Friday, November 2, 2012

cole’s book arcade

Marvellous Melbourne’s* Cole’s Book Arcade which operated from 1883 until 1929 was certainly something “different” – so different it was touted as “world-famous”. Not an unreasonable claim as it had been visited by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.

Immigrants leaving Britain in 1852 bought more tickets to Melbourne than to any other destination in the world. The Founder of Cole’s Book Arcade, EW Cole was one of them.

After some time on the goldfields, he graduated to a pie barrow and from there to second hand books. By 1865 he had a bookstand at Melbourne’s Eastern Markets, then purchased a shop, gradually expanding into a superstore in Bourke Street which stretched from Bourke St to Collins..

He was a master of advertising and promotion, creating a store which was an attraction in itself.

At one stage the 3 storey Arcade had the following to offer:
  • new books
  • secondhand books
  • a circulating library
  • wholesale books
  • pictures and framing
  • stationery
  • fancy goods
  • a fernery
  • music and instruments [with live musical performances]
  • house ornaments, glass and china
  • printing, publishing, and a photographic studio
  • a lolly shop
  • toys, Wonderland [with funny mirrors] and Monkeyland [with live monkeys]
  • a Chinese tea salon
  • perfumery and toilet requisites
  • mail order

Aha, I hear you think. “A department store! So what?”

This department store/ book arcade was “different” because E.W. Cole was as eccentric and fascinating as he was successful.

Believing that education would be the saviour of mankind Cole encouraged a love of reading by allowing people to sit in the Arcade’s unique atmosphere and read free of charge.

In my last post I spoke about the mechanical men which were on display at Melbourne’s Museum when I was a youngster.

Originally, this device from Cole’s Book Arcade was waterpowered.
As the cards flipped over, they delivered different messages important to Cole, such as

All Men Are Brothers

There were also mechanical hens in various departments.

The eggs laid by these hens often contained quarter inch cubes of a sweet like a larger variety of hundreds and thousands, though the contents varied.
Sometimes a child would discover their egg contained something as disappointing as a handkerchief.

That Cole would think of a handkerchief as a prize worth having would not surprise any of the millions of Australians who have, at one time or another, seen one of his famous Funny Picture Books, first launched in 1879 and re-printed many times since.

Volume 1 of the Funny Picture Book is now available as an e-book 

Morality tales and maxims were his mainstay.

The Naughty Boys

Mr. