Beneath a rainbow arch in the heart of Melbourne, there was once a door to a different world
In the heart of Melbourne, where a common department store now stands, you could once step off the street and into a very different world.
It was a huge and peculiar bookstore — though to simply call it that doesn’t feel like enough.
Among the millions of books, there was also a live orchestra, a gallery of fine art, and a tearoom filled with bright murals.
“It was not just a bookstore, it was a carnival,” says former Australian diplomat Richard Broinowski, who has written a biography of the store’s colourful owner.
“It was a wonderful place to see and be seen.”
Edward William Cole, best known for his series Funny Picture Books, opened his Book Arcade on Bourke Street in 1883.
Like Cole’s children’s books, it was emblazoned with a rainbow arch facade, and it became one of the biggest bookstores in the world.
“Another thing he did very cunningly was to install benches for people to sit and read in fernery, in coolness, because at that time the Melbourne City Council was discouraging drifters and chancers from sitting on the streets, and they put spikes on the windowsills and doorsteps of buildings so they couldn’t do it,” Broinowski tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.
“But Cole had people come in who were tired and needed resting, and he said ‘No-one has to buy, you can read what you like.'”
Broinowski says former prime minister Robert Menzies used to go there when he was young because he couldn’t afford the law books — instead he’d read them at Cole’s.
It was also a place where you could see exotic animals, like screeching monkeys and colourful parrots.
“He had electric lighting, one of the first stores in Melbourne to do it,” Broinowski says.
“He had a hydraulic lift that took people every four minutes up to the third floor to look at all the china.”
The warped mirrors in the arcade — which exist today in St Kilda’s Luna Park — also prompted raucous laughter from adults and children.
“He would make the thin fat and the fat thin, and the ugly beautiful and the beautiful rather plain. Lots of giggles … would come from there.”
And while Cole certainly revelled in educating and entertaining his customers, there was more to him than just his bookstore: he was a philosopher and human rights advocate who spoke passionately against the White Australia policy.
Oh, and he owned a zoo.
A Jack-of-all-trades who scandalised the clergy
EW Cole, as he’s best known, came from humble beginnings.
Born in 1832, he was raised in a poor household in Kent in the United Kingdom.
He left home at 17 to try his fortune in London working as a street vendor, but after growing tired of selling pies and winkles in the streets, he moved to South Africa in 1850.
“He was there for a year. He went through a very difficult time, he saw bloodshed, the frontier wars with the Xhosa, and he didn’t enjoy it very much,” Broinowski says.
“At the end of about 1851 he … had heard rumours about the gold rush in Victoria and he said, ‘Well, I’m going there.'”
But Cole’s attempt at trying to make a fortune in gold didn’t pan out.
“He was poor. He used to steal apples from orchards but, because of his morality, only when they had fallen on the ground,” Broinowski says.
“He worked as a painter, as a lamplighter, as a plumber’s apprentice, as a builder’s labourer.
By the time he was 30 he was in Melbourne, and broke. He became consumed by the subject of religion.
He spent hours each day combing through every book on religious texts he could find, and in 1866 he published his first piece of writing: Cole’s Information for the People on the Religions of the World.
In the preface, he said he hoped to “annihilate sectarian prejudices” and wished for people to “extend justice and charity” to those who have a different faith.
“Universal knowledge brings the greatest good to man,” he wrote.
Broinowski says Cole scandalised the clergy with his sacrilegious views about Christianity.
“He wrote an impassioned letter to his parents in Kent, saying, ‘You say that if you believe in God you prosper … but I haven’t prospered. I don’t believe in God either but there are people, men, who have made huge amounts of money who are themselves morally bankrupt, therefore I don’t regard having morality as necessarily the same as having prosperity.'”
Advertising for a wife
When it came to finding a wife, Cole pursued an outlandish method — he advertised in the Melbourne Herald.
“He said, ‘This is serious, don’t just say that I’m doing this as a gimmick, I am not,'” Broinowski says.
On July 3, 1875, readers of The Herald saw this:
“She must be a spinster of 35 or 36 years of age. Good tempered, intelligent, honest, truthful, sober, chaste, cleanly, neat but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy; industrious, frugal, moderately educated, and a lover of home.”
“He was a misogynist, as all men in those days were,” Broinowski adds.
“But he trusted her as the only person who could run the arcade when he went to London on buying trips.”
Cole received a “sober, serious, considered letter” from a woman named Eliza, who offered to meet him at the top of Spring Street.
“Then they got talking. [They were] two rather plain looking people, she was sort of plump and he was not an oil painting himself, but they really got on very well together.”
Even though he wasn’t an Orthodox Christian, Eliza saw Cole as gentle and kind.
“She said, ‘I think you’ve got potential, so I’m prepared to go along with you.’ And she did.”
They married in 1875 and had six children.
‘All the same underneath’
Beyond the walls of his arcade, Cole campaigned passionately against the While Australia policy, which limited migration to Australia between 1901 and 1958.
He had witnessed the unfair and sometimes brutal treatment of black South Africans by colonialists, and the discrimination whites had imposed on Chinese gold miners in Castlemaine.
His opposition to the act was further vocalised after he met the commander of a Japanese naval squadron that was visiting ports in Australia in 1902.
The next year, he was invited to be a special guest at the Osaka Trade Exhibition.
“He went with his wife Eliza and two of his daughters. They were given red carpet treatment,” Broinowski says.
“Everywhere he went he explained the problem about White Australia.
“He said, ‘My passionate view is that all men are created equal, and that the only difference is that the closer they live to the equator, the blacker their skins, and the further away the whiter their skins, but they are all the same underneath.'”
What became of Cole and his famous Book Arcade?
Cole continued to expand the Book Arcade until the mid-1910s, when it had 16 departments.
He also bought an enormous property in Essendon which he turned into a zoo.
“Every passer-by had an unwanted animal and would leave it with Cole, and he had a leopard there at one stage,” Broinowski says.
“That’s when the neighbours objected, they said, ‘You can’t have that!'”
He also had a rainbow-shaped garden.
“He could look out from his top floor with mirrors from his bedroom as he was getting older and he saw this wonderful thing, and that kept him going,” says Broinowski, whose book on Cole is titled Under The Rainbow.
“He would go in his horse-drawn carriage from Essendon into Bourke Street two or three times a week to oversee things.”
But when Cole died in 1918, at the age of 86, things at the arcade started to fall apart.
It finally closed its doors in 1931 — after inspiring and entertaining generations of people lucky enough to visit.
Broinowski says Cole’s legacy also lives on in his Funny Picture Books.
“[They] were enormously entertaining to children from five to 50, not just in Melbourne but throughout Australia and in New Zealand and Great Britain,” he writes.
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September 12, 2020 at 08:31AM