Robyn Annear: Interesting to hear about the Ishmael Club: wine, women and song but no women allowed to join. And that Ruby sounds ...
Tony Moore: ... just drawings.
Robyn: ... Ruby sounds like she would have been fun too, anyone with the name Ruby I think. I noticed in the newspaper in 1913, with reference to Crucified Venus, Norman Lindsay’s work which was described as ‘depicting a tonsured monk nailing a naked woman to a tree to the approval of a mob of exultant clerics and wowsers below.’ One of the newspapers, in this case I think the Cairns post I think said ‘Lindsay could not draw the face of a high type of woman to save his life.’
[Laughter from Robyn and audience]
Robyn: And I do like the idea of Hugh McCrae’s pleasure dome; could we have some sort of themed event here? Hugh McCrae’s pleasure dome re-enacted in our dome during the course of this year? I’d like that very much.
Thank you, I’m going to introduce now our third speaker, the next holder of the talking stick is Robin Grow. Robin is the long-term president of the Art Deco and Modernism Society, he’s written numerous articles for publication and is a regular presenter at conferences and events dedicated to the architecture of those inter-war years, the ’20s and ’30s primarily, most recently at the 12th World Congress on Art Deco held in Havana, Cuba. Go Robin! In 2009 he self-published, being one of the DIY publishers of the current day, this award-winning book on Melbourne Art Deco which I can highly recommend, it’s beautiful to look at, and is about to be reissued. He’s co-author also of two works on Australian football, we’ll look to you about that later Robin, and has also written for a number of football histories about AFL Geelong and Melbourne clubs he says. He’s also, I think this is thrilling, just launched a book, yesterday I think, called ...
Robin Grow: Thursday.
Robyn: ... Safe as houses: a history of 150 years of Land Titles Office of Victoria which is, I don’t know about a pleasure dome, but it’s a place of great mystery to me and I look forward to reading that. And I’m going to introduce you now to Robin Grow.
Robin: Thank you Robyn, good evening everyone. I want to talk about stuff that was all around us, in the streets, in the buildings, in the offices. Nineteen-thirteen Melbourne was a year of innocence, as we’ve heard a number of times, and there was revolution in the air in places such as Russia and Mexico and China, but that was all a long way away from Melbourne – as were places like Serbia and Gallipoli, that many Australians wouldn’t have heard of yet and that soon changed. There were revolutions of a different nature happening in Melbourne but perhaps transformations rather than revolutions, and they all affected the physical layout of the city as well as introducing new professions and dooming some old professions. Electricity was transforming the city from one reliant on gas; would totally revolutionise cooking, heating, lighting, industrial production, entertainment and transport in the next 20 years. Most of all it would facilitate the introduction of film and Robyn mentioned the people going to the pictures, there were 83 picture halls operating in Melbourne in 1911. And of course radio, and the first wireless station opened in 1912. The world of the office was being transformed, the telephone was gradually being accepted but not without a lot of trepidation, a lot of people were just scared of it, it sat on the desk. And it required massive tunnels to be built under Melbourne and the introduction of new buildings called exchanges and new jobs for switchboard operators. And it soon replaced speaking tubes – speaking tubes I love, an important man would have six tubes on the edge of his desk and the way they operated was somebody at the other end would whistle into the tube and he would get a tone, a different whistle coming through and he’d know which tube to actually speak back into.
Robin: If he didn’t use the speaking tubes, or as well as using the speaking tube, he would have a boy and a boy would run between offices or a boy would run up to the telegraph office. So the introduction of the telephone was obviously going to make some major changes.
And the typewriter was another thing, it had an effect on the commercial world comparable to the introduction of PCs in a later time. It gradually replaced pen and ink and the art of calligraphy and resulted in the adoption of paper rather than parchment in many legal and commercial offices; and there were pigs all over Australia that were very happy about that.
Robin: It introduced another new occupation – typists; and it generally introduced women into many offices. They were neater, quicker and more diligent on these machines than men, and you only had to pay them a fraction of the men’s wages. This lead to the establishment of business colleges for women to learn typing and shorthand so that would facilitate getting into these places, but they also introduced a reliance on the service mechanic. And remember the days, and it’s not all that long ago, where machinery would break down and you couldn’t do anything until the mechanic arrived. It seems to have disappeared a fair bit.
