‘The Women of Little Lon’ by Barbara Minchinton

2021, 304 p.

It was odd that I should be reading this book when the issue of prostitution re-emerged into the public discourse. First, the state of Victoria finally decided to decriminalize sex-work by the end of the year. Second, The Age published an article about The Men’s Gallery in Lonsdale Street being accused of facilitating prostitution and breaching liquor and planning guidelines. Concerns about breaching planning guidelines are a very 21st century concern, but the anxieties about prostitution and liquor, especially in Lonsdale Street (albeit at the other end) are highly pertinent to Barbara Minchinton’s lively, well-researched and eminently readable book about sex workers in ‘Little Lon’ during the 19th century.

As she points out in the author’s notes, the term ‘sex worker’ was not used at the time. In fact, the word ‘sex’ did not appear at all in the newspaper or court reports. Instead they were ‘common prostitutes’, ‘gay women’ or ‘streetwalkers’. As society became more censorious, they were ‘sly girls’ and ‘she traps’, and ‘unfortunate creatures’. Surprisingly, prostitution itself was not illegal in the 19th century. Women could be (and were) charged with ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’ or ‘being drunk and disorderly’ but not prostitution or soliciting per se. The focus was on ‘disorderly’ behaviour, and there was a feeling that shutting down brothels in one area would only shift the problem elsewhere. This changed in 1891, and even more so in 1907 with amendments to the Police Offences Act, which made street soliciting, and then soliciting from windows and doors illegal, and outlawed profiting from prostitution. It may have destroyed the business of prostitution that existed in Little Lon for Melbourne’s first seventy years, but it did not eradicate the profession itself. (p.239)

Thanks to C. J. Dennis’ Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, ‘Little Lon’ became notorious as the site for gang violence, drunkenness and prostitution. However, as Minchinton points out through her informative maps, there was an equally notorious site in the block between Bourke Street and Little Bourke Street, bounded by Spring Street and Stephen Street (today Exhibition Street). In a city riddled with lanes and small cross streets that have been largely obliterated by large-scale development today, Romeo Lane, Juliet Terrace and Bilking Square were central to another sex work precinct, just opposite Parliament House, and close to the Eastern Market, the Haymarket Theatre and the Theatre Royal. She likens these precincts to a cake in layers. Streetworkers were on the bottom level, using parks, gardens and laneways as their workplace. Some of these workers were just starting out, and perhaps doing it for pocket money, while others were alcoholic, ill and destitute. The second layer comprised women working out of rented rooms or houses. Some of them doubled as bar-maids, some paid only for the time they used the bed or the room, while others lived in ‘short time’ houses, sometimes known as ‘cribs’. The ‘flash brothels’ were the icing on the cake: double storey houses, with domestic servants, extravagantly decorated with lavish dining and entertainment services. Men could stay for weeks at a time, and the “dressed girls” entertained them with singing, cards and dancing. (p. 23-26)

Minchinton captures well a whole economy, dominated by women, that had spin-offs in other, more ‘respectable’ endeavours. Food, drink, drapers, dressmakers, chemists, money-lenders and furniture-hire companies all catered to the sex-work industry. Real estate lay at the base of it, ranging from the short-term hire of a room, the lease of house from landlords (and landladies) who often held several properties in their portfolios, right up to the purchase of adjoining houses to create a ‘flash brothel’, at times purchased by female brothel-keepers themselves . Nor were these areas solely turned over to prostitution: shops, hotels and residences existed side-by-side, sometimes in a reciprocal arrangement, at other times in a more censorious relationship.

There are nearly 100 women named in this book. Many are of Irish origin. Some appear just fleetingly, while others keep emerging from the court reports and newspaper articles that Minchinton has drawn upon, where she often reproduces the article in full. At times, the names threaten to become over-whelming, and so I was pleased when Minchinton drew breath to concentrate on six women in particular, who demonstrate the range of wealth (or poverty) and prominence (or anonymity and confusion in the public record) of women involved in the sex work network.

