Figure 3: Buildings in Hanover Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00149; Figure 4: The Home of John Lockyer O’Brien, 35 Hanover Street Fitzroy, Melbourne, c. 1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00078.

Fitzroy Council, in tandem with the Royal Historical Society and the National Trust, rallied in support of John, asserting the house’s value as a relic of colonial history deserving preservation. According to information from an oral history interview, as detailed on page 12 of the Fitzroy History Society’s records, Laurie attributed this accomplishment to Councillors Wood and Brodie. It is suggested that John may have initiated contact with them, leading to this achievement. This collective effort bore fruit in 1965, shortly before John’s passing, when a letter from the Commission declared an exemption for their house from compulsory acquisition.

Soon thereafter, a familiar scenario unfolded as Laurie received another letter from the Housing Commission, indicating the Commission’s interest in reopening negotiations. Evidently composing a letter infused with displeasure, Laurie effectively secures her position, compelling the housing commission to extend her tenure without restrictions. All these events occurred prior to the enactment of the Historical Buildings Preservation Act by the Hamer government. It is noteworthy that along the south side of Hanover Street, almost all houses underwent demolition and were substituted with maisonettes, except for a singular anomaly, 36-38 Hanover Street (1965.0004.00026; 1965.0004.00031; 1965.0004.00275; 1965.0004.00198). The circumstances surrounding the preservation of this particular house, facing number 35, also arouse curiosity, inviting inquiry into the reasons behind its exception.

Figure 4: View of 35 Hanover street, plausibly when it was occupied by Victorian Infant Asylum, c. 1865, source: Find & Connect. 2
Amidst the row of houses on the north side of Hanover Street, only John and Laurie’s house managed to escape the wave of demolition, while others – including number 7, of which John captured photographs before and in the process of demolition in 1959 – were torn down notwithstanding the evident absence of characteristics, as depicted in the photographs (1965.0004.00158; 1965.0004.00364; 1965.0004.00365; 1965.0004.00366), that would align with the designation of “slums”. Curiously, as recounted by Laurie, John had “[…] managed to get our house bumped up from [category] C to B presumably with the agreement of the other members. (laughs!)3

In light of these circumstances, it is worth considering that, besides his personal campaigning to preserve their house,  John’s membership in the “Survey and Identification” committee  played a pivotal role in the subsequent  reclassification and continued existence of this single house on the northern side of Hanover street.

This story has presented me with the opportunity to capture yet another photograph of House Number 35 for archival purposes, 158 years after the first photograph was taken (Fig. 5)! The enduring pine trees, standing tall and now towering over the beautifully renovated bluestone residence (– and far from the threat of ‘slums’.)

Figure 5: View of House Number 35 on Hanover St, 26 August 2023, photograph by R. Alburz.

Ronak Alburz is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Melbourne, and her current research specifically investigates the transmission of knowledge, cult practices, and funerary traditions, with an emphasis on the influence originating from the Black Sea region and its impact on northern and central Italy in the Archaic Period.

References

  1. There is also another photograph of the house from 1988 in the Caroline Simpson Collection, record number: 38480. For ownership history see Fitzroy History Society.
  2. According to Find & Connect, the original photograph is in the collection of Berry Street Archives.
  3. Fitzroy History Society, page 13. There are two audio recordings of the interview on the Fitzroy History Society’s page. The first YouTube video, which is the full version of the interview, has a much lower sound quality. However, the above-mentioned quote regarding the reclassification of John O’Brien’s house can be found at minutes 5:40 through 6:10. The second YouTube video on the page has a higher sound quality, but it is a much shorter version of the interview. Interestingly, it starts with the third question on the transcript of the interview. The above quote was the answer to the second question, so it has been edited out of this shorter version.

The Downfall of the Urban Grocer

Joshua Strong

My father Michael, a 76 year-old Melbournian, remembers what it was like being sent to the grocer’s shop as a kid in the 1950s. “The basic staples were sold by weight”, he recalls. “You’d order half a pound of flour, and the attendant would measure it out on a scale and seal it up in a brown paper bag.” Even the biscuits were sold loose out of a large tin, and Michael knew how to double his yield: “The broken ones from the bottom of the tin were half-price, and the grocer would always have some set aside.” This recollection of a lost time comes to life through the images of grocer stores in the Jack Lockyer O’Brien collection, which shows the inner-Melbourne shopping economy before the glossy, uniform era of the supermarket. Hand-painted advertisements on the brick walls of shops almost exclusively promote Australian brands like Brooke’s Lemos Cordial and Bushells Tea. Independent hardware and shoe stores are dotted through the working-class streets, with their own branding artfully rendered on the brick facades. And within a convenient distance of every house, a grocer’s furnishing the essentials of daily life – all except one of which have since disappeared.

Figure 1: A map, created in Google Maps, showing the distribution of the stores mentioned in this post. https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/edit?mid=1gpo4nzjHSbpaOknrT4mTOKLAzhP3Hio&ll=-37.80292338235647%2C144.97519583641784&z=16

The metadata associated with these photos allows us to map a handful of these now defunct grocer’s stores in Fitzroy and Carlton alone, and trace what happened to the sites. An unnamed shop on the corner of Fitzroy and Hanover St, a short walk from the O’Brien’s house, was replaced by an apartment complex (Fig. 2). Seedsman’s store on the corner of Nicholson and Moor St, now a French restaurant specializing in duck. The store of B. Brescianini on Canning and Murchison in Carlton, a private house (Fig. 3). One-by-one, these stores were picked off and converted, as the phenomenon of self-serve supermarkets crashed into the local shopping economy from the 1960s.

Figure 2: Buildings in Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, c.1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00299.
Figure 3: Buildings in Canning St, Carlton, Melbourne, c.1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00151.

Not all the defunct grocers were independent corner stores – some were major economic players. The collection features images of Moran & Cato, which at its peak had over 35 stores across Melbourne, including a flagship on Brunswick St.1 As Michael remembers, Moran & Cato was such a mainstay of grocery shopping in those days, that its sudden demise would have seemed as inconceivable to locals then as would the overnight permanent shuttering of all Woolworths stores to the contemporary shopper. But shortly after these photos were taken, the modern supermarket, with its prepackaged self-serve offerings and undeniable convenience, posed a mortal threat to the established grocers.

Figure 4: Moran and Cato Buildings in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne. c. 1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00342.

The directors of Moran & Cato had attempted to stay ahead of the game; in the mid-1950s they had already begun to transition their stores to self-serve.2 However, it was a store in neighbouring Collingwood, founded by GJ Coles as a nickel & dime in 1914, that would adapt best to the new shopping paradigm. Coles had been expanding and diversifying for decades, but it was not until 1960 that it launched its first freestanding supermarket.

Figure 5: The original Coles. Painting after a photograph of first store (taken in 1914), Smith Street, Collingwood Coles Variety Store No. 1. © Coles Myer Ltd, obtained from http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/372656.

The Coles strategy of becoming a one-stop-shop for a family’s needs, coupled with its modern logistics and distribution systems, helped establish it as one of the two dominant supermarket chains in the country.3 Moran & Cato struggled to keep up, and by 1969 the Canberra Times was reporting that it was under threat of takeover due to “severe competition” from supermarkets. 4 Later that year, it was reported that the company had sold its stores to Permewan Wright Ltd – a chain that would itself cease to exist in the coming years. 5

Figure 6: Faraday and Lygon Streets, Carlton, Victoria, c.1958, University of Melbourne Archives, Papers of Jack Lockyer O’Brien 1950-1964, 1965.0004.00397.

Among the grocers featured in the Jack L. O’Brien collection, there is one that did survive as an independent operator to this day. King & Godfree on the corner of Lygon and Faraday St has been in continuous existence for 150 years (see Fig. 6). After starting life as a standard grocer’s, the owners sagely began to stock Kosher products in the inter-war years, when Carlton became a centre of Jewish life in Melbourne.6 In 1934, the Jewish Weekly News was lauding the store for its efforts to “satisfy all wants of their Jewish clients for the coming Passover holiday.”7 With the large-scale Italian migration of the 1950s, the store was purchased by Carlo Valmorbida, who again adapted it for a new clientele. Author Michael Harden, who released a book in 2022 titled King & Godfree: The Corner Grocer, credits Carlo Valmorbida with introducing Melbournians to the delights of Italian food, transforming the way that we eat in the process.8 Carlo’s descendants still run the store, and King & Godfree is an entrenched Melbourne institution. The reason it survived while others failed was that it did not seek to compete with the supermarkets, but reinvented itself to offer more specialist products that the diverse population of Carlton couldn’t get elsewhere.

Figure 7: Former grocery store in North Carlton with hand-painted advertising. Photo taken by the author, September 3, 2023.

Surveying the Jack L. O’Brien collection has made me look more closely at the neighbourhood where I spent my young adult life. I find myself noticing the hand-painted advertisements for Bushells Tea and McAlpin’s Flour fading into the exposed brick of old grocery stores, or the prominent signage for Moran & Cato high up on a parapet above Brunswick St. Then I think of little Michael Strong, trundling home with a bag of broken biscuits and a big grin on his dial.

Joshua Strong is a PhD candidate whose research in historical studies focuses on the relationship between the architect and the state in Stalin’s USSR.

References

  1. E-Melbourne – The City Past and Present, Produced and published by the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne, July 2008. Accessed September 3, 2023. https://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM01450b.htm
  2. Self-service shops cut Moran’s profit (1955, November 26). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957), p. 20. Retrieved September 3, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71782528.
  3. Coles – Our History webpage. Accessed September 3, 2023. https://www.coles.com.au/about/our-history
  4. Permewan offers $11.6m cash for Moran & Cato (1969, May 22). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 28. Retrieved September 3, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131785828.
  5. Moran & Cato says yes (1969, June 11). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 25. Retrieved September 3, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131789481.
  6. King & Godfree kicks off 150th Celebrations with Julian Busuttil Nishimura (2021, September 15). The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved September 3, 2023, from https://www.smh.com.au/goodfood/eating-out/king–godfree-kicks-off-150th-celebrations-with-julia-busuttil-nishimura-20210914-h1yktd.html.
  7. 50th Anniversary. (1934, February 23). The Jewish Weekly News (Melbourne, Vic: 1933 – 1935), p. 9. Retrieved September 3, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article262464598
  8. Interview with Michael Harden. (2022, December 7). Melbourne Food & Wine Festival website. Accessed September 3, 2023, from https://www.melbournefoodandwine.com.au/read-watch/latest-news/news/buy-the-book-king-godfree-the-corner-grocer-1332.

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