But there was a massive change out on the streets too, and this came about from the introduction of motor cars, and the reliance on horses would eventually disappear. Melbourne still has a number of horse troughs though and generally they were near pubs. The motor car – you can work out the relationship. The motor car introduced garages, service stations, showrooms, specialist clothing and a range of new occupations dedicated to keeping the cars running. And also eventually traffic lights, parking metres and speed cameras of course. And it also produced government departments responsible for roads, such as the Country Roads Board in 1913 and the first motor show in the Exhibition Buildings in 1912. And a sign of the future perhaps was the first death caused by a motor car when MacPherson Robertson, the chocolate manufacturer, hit and killed a pedestrian in 1905. There was a rumour that the pedestrian was drunk and just walked out in front of his car and you know, unfortunately we still see instances like that these days.
Not just on the roads, in the skies above things were changing. Planes were being seen, starting with Harry Houdini flying over Digger’s Rest in 1910 and a flight by JJ Hammond over the streets of the city in 1911. It held the spectators spellbound – can you imagine walking through the streets of Melbourne in 1911 and you look up and there’s a flying machine going over the city? People would have been terrified. But now we had an air force, the Australia Flying Corps.
And there were some significant buildings in the years around 1913. The Commercial Travellers buildings in Flinders Street by the Tompkins Brothers, the Leviathan department store in Swanston Street and Buckley’s department store are all still there of course. And of course Luna Park, how could we forget Luna Park and it was something like half a million people went there in the first year? I’m sorry I might have pinched one of your lines.
Sid Myer opened a store in 1911, followed by the Coles brothers in 1914. And new buildings were reaching higher and higher thanks to use of steel-reinforced concrete, prefabrication and improved building techniques. And they provided major challenges for the engineers of the day. High speed lifts were a major determinant in the height of buildings – an example was the Australian or APA building in Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, a 12-storey building constructed in 1889, sadly demolished in 1980. How to get people from the ground to the 12th floor safely, without using the stairs? And amongst all the world’s cities, far-flung Melbourne was one of the first to take full advantage of lifts. And as Robyn has heard me say many times, everything comes back to money, and the owners of these buildings realised that if they could get a fast lift up to the upper floors, they could charge nearly as much rent for those floors as they could for the ground floors, so it made good sense for them. Lifts were powered by steam and hydraulics, which was water pressure – early hydraulic lifts were powered by Yan Yean water from the north of Melbourne, Melbourne’s first reservoir. And naturally this was constrained by the natural pressure of which water was delivered to homes and buildings – if the town’s water pressure was low, the lifts didn’t run. Hydraulic mains were constructed and eventually the Melbourne City Council began connecting electric power to buildings and by 1903 the Austral Otis Elevator Company was making ten electric elevators for every one hydraulic.
It was a major change in where people lived and how they lived, and this started with the first blocks of flats and both the conversion of grand older houses, such as Cliveden in East Melbourne in 1911, or new buildings which developers could squeeze onto narrow sites and build upwards, usually three storeys. In Melbourne a good example is Canterbury in Canterbury Road, St Kilda, by the Tompkins Brothers in 1914 and a sign of things to come. It was a block of flats near transport, over the road from the station and near shops and that was the way people wanted to live when they moved into flats. For young people they removed the reliance of living with their parents or in boarding houses. And of course the wowsers – I was so glad to hear you mention wowsers before – the wowsers ranted against flats, they seemed to rant against everything. There were no gardens, there was no place to bring children up and they were sure to facilitate loose morals amongst the occupants. They’re probably right on the last one.
[Laughter from Robin and audience]
Robin: But many young people just saw it as freedom, particularly same-sex couples who told their parents that they were sharing with a friend. When their mum came round and saw there was only one bedroom there were questions asked, though.
In the suburbs there were many large estates that still existed and there were also suburban subdivisions being designed, some following the precepts of the Garden City movement with Walter Burley Griffin designing estates at Summit and Glenard Estate in Heidelberg in 1914. The town planning unit was taking hold as many were starting to realise that integration between housing, public transport, roads, commercial and civil facilities was needed. In Canberra, Griffin just described this as ‘the city and its environments’. Melbourne continued to build its passion for football with St Kilda making the Grand Final for the first time in 1913 and it broke the mould of the power clubs – Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy ...
