© Warren Fahey
Melbourne has been often described as a “City of Palaces”, and its splendour drew from George Augustus Sala the alliterative and descriptive title of “Marvelous Melbourne”. The centre of all this architectural marvel is Collins Street, the great thoroughfare of the Victorian capital, and one of the finest streets in the world. It extends its broad wood-paved length right from the Spencer Street railway station to Spring Street where the Treasury buildings look down it. Throughout the whole length is a series of mercantile and financial palaces.
There is the immense pile of the Equitable Insurance building at the corner of Elizabeth Street, claimed to be the finest building in Australasia, the great bank buildings, the imposing Town Hall, the offices of the Argus and the Age, various churches, the Exchange, and a host of other splendid buildings. Up the centre run the double lines of the cable trams, the system brought to such perfection in the Victorian Capital, and which extends far out into the suburbs, and binds every part of the city in a mesh of rails and cables. Altogether a magnificent street is Collins Street of “Marvelous Melbourne”.
“Glimpses of Australia”, Gordon & Gotch, 1896
Marvellous Melbourne once so grand
Is humbled now – quite out of hand,
Her money spent in buying land,
At prices far too good to stand;
The boom is dead you’ll understand,
It is in short a failure grand.
The boom’s decayed – it fades away –
And we sing ta-ra-land-boom-de-ay.
But where, oh where’s the money gone
Of millionaires we haven’t one;
The banks have had their biot of fun,
And reconstruction deeds have done,
We’ll banking institutions shun,
And steer aloof from every one.
The vision fades alas away,
And we sing ta-ra-land-boom-de-ay.
We’re told there’s no such word as fail;
The banks have told a different tale,
And everywhere there’s land for sale.
The question’s will we stand the gale,
And who for us will now stand bail? –
Our moneyed men are all in gale,
Diamond cracking, so they say,
And singing ta-ra-land-boom-de-ay
‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ is a pre-music hall song, first performed in 1891, which became an instant worldwide hit, including Australia. The song was best known in the version sung by Lottie Collins in London music halls in 1892. The song’s authorship was disputed for some years, and was the subject of a lawsuit in the 1930s. It originally appeared credited to Henry J. Sayers, who was the manager of a minstrel troupe, and was sung by Mamie Gilroy in a minstrel farce comedy in 1891. However, Sayers later stated that he had not written the song, but had heard it performed in the 1880s by a black singer, Mama Lou, in a well-known St. Louis brothel run by ‘Babe’ Connors.
The 1930s lawsuit decided that the tune and the refrain were in the public domain. Our version, ridiculing Melbourne circa 1890’s, in the wake of the 1870s and 80s goldrush land boom, shows how rapidly popular songs were parodied. The song, echoing the changing times, goes at a racy pace! I recorded a version on ‘Australia: Its Folk Songs & Bush Verse’. (see site General Store)
To an ordinary student of human nature it must seem quite inexplicable what it is that induces so many thousands of people to walk up and down Bourke-street on every Saturday night. Their surroundings are not always attractive, and that it is not business which takes them there is perfectly evident. Neither, it would seem, is it curiosity, as they hardly ever stop to look in the shops, and, indeed, the stream of pedestrians is too strong and dense to allow of such delay. Let us walk with the crowd, and, keeping our eyes open, see what are the objects of interest or curiosity which our walk may bring us in contact with. Taking these in the order in which they are depicted by our artist, we have first the “Oyster Stall”, where excellent oysters are retailed to customers at the very reasonable rate of 6d. per dozen. What would the epicures of London, where the bivalve has become an almost unapproachable luxury for all but millionaires, think of that?
For those who prefer a humbler kind of refreshment here is the “Seller of Trotters”, who generally succeeds in getting rid of a basketful of his wares in the course of an evening. But here, in the next scene, we are introduced to high science. We visit “The Phrenologist”, who informs the admiring and believing crowd that he will tell them their characters for the modest remuneration of Is. each, or give them a written chart for is 6d. “Some,” says this orator, “are intended by nature for thought, others for action, others for the senate. You, for instance,” addressing the unpromising-looking subject whose “bumps” he is manipulating, “are adapted for higher work than you are doing. You are not content with your position.” “No,” says his patient, “I would ‘chuck it up’ to-morrow if I could.” “Just what I say,” proceeds the man of science. “Phrenology cannot err in saying this is an intellectual mind, or this an animal mind, any more than my eyes can deceive me when they assure me that that is a large house, and that a small one. Just so with – ” but by this time we have got out of hearing, and are next watching some brightly-attired ladies, with gentlemen in evening dress, passing across the pavement, on the way from their carriage “To the Opera”.
A little lower down the street, at a brisk business corner, stands the fine “Coffee Stall” here depicted, and which, with its clean crockery, bright and steaming kettles, and brilliant and friendly glare of lamp-lights, offers a very hospitable greeting to anyone desirous of the mild stimulant of a cup of coffee. Next we visit a dense and attentive crowd near the Eastern Market, where several noisy orators try to out-power each other by force of lungs in their appeals to the public for custom.
One is a “Seller of Adhesive Cement” of wondrous properties, which is warranted to mend broken glass and china neater and stronger than before it was broken. Then we have a noisy self-assertive “Cheap Jack”, who, with his coat and waistcoat off, stands up between two smoking and flaring lights to force his wares on the public by eloquence, and flattery, and rough humour. Finally, we come to the “Grog Analyst”, who stands at a raised table, on which he has several bottles of various contents, and with these, with much scientific exposition, mingled with fearfully sarcastic gibes at the chemists, the brewers, and the distillers, undertakes to explain the manufacture of all kinds of spirits out of one original, with various flavourings and colouring mixtures. He will sell you a handbill explaining the whole process, by which you can make your own cognac, blue ruin, poteen, or old Jamaica, just as you wish it. These are a few of the amusing and often grotesque aspects presented by Bourke-street on a Saturday night.
The “Australasian Sketcher”, 7 June 1879
It was Saturday morning, and fashionable Melbourne was “doing the Block”. Collins Street is to the Southern City what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk. . . .
Carriages were bowling smoothly along, their occupants smiling and bowing as they recognised their friends on the side walk. Lawyers, their legal quibbles finished for the week, were strolling leisurely with their black bags in their hands; portly merchants, for- getting Flinders Lane and incoming ships, walked beside their pretty daughters; and the representatives of swelldom were stalking along in their customary
apparel of curly brimmed hats, high collars and immaculate suits. Altogether it was a pleasant and animated scene.
Fergus Hume, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab”, Melbourne, 1886