A diaspora of fruit and fancy-goods

1 Nov

In a short-lived little paper, Society, published in Sydney in 1886, the editor describes a city teeming with street-commerce and promenaders: omnibus boys with ‘diabolical’ whistles, an army of ‘peripatetic fruit shops on wheels’, pretty girls to sigh over, boys with lawn-tennis racquets, a great miscellany of hawkers, and ice-cream carts trundling by. (Query: how did the ice-cream stay cold, and where was the lawn tennis happening?) One couldn’t pick flowers or smoke in the Botanic Gardens, this editor observed, with his characteristically doleful air, but there were plenty of passing vendors with goodies to buy.

Chaotic descriptions of Melbourne’s Bourke Street similarly abound in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1887), a novel by Fergus Hume, and in Marcus Clarke’s slummer-journalism from the late 1860s. A restless crowd ‘jostles and pushes along the pavements’, Hume wrote, notable chiefly for its griminess, as also for the vivid dresses of the prostitutes milling about the street corners. ‘Round the doors of the hotels a number of ragged and shabby-looking individuals collect, who lean against the walls criticising the crowd… Then here and there are the ragged street Arabs, selling matches and newspapers; and … further up, just on the verge of the pavement, a band, consisting of three violins and a harp, is stationed, which is playing a German waltz to an admiring crowd’. Clarke offered up other characters in his sketches of Bourke-street by night. A street preacher, hand upraised, singing a hymn as passers-by stopped to join in the chorus. A peddlar of ballads, calling out the titles of his ‘noo and fav’rite’ melodies. And ‘the man with the telescope’, evidently a Bourke-street fixture, ‘who shows Saturn’s rings for a penny and describes Jupiter’s moons for a glass of gin’.

These sources amply bear out what I’ve just been reading in Andrew Brown-May’s, Melbourne Street Life. This wonderful book is all about the vibrancy and jangle of the street in this period – buskers, newsboys, shoppers, workers, and hawkers combing the laneways ‘in a diaspora of fruit, fish, flowers and fancy-goods’ (157). The book is also about the progressive removal of this enterprise, the progressive attacks on all its noise and clutter and debris. Boys used to line up on the footpath in Swanston Street with armfuls of daffodils and wattle blossom, he wrote. In 1901, the District Court fined them for getting in pedestrians’ way. Also gone by the turn of the century were the men selling monkeys and the occasional kangaroo, and the cockatoo hawker from the late 1880s. (‘In one hand he holds two caged birds, while with the other he thrusts out a stick on which a melancholy cockatoo sits and surveys the passers-by’).

Brown-May ends the book with a call for the revival of city streets as democratic spaces, ‘providing optimum opportunities for the freedom and accessibility of all classes of people’. Mindful of the history of the street, he says, we should recognise ‘the significance of public space to the renewal and conviviality of cities and to the practice of community and citizenship’. Having just moved to a fast-yuppifying suburb of Brisbane, and having seen far too little of the city’s pavements and outdoor life,  this plea strikes almost too close to the bone.

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