Crime and debauchery: The dark past of Melbourne’s laneways (Herald Sun)

THEY were once the filthy back door of elite establishments, where garbage and sewage festered and deliveries were made.

Melbourne’s laneways were hidden hollows for crime and debauchery, with secret entrances to brothels, adult book shops and massage parlours.

Flinders Lane, then known as Little Flinders St, looking east from Queens St in 1870. Picture: Supplied

Once dangerous destinations, they have since been transformed into our city’s greatest treasures, boasting bars, restaurants and street art.

But Melbourne’s laneways weren’t always a Mecca for culture. They began simply as service lanes after Robert Hoddle designed the CBD in 1837.

Flinders Lane, between 1891 and 1914. Picture: State Library Victoria

“It was part of organising the Hoddle Grid plan,” Museums Victoria curator Michael Reason said.

“They were large blocks and people realised they would need access to the back of their properties.

“Laneways were for rubbish, sewerage collection, some were privately owned — they were almost part of the property. And they were where all the things happened that you wanted out of sight. Over time they attracted undesirables, criminals.”

Two particular laneways side-by-side were a haven for criminal activity in the 1870s — Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace.

Home to Melbourne’s red light district, one was for the ladies and the other for the gents of the night.

Little more than 100m long, the pair of star-crossed laneways led to Bilking Square, named after the practise of sex workers bilking, or stealing, from prospective customers.

The “disorderly behaviour” — as described in a January, 1871 edition of The Argus newspaper — became so bad that plain clothed police swept in to investigate. In a single day, almost 50 people were arrested.

A front page drawing of a brawl, titled ‘Another Stabbing Case’, from The Citizen newspaper on October 13, 1877. Picture: National Library of Australia

Among the “thieves, bullies, and women of the town of the lowest class” was Ellen Donovan, better known as the “Bull Pup”.

The Argus described her as someone “so ugly now, being a squat … woman, about 4ft high, and nearly as broad”.

But the Bull Pup had once been queen of the underworld of Canvas Town, the tent city built during the gold rush at South Melbourne in the 1850s.

Ellen Donovan, arrested in Melbourne’s red light district laneways, once ruled Canvas Town, drawn here in the 1850s. Picture: State Library Victoria

“For a long time (she) fascinated the hearts of lucky diggers, whose gold she easily obtained, and more easily squandered,” the Argus wrote.

Further attempts were made to clean up the laneways and Bilking Square was demolished.

Romeo Lane was renamed Crossley St — where a bar now stands, taking its name from the historic laneway — and Juliet Terrace was called Liverpool Street.

The pair are now filled with galleries, shops and trendy restaurants which are far removed from their debaucherous past.

Not far away, another laneway flesh trade was making its mark on Melbourne. Horseflesh.

Kirk’s Lane, now Hardware Lane, was the centre for the city’s bloodstock industry in the mid-1800s.

Kirk’s Horse Bazaar. Picture: Supplied.
Hardware Ln was once Kirk’s Ln. Picture: Tourism Victoria/David Hannah

Racehorses were bred and trained at Kirk’s Horse Bazaar, named after owner James Bowie Kirk.

Each week, buyers drove to the city’s most famous bazaar where hundreds of horses would be auctioned.

The cobblestone alley, with its umbrella canopy and live music, is now unrecognisable from the strip where horses were once trotted out for potential buyers.

Now, those ambling down Hardware Lane will find Kirks Wine Bar on the corner at Little Bourke St, where a shoeing forge once stood.

A nearby lane dealt in a different trade of rags rather than flesh.

Little Flinders Street — now named Flinders Lane — was the strip for the garment industry.

To read the full article at the Herald Sun, click here.