What better defines a city than its street corners? A corner gives you a starting point, a destination and a place to turn. It’s furnished with pillar boxes, newsstands and tram stops, and lamp-posts for light and lounging. Where would you be likeliest to find a pub? At the corner, of course.
In her new book Corners of Melbourne: The great orange-peel panic and other stories from the streets, Robyn Annear gives us a tour of the corners of Melbourne, and reveals their bizarre, baroque and mostly forgotten stories.
Here are three special places Robyn recommends you visit next time in Australia’s most liveable city.
NW corner Swanston & Collins streets (Puppy-Dog Corner )
In the 19th-century city, obstructing the footpath was a no-no. Street-vendors, larrikins, musical dogs – anything that caused a clot of humanity was liable (the thinking went) to lead to disorder, be it shoving, pocket-picking or mere high spirits. A constable’s barked order to ‘move on’ was the broken-windows policing of its day. One street corner that drew this kind of attention was the deliciously dubbed Puppy-dog Corner opposite the town hall clock. Between four and six any weekday afternoon, that vicinity was a hangout for downy-faced office clerks, smoking ‘bad’ cigarettes and ogling young women who were promenading the Block.
This ‘classic gathering ground of Melbourne dudes’ was expressly targeted in 1901, as part of a civic crackdown before the opening of Federal Parliament. But only with the advent of the Manchester Unity Building, in 1932, would Puppy-dog Corner lose its name and its reputation as a perennial choke-point for city foot-traffic.
‘Ladies Only’ seats, Swanston Street (near Flinders Street)
‘Combining chivalry with utilitarianism’, the city council in 1934 ruled that some of the street seating alongside St Paul’s Cathedral would be ‘set apart for womenfolk’. These seats, facing busy Flinders Street station, had long been a popular spot for people-watching. The problem was that ‘men usurped more than a fair share of the accommodation’. So, the words Ladies Only were marked out in white tiles at the entrance to one of the seating alcoves. To no avail.
‘The summer,’ noted the Age, ‘brought the familiar sight of elderly women laden with parcels gazing wistfully at the seats, occupied by men.’ Thus the edict was amplified in painted letters 60 cm tall, and from time to time council workers would touch up the lettering – under the watchful eye of men seated there. In my teens I used to congregate with male friends on the Ladies Onlyseats, thinking we were sticking it to ‘the man’. How wrong can you be?
Underground Toilets, Elizabeth Street (near Bourke Street Mall)
As public amenities go, the underground toilets in front of the GPO in Elizabeth Street aren’t exactly prize-worthy. But they’re easy to find, which is always a plus if you’re caught short. Installed in the early sixties, the Ladies’ features a spacious ‘powder room’ with a frowsy you-shall-go-to-the-ball vibe. Set before a mirror is a row of stools – perfect for touching up the lippy or teasing a beehive – while a long divan hints that this was once a place to linger and even to socialise. Melbourne’s original public toilet stood close to this spot in 1859. A urinal that drained straight into the gutter at the city’s busiest street corner, it scandalised some while bringing relief to many. Many men, that is; Melbourne women would have to hold on for another fifty years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robyn Annear is author of eight books of history, including Bearbrass, A City Lost & Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, Adrift in Melbourne and, most recently, Corners of Melbourne: The great orange-peel panic & other stories from the streets.
She appeared in the award-winning 2022 documentary, The Lost City of Melbourne. In her podcast, Nothing on TV, Robyn presents stories from Trove historical newspapers.