Unidentified speaker: Melbourne.
Robin: Not so much Melbourne, at that point.
Robyn: Come on! [Laughs]
Robin: No, we give them nothing. And St Kilda played, they lost of course, St Kilda played in front of a crowd of 59,000 – now that was ten per cent of the population in those days so that on today’s basis, that’s a Grand Final crowd of about 350,000, so it was an extraordinary achievement. So this was some of the stuff that was going on around the people of Melbourne at the time and of course, the largest concrete dome in the world was installed here. Thank you.
Robyn: Thanks Robin, great to hear you focus on some of those transformations, things like switchboards and typewriters.
You know, some 70 years later when I was starting work, I started my working life on a manual typewriter and a plug-and-cord switchboard such as were being used then, so I was the last generation to be using those technologies. And you know, they freed me up too but yes, they did pay me very little money I’ve got to say.
The pictures, I just want to say, the picture shows that were so popular then had taken the place of the Deadwood Dick dime novels as the number one scapegoat for ‘what’s wrong with kids today’. [Laughs] I mean, you know, we’ve been through several cycles since then but they were blamed for kids, all sorts of, you read the papers and every crime involving a child, they were emulating what they’d seen on the screen. And if they weren’t doing that, they were begging and stealing money so they could go to the pictures, you know. They’d be there outside the pictures looking undernourished and begging from people to get the price of the ticket. So you know, what’s new.
I have great pleasure now in introducing the person who literally wrote the book on this period and that is Kristin Otto. Hello Kristin. She was a Redmond Barry Fellow here at the State Library in 2007–08 and the fruit of that fellowship was this terrific book, the book Capital – Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia, 1901– 1927 and as Michael said, such a fantastic idea, but Kristin was the one who not just thought of it but did it, which is the important thing. Kristin doesn’t live in Melbourne; like me, she talks about it, writes about it, but doesn’t live here. Lives outside of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley but divides her time between writing and bookselling, so she’s books all over. Kristin you are the next holder of the Crumble.
Kristin Otto: It’s so interesting hearing everyone else’s take on 1913 Melbourne and it just convinces me even more of what an exciting place it was. Before spin, before focus groups, you know it’s not just left-wing politics – right-wing politics was the same as well. Everyone was much more passionate; more things happened, people attended football more, they went to the movies more, they argued more, they – dare I say it, they thought and read more. Ahh, okay.
Robyn: Go on, get it out.
Kristin: Well, it was because the 20th century and the nation of Australia came into being at the same time. In 1913, Melbourne had been capital city of Australia for more than a decade. Not only was it an exciting place to be, I think a lot of things of that era are still worth reflecting upon today. We had been called ‘the social laboratory of the world’ – women could vote, stand for parliament, start million-dollar businesses. We had a secret ballot, an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, old-age pension and a high standard of living. We actually led the world in most things, much more than we do today and counter to the left-wing activities, and I think it’s a good thing in terms of public participation and thought, the second-largest political party in the country was the Australian Women’s National League; the biggest was the Labor Party at the time. The women had knocked back the idea of merging with the smaller Liberal Party, thinking they were a bit less successful, a bit less organised and a bit too socialist.
The League’s colours were the yellow of the wattle and the purple of the native sarsaparilla, or Hardenbergia, which I have planted in my front yard today. Wattle Day was inaugurated separately in 1913 as a national celebration and a charity fundraiser which kept on during the war, for soldiers. The gold of the blossom and the scent of it filled every city street; it was worn by men, women, children; it adorned the motor cars and even larrikins on bicycles.
In Collins Street at that time, as we mentioned, we could find the biggest bookstore in the world – Coles Book Arcade. It had around a million books, roughly around the same quantity as the Library had at that time, but with more entertainment. Cole published his opinions on metal medallions as well as in books stating ‘the happiness of mankind, the real salvation of the world must come about by every person in existence being taught to read and induced to think.’
