Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2020

Author Talk: Richard Broinowski and Under the Rainbow, The Life and Times of E W Cole, in conversation with Amelia Mellor

Long term readers of this blog will remember Lisa Lang’s Vogel award winning novel Utopian Man(2009) which was about E W Cole.  Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing about a new book featuring this fascinating man: Under the Rainbow, The Life and Times of E W Cole.

Under the Rainbow is the fifth book by author and former diplomat, Richard Broinowski. It’s a profusely illustrated book about this iconic Melbourne figure, E W Cole, (1832-1918) whose life offers an opportunity to celebrate Melbourne’s vibrant early cultural life and him as one of the key innovators who created it. Best remembered for his Funny Picture Books and his sense of the absurd, EW Cole was a marketing genius and businessman who came from nothing.

This is the blurb:

Under the Rainbow is the life story of E.W. Cole, a colourful and much loved figure of 19th century Melbourne. Best remembered for his Funny Picture Books, his sense of the absurd and his marketing genius, his wonderful arcade was the first ‘department store’ in Melbourne, replete with a live orchestra, an aviary and monkeys alongside books, ornaments, art, curios and tearooms. But there was more to Cole than his merchandising prowess- he scandalised the clergy with his sacrilegious views about Christianity, campaigned passionately against the White Australia policy, and advocated education for all.

Cole’s journey from an impoverished sandwich seller on the streets of London to owner of one of the most memorable establishments of early Melbourne is remarkable. His passion for learning, insatiable curiosity, and enduring faith in the essential goodness of humanity make him a figure worth celebrating. More than 100 years after his death, Cole’s story is a timely reminder that a little bit of goodness can go a long way.

The talk began with Broinowski telling us about Cole’s background, which was disadvantaged to say the least.  One of the challenges of this book was that not everything is known about Cole, because his was the sort of background that’s not well-documented.  So Broinowski has speculated freely about what might or might not have been.  What is clear is that the well-known part of Cole’s life began when he heard the siren call of gold…

Once he got to Melbourne, it wasn’t the Gold Rush that made Cole a cultural figure in Melbourne in the late 1800s.  He tried mining, and he worked as a builder’s labourer and had other menial jobs, but made no money until he got a barrow and sold pies in the inner suburbs… One day a woman sold him 10 bob’s worth of books as a job lot, and this was the catalyst for him to turn his pie shop into a mini book arcade.  As its success grew, he upgraded it into the huge arcade for which he was famous.  Everyone who was anyone went there — he was even visited by writers Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain during their travels to Australia.  He had a genius for self-promotion, including advertising for a wife (which caused a scandal).  But he got one, Eliza Jordan, who came from Tasmania… and she turned out to be very intelligent and took over the management of the arcade when he went on buying trips to the UK.

Cole was a good employer, but he avoided conflict.  Eliza was much tougher than he was and she sacked some staff when he was overseas.  He was a tender man, a good husband and father, who suffered tragedy when his child Ruby died of scarlet fever.

Coles Book Arcade wasn’t just a bookshop though it had one of the largest stocks of books in the world. There were monkeys, and all kinds of miscellanea, and a band that played in the basement — and you didn’t need to buy anything, he welcomed browsing.  Definitely it was a place to see and be seen.  He also published his own books, (including some that he plagiarised), but the ones for which we remember him best are the Coles Funny Picture Books.  They were reissued fairly recently (and you can read them at Project Gutenberg.)

Cole was an autodidact, and an idealist, but was endlessly curious about topics as varied as evolution, religions, and future inventions.  He was, for example, furiously against the White Australia Policy, and spoke against it when he visited Japan.

He made prophesies for the Third Millennium, predicting flying machines, international networks of railways, rights of women, equality of all the races, education of the masses, and great agricultural production so that there is food for all.  He had many idealistic visions of the future, but he didn’t predict the terrible events of the 20th century (fascism, the Holocaust).  Broinowski says Cole was an optimist and so is he, so he hopes that more of Coles’ predictions might come true as time goes by.

Broinowski’s main motive in writing the book was to offer students an interesting history of Victoria.  All schools are going to get a free copy of it, and there will be an education kit: he wants children to know their own history!

You can purchase the book at Readings, click here.

Many thanks to Christine Gordon from Readings for organising and hosting this event.


  1. Gosh what a blast from the past! I’d forgotten all about Coles Funny Picture Books – now I’m showing my age because I do remember them, we had them at home. What a hoot! He does sound like an interesting chap…


    • I remember buying them for my son and he loved them:)


  2. I loved those picture books!


    • I’ll have to get on and read the book.
      It’s a weird thing, for a while my TBR pile for books I’d committed to review shrank to almost nothing because publishing is so disrupted, and then all of a sudden I was inundated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh this sounds a wonderful story of an eccentric man. I’m not familiar with the Coles books but I like the sound of him. We need more characters like this in our current lives.


    • Absolutely. The Brits used to be really good at eccentrics, but not any more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You don’t think Boris is eccentric? 😂


        • Uh, no.
          That’s not a word I would use to describe him.
          (There are not many words I would use to describe him that are fit for a ‘family-friendly’ blog like this one.)


  4. Oh, this sounds fascinating. I adored Lisa Lang’s novel and it remains one of my all-time favourite reads. My maternal grandmother was a big EW Coles fan and we grew up pouring over those funny picture books!


    • Yes, I liked it too.
      Apparently Amelia Mellor has a novel about EWC coming out ‘soon’ with Affirm Press. It’s called The Grandest Bookshop in the World, and it has a gorgeous cover. I think it’s YA because there are teachers’ notes advertised on the Affirm website.


  5. Do you remember the boys all lined up, bent over over in front of Coles patent smacking machine. That would have caused a stir in The Slap.


    • To paraphrase a Monty Python sketch: as a retired chalkie, I used to *dream* about a patent smacking machine….


  6. […] readers will remember an author Talk I reported on back in September. Courtesy of  events manager Christine Gordon from Readings, author Richard Broinowski was in […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: