Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2017

Sensational Snippets: Acland Street, the Grand Lady of St Kilda, by Judith Buckrich

I am reading a marvellous new ‘coffee table’ history of Acland Street St Kilda, and I came across this gorgeous snippet, typical of the idiosyncratic characters who populate this book:

The last and greatest of Acland Street mansions was Halcyon (aka Myrnong Hall) built between 1886 and 1890 by Annie Dudgeon, the recent widow of Melbourne tobacco manufacturer John Dudgeon.  John Dudgeon arrived in Port Phillip from Tasmania, where he had spent seven years as a convict for the crime of horsehair theft.

Dudgeon was a ‘horsehair curler’, or manufacturer, from a long line of men in the same trade from the Bermondsey district of St Mary Magdalene Parish.  Bermondsey, just south of where Tower Bridge now crosses the Thames, was at the time the centre of London’s leather trade.  Horsehair, a by-product of this trade, was used for stuffing upholstery and making wigs.  A horsehair manufacturer would collect the tails and manes of slaughtered horses and process them into these products.

Dudgeon, who was working at Fresh Wharf near the southern end of London Bridge, stole three bags of horsehair from a warehouse at Bermondsey, and was charged at the Old Bailey, he was twenty-one years old. After serving his time he got a ‘conditional pardon’, meaning he’d behaved himself, and in the next thirty years made a fortune as a tobacco manufacturer and retailer.  He had a factory in Lonsdale Street and four shops in Elizabeth Street.  His wife, Annie, who he married in 1872, was three decades his junior, having married him when she was just seventeen and he was fifty.  Her children with John inherited an estate of £80,000.

Acland Street, The Grand Lady of St Kilda, by Judith Buckrich, ATOM, (Australian Teachers of Media), 2017 ISBN 9781760610661, p.38

A horsehair curler – who knew such a trade existed?  But I can see why he switched to tobacco manufacturing once he was in Australia – not so much call for wigs here!

For those interested in this book as a Christmas present, this is the blurb:

Unique in Melbourne’s history, Acland Street has been the home, playground and business address for millionaires and paupers, members of parliament, creators of the culture, sex workers, criminals, migrants from Europe and Asia and the most staid and most ‘out there’ people in the city. It was the first named street in St Kilda in 1842, and until the 1880s, Melbourne’s most desired address.

From the 1890s, when many of the mansions became boarding houses, and certainly after World War 1, it was a magnet for European migrants, single men and women and those from less acceptable sub-cultures including artists, musicians, writers, the LGBTI community and anyone who was poor but wanted the joys that life near the sea could provide. It has been and remains impossible to pin down economically and socially. Acland Street has, for more than a hundred years, conjured fun, food and good times and continues to be one of our city’s most loved places.

Acland Street was one of my haunts when I was a teenager.  I hung out there with my best friend from school, (who became the actor Susan J. Arnold) because she lived round the corner on the Esplanade.  So, like thousands who have some kind of personal connection with Acland Street, I love this book, which was funded by a Pozible campaign, with support from ATOM, (Australian Teachers of Media, the City of Port Phillip, Readings, the St Kilda Historical Society and heaps of other people, all thanked within the pages of the book.  It’s lavishly illustrated with gorgeous reproductions of streetscapes, buildings, vintage ads and eccentric people like Mr Dudgeon.

The book begins as you’d expect it to in chronological order, tracing the early days of the street since its beginnings in 1842.  There are fabulous reproductions of grand old buildings, crusty old gents and plans and subdivisions.  But I headed first to the chapter titled ‘the 1950s and 1960s’ because it’s from the late sixties that I remember Acland Street best.  One of my first dates with the Ex was at the famed Scheherazade restaurant, which we thought was terribly exotic because it served Eastern European food.  (Some readers might know the place from Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade).  But there’s also a vignette about Bill Armstrong, a pioneer of the Australian recording industry who ran Telefil Recording Studios in Acland Street from 1954.  It was Bill who first recorded The Spouse’s Australian Cotton Club Orchestra right at the beginning of its pathway to becoming Melbourne’s leading society jazz orchestra in the 1980 and 1990s.  That first recording on cassette was on Bill’s Jazz&Jazz label but the three CDs after that were part of the Bill Armstrong Collection on the WEA label.

The Cosmos Bookshop (now Readings) opened in 1963 and later on there used to be a Mary Martin’s too, one of the first shops to sell remaindered books that I know of.  It took over the old Coles Variety building where you could buy all kinds of things at the counters and the girls and women (always girls and women) would ring up your purchase at the till at each end of the counter.  They counted the coppers into your hand very carefully, because (as I knew from when I had a Saturday morning job at Coles in Prahran) no staff could leave at closing time until every last penny was accounted for.  Mary Martin’s became the Metropolis Bookshop in 1997, specialising in art and design books.  It moved to Curtin House in the CBD in 2004.

Since the Acland Street shop is our closest Readings, we are regularly confronted with the difficult problem: which cake shop to go to for refreshments afterwards?  The Europa, the Monarch or Le Bon? Acland Street remains for me the best only place to buy cheesecake in Melbourne.  Postwar Jewish refugees opened cafés, delicatessens and cake shops up and down the street but some of the cake shops predate that, baking with recipes that are over a century old.  And as the book notes in the next chapter, Acland Street was designated a ‘tourist area’ in the 1970s, so it was open for Sunday trading when everything else was closed.  Where else would you go for coffee and cake in those days?

The final chapter, ‘Cosmopolitan Life’ is the Acland Street we know now.  Raffish and lively, it’s home to a wonderful diversity of people, especially the arts community.  It’s much more expensive than it used to be but gentrification is held at bay by community groups such as the Community Alliance, though a stoush over turning the street into a mall couldn’t stop it from being built.  There’s some fabulous photos of the street in its current incarnation!

Available from Fishpond: Acland Street: The Grand Lady of St Kilda and Readings has it too.


Responses

  1. When I was in Melbourne I lived out in the eastern suburbs, but I’d come in to St Kilda sometimes though I preferred Fitzroy St which had an edgier feel.

    Historically speaking, Martin Boyd, writing of the 1890s, says “my grandmother Boyd lived in St Kilda, in a grey, gabled house set in a large garden and surrounded by fields.”

    • Yes, I think it must have been beautiful in that era.

  2. I was going to comment that I doubted anything was made using horsehair today and certainly not wigs. And then I had a niggling idea that maybe the wigs barristers wear over here in the UK are still made from horsehair. A quick internet search showed that is indeed the case. Which must mean there are some people still working in the horse hair business. Amazing….

    • Yes, that’s right, because when the Ex went to the Bar, the wig had to be ordered from the UK.

      • They must be very itchy to wear

        • Ha, they’re getting paid so much a little suffering doesn’t bother them…

          • Oh what an unsympathetic minx you are…..

  3. […] and Harry Blutstein revisiting the Cold War era with chair Judith Buckrich (who wrote that lovely history of Acland Street that I reviewed a little while ago.) Harry Blutstein set us straight about the 1956 Melbourne […]


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