I began exploring the Little Lon area one year ago. As a teen I had attended the new museum with its famous upstairs exhibit of the old houses of Little Lonsdale St. I had not hitherto realised that the entire area was simply one block, rather than the entire length of Little Lon. Having now explored the area somewhat, I feel I can write something about it!
Little Lon (The most north eastern block in the city), was the last to be settled by early Melbournians. People poured in during the gold rush, to such an extent that Scotch College was forced to move to back of St Patricks’, seeking a better area.
Was it a bad area? That depends on the background of people of the time, witnesses who recorded their impressions. People had been moved on by the 1950s so we don’t really have anyone to tell us what it was like! It was certainly an area of underworld activity. Was it actually physically dangerous? Not really, though pickpockets did operate in the area, as did gangs of Larrakins who ‘Larrakined around’ (idled around, occasionally shouting things, or making jokes for their mates). According to people who did not live in the area, it contained people who would utter the most vile language imaginable and was seen as something as a living hell to others who looked on the tiny houses and narrow laneways with their prostitution, poverty and gambling. The view of a hellish slum however seems exaggerated. Investigating the trove website, which contains various old newspaper articles, we see that there is surprisingly little in the way of criminal activity which has been reported to the papers! But then again, allegedly only 5% of the old articles have been digitised. What the impression is, however, is that this was not really a Whitechapel-type area of murder and Jack-the-Ripper type events. Rather a possibly seedy semi-industrial place of impoverished mass habitation mixing with petty crime and a little prostitution as well. Detectives and police were often seen on the beat, as well as in plain clothes, keeping an eye on certain people.
In fact it would seem that Little Lon was not really such a bad place. It was a place which contained brothels and was a block or two away from the illegal beer houses of Carlton, but apart from that, evidence might suggest that the people of Little Lon looked after each other. To an outsider however, used to something else, the area would have presented a radically different view!
I had some free time today in which to explore the area more thoroughly. Despite the crazy levels of development in the city, there is at least something remaining of the old times. We have two very old original-Melbourne style pubs, within close proximity, which have fortunately been preserved. (Photos coming up!) I call this an ‘archaeological park’ because we don’t really have much archaeology in Victoria to begin with, and also there seems to have been a determined effort to show how the history of the area behind the skyscrapers of Castletown Place.
Walking down Lonsdale St, we meet with ‘Madame Brussels Lane.’ This is named after a brothel which used to be in the vicinity. The lane however is a modern contrivance, created by vast demolition works of the older buildings and did not exist in earlier times.
The Black Eagle hotel, 1849. ‘Madame Brussels Lane’, next to the Black Eagle to the right, never even existed in early times. It was a series of houses and back yards with cesspits. The real lane was on the other side, now the foyer of a building, and was called ‘Eagle Alley’.
Signs still exist, on one side of the Black Eagle Hotel, pointing out furniture workshops, some of which still stand in the area, though their business has ceased!
It would seem that these gold plates have been placed where equivalent relics were found during building excavation, inside cesspits, including where Madame Brussels Lane now is. I can only find three of these in the whole area!
These are three of the plates visible, two in Madame Brussels lane, commemorating archaeological discoveries. I presume the brass plates are located where the objects in question were found.
We emerge from Madame Brussels Lane and tourists cannot believe they are looking at an original house from the area, among the skyscrapers! In the old days, one only saw houses like this, and a few factories.
The back of the house has a nice outhouse! It is rented as an office.
Another interesting relic is this tree stump. An old house had been built on top of this. The very hard wood of the stumps got in the way of early Melbourne traffic for the first ten years of Melbourne history. They were impossible to remove and not many folks had the time!
Having walked through the new lane, over where houses used to be, we emerge at the Oddfellows hotel, on Little Lon herself. This is what a gold-rush hotel looked like! 15 rooms were up for rent here!
We walk through this area on the Twisted Tales Crime Tour
If you are interested in participating, please check out our website!
These photos were all taken with mobile-phone camera, March 2016, and may be used with attribution.