We really loved reading, I think there’s stats somewhere, we consumed more than anyone else in the world and yes we loved going to the pictures and all manner of entertainments. In 1906 the first feature film in the world was made right here, The story of the Kelly gang. The film’s producers, the entrepreneurial Tait brothers, also owned a fireworks factory and later ran JC Williamsons, one of the biggest theatre chains in the world. In 1911 on location in the city, at the Melbourne Club and in St Kilda, they shot the film version of the 1886 crime novel Mystery of a hansom cab which is still in print today and thought by some to be the first international crime bestseller, an inspiration to Conan Doyle among others. In 1912 American JD Williams, who ran a few Bourke Street cinemas back when Bourke Street really was as busy as Bourke Street, also shared some business with the Taits. He opened Luna Park on part of the site where they had shot the Kelly gang movie and yes, the amusement park got half a million visits in its second year which is, you know, virtually the entire population as a head count.
We did love eating sweets: chocolates at the pictures, fairy floss at Luna Park. MacRobertson employed about 1300 people in the production of confectionery. His White City, a group of white painted multi-storey buildings that you can still recognise in Fitzroy today, they all wore white; he wore white suits and a white Stetson as well. It covered about three hectares of floor space and they made everything – sugar flowers, anything you can imagine. Apart from the fabulous product, it was interesting because the package and concept became as important as the product and that’s a real 20th century phenomenon. And it was really paralleled and introduced by the invention of the modern, multinational, billion-dollar cosmetics industry in Melbourne in the early 1900s when Helena Rubenstein opened a salon and started selling cold cream. By 1913 her Collins Street salon was run by her sister while she took an Australian fortune with her to expand the company to London, Paris and New York where she ended up becoming one of the richest women in the world.
An early visitor to Rubenstein’s salon had been our world-famous opera singer Nellie Melba, for whom the Taits had previously negotiated the highest artist fees in the world. She was so famous, fans would buy her recordings and not play them, saving for good.
Kristin: In 1913 Melba was at Covent Garden, doing her 25th anniversary performance of Mimi in La Boheme, and Tony would have a lot to say about what that created: bohemia. Her new Melbourne home, Coombe Cottage in the Yarra Valley, had recently been completed, incorporating a flat-roofed, upstairs pavilion with mountain panorama and a zoned area for a glamorous swimming pool. Modern outdoor living was already here a hundred years ago. At the foot of those same mountains close to Melba, down the other end of the road, was the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission Station or reserve where Melbourne’s original inhabitants were concentrated. Their lives, controlled and rationed, were not their own and neither were their homes. It would be another 50 years or more before they were citizens in their own country. It had only been ten years previous to that that head man Barak, who was there when John Batman arrived and signed his putative treaty, died at Coranderrk as he’d expected around the time of what was to become Wattle Day. That base of the Melbourne year with its deep turn upwards of the natural cycle: death, renewal, blossoming into life and hope. I actually think we should be reinaugurate it to commemorate all those things and all the things Michael works on too, the soldiers, it’s got a big heritage in this town and it ties in with the natural cycle.
So I think as someone mentioned, by 1913 we had around 600,000 inhabitants. Flinders Street Station had just opened to be the busiest railway station in the world. We had the Grand Hotel, one of the greatest in the world, now the Hotel Windsor and I think still under threat of being gutted, and meanwhile one of the most magnificent department stores in the world was being rebuilt in Bourke Street, which would reroute the entire city: Myers.
The previous year Walter Murdoch, that’s Keith’s uncle, Rupert’s great uncle, wrote at the start of his book The Australian citizen, ‘the more civilized the nation is, the greater the number of links by which members of that nation are connected.’ And I think that’s still true today and 1913 shows us it’s not about the size of the town, but it’s about the size of people’s thoughts and endeavours and maybe their conversations as well.
To me the dome, the biggest reinforced concrete dome in the world when it was built, was and is the physical manifestation of this: space and time for thought, available to everyone in this city for 100 years since, rich or poor, educated or not, man, woman, boy, girl. We are lucky. So let’s celebrate the dome and the State Library of Victoria.
[On a white screen appear the logos for Cabcharge: sponsor of the Dome Centenary; Arts Victoria: 40 years; State Government of Victoria; State Library of Victoria and Dome Centenary 2013.]