Academic journal article Urban History Review

Inside Melbourne's "Little Lion"

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Inside Melbourne's "Little Lion"

Article excerpt

"Little Lon". So many tales revolve around the precinct's notoriety as a slum and red-light district. Andy often drew upon those images in the summer of 1988, as he imagined the place as it might have been a century earlier. But imagination was fractured by the dust and din from the demolition crews and their heavy earthmoving equipment, alongside the trench in which Andy was working. What a difference from the cool and quiet of the Public Record Office, in which Andy, a history student, usually studied. Now, a volunteer worker at an archaeological site in central Melbourne, he smeared on block-out and fly repellent and, perspiring in the summer heat, drank thirstily from his water bottle. He had quarter-filled a plastic bucket with oyster shells, fragments of clay pipe, and unknown debris from the spot where, on his knees, he had been carefully brushing. But now, stopping and shouting, he called the supervising archaeologist to his side. Lady Godiva had emerged part-way from the earth. A small pottery figurine (Figure 1), headless, naked, seated on a home. Spitting and rubbing with a finger at its base, Andy removed the caked dirt from the inscription that bore her name.(1)

The place off Little Lonsdale Street where the figurine was excavated is only metres away from the site of Melbourne's most celebrated brothel. It had been rented since 1886 by the "queen" of prostitution, Madame Brussels,(2) who bought the property in 1905. Brussels' main brothel in Lonsdale Street backed on to the site. Annie Wilson, second only to Brussels in notoriety, also occupied the building between 1890 and 1892. Wilson's brothel was known as Boccaccio House, and it was here, in popular imagination fed by newspaper rumour if hot in fact, that the colony of Victoria's parliamentary mace was paraded in drunken orgies after it had been stolen in 1891.(3)

Brothel or homeplace? Some have concluded that the figurine was a bawdy bordello plaything, Lady Godiva seemingly confirms Little Lon's reputation as the seedy reverse face of Marvellous Melbourne.(4) Linking Little Lon with the city's "wicked past", the Age newspaper in 1990 characterised the archaeologists as "dig[ging] ... beneath [the city's] new respectability to Melbourne's blackest slum."(5) A reanalysis of the artefact and its historical context supports a different and more credible interpretation, with Brussels and Wilson featuring in only one episode of the story.

Their brothel had been built as a simple weatherboard home of two rooms and a kitchen in 1851. The house was bought in 1865 by David Cunningham, a painter, and his new wife Anne. They lived in it for the next fifteen years. The Cunninghams were Irish. David had emigrated from County Tyrone in the early 1850s. Anne grew up in Londonderry, and had arrived in Melbourne in 1859. They lived in the cottage until David's death in 1879. Their three daughters grew up here (an infant son died in 1874). So identified with the neighbourhood had the family become that the lane where they lived was sometimes called Cunningham Place. After David's death, Anne rented the house in order to help pay off the mortgage. Brussels became her tenant. Anne lived with one of her married daughters in East Brunswick, and died there in 1904. She left the house to her daughters. They sold it to Brussels.(6)

The Lady Godiva figurine belonged neither to Brussels and Wilson, nor the Cunninghams. It was found on another homesite several doors down the lane. A wooden cottage of two rooms was built here early in 1851, one of a group of five such houses. They were replaced in 1877 by a row of six two-roomed brick cottages, owned by a local shoemaker (and later a newsagent), John Casselden, after whom the lane became known. Notwithstanding outside stereotypes, the Lady Godiva homesite was neither owned nor tenanted by prostitutes. The names of all its occupants have been traced throughout the nineteenth century. Many of them were labourers, and at other times a butcher, a dealer, a tailor, a coachman, a newsagent, and a steward rented the house. …

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