Annie Britton was famous for marching down Bourke Street in January 1873, with a captain’s cap on her head, scabbard by her side, sword over her shoulder and smoking a cigar: all probably the possession of her client Captain Gillbee of the East Melbourne Volunteer Artillery who frequented her “house of ill fame” in Spring Street. Sarah Fraser, the daughter of convicts, was the owner of one of the flashest brothels in Melbourne comprising 24 rooms across four separate houses. At the other extreme of wealth, there is Mary Williams who co-owned a series of brothels with her husband, starting with a two-room crib in a back lane. At her peak she had two adjoining houses and at least 3 women working from her premises. Sarah Sarqui, a singer, was said to have catered to the desires of the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Sarah Fraser’s brothel during his visit to Melbourne in 1867-68. Finally, Mrs Bond worked from a house in Stephen (later Exhibition) Street, and later in Grattan Street Carlton. She purchased 143 Lonsdale Street in 1875 and set it up as a grocery store. It is thought that the absinthe bottles unearthed as part of the archaelogical dig in the Little Lon area were associated with her establishment at 143 Lonsdale. As part of explaining the decline of Little Lon through increased surveillance and harsher legislation, Minchinton looks at one of the most famous ‘flash madams’ of all, Caroline Hodgson or ‘Madame Brussels’ whose multiple court appearances and vilification in the tabloid newspapers between 1889 and 1906 reflected changing social and legislative changes.

In developing these portraits of women who were part of the Little Lon network, Minchinton draws on newspaper articles, court reports, family history and archaeological objects uncovered by the archaeological projects conducted at the ‘Commonwealth Block’ and later ‘Little Lon’. By broadening her vision out from the breathless, flippant and often censorious newspaper reports, she gives a picture of the whole lives of these women. For some of them, the appearances in court were just part of the price of doing business; for others they were part of a cycle of violence, drunkenness and imprisonment. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers as well as sex workers, and many of them moved in and out of the purview of the courts. In Minchinton’s view, the true villains are those misogynist male writers like Marcus Clarke (who wrote as the ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’) and “slummer journalists” like John Freeman (‘Liber’) and The Vagabond (John Stanley James – see my review of his work here, where I am less critical than Minchinton) who sensationalized and moralized within the same breath. Then there was David Blair, who wrote a Report on the Social Evil to Parliament in 1873 on the dangers of ‘contagion’, who after enumerating the reasons why European women might be driven to prostitution, claimed that the good wages for servants in Australia meant that only “vicious inclination and evil example” could explain its presence in ‘young’ Australia.

In representing the whole lifespan of these women, beyond court appearances and titillating newspaper articles, Minchinton emphasizes the agency and independence of this 19th century women’s network. Certainly there was violence, addiction and illness -and she does not in any way downplay it- but as she says:

The predominance of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century brothels shows that in a world where sex has has a commercial value, women can and will make use of their sexuality when it suits them, without necessarily suffering harmful consequences.

p.241

Minchinton’s wide-ranging research and focus on whole lives emphasizes the networks between women in this largely (but not completely) female-dominated economy that extended far beyond just the provision of sex. You get a sense of the collective ‘up-yours’ of women who danced in the streets -not quite the vision of degradation and evil depicted by journalists and moralists.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy from Black-Inc/Schwartz Media

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

4 responses to “‘The Women of Little Lon’ by Barbara Minchinton

  1. It sounds like it is well worth a read. Madam Brussels was a larger than life figure. A couple of years ago I located her Beaconsfield Parade, St Kilda house, difficult because of street renumbering. It should have a blue plaque in front.

    • I really enjoyed it. Being a Melburnian, I enjoyed it even more, but I guess that every city has its ‘red light district’ (even if there aren’t any red lights). Was the house in Beaconsfield Pde a large house?

  2. Yes, a substantial two storey and it must have had a good bit of land behind it as there is now a huge extension to the rear. Our friend who lives in a flat next door was quite amused that she lived next door to where Madame Brussels lived. I hope this works to copy and paste. https://www.google.com.au/maps/@-37.8579953,144.9693622,3a,75y,13.57h,91.13t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1s4Q9C7AeWy7iSabjft8XuUg!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3D4Q9C7AeWy7iSabjft8XuUg%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D1.1754985%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

    • Yep- that worked. She obviously made a good living from it! Even though its surrounded by high rises, I’m glad it’s got a bit of space around it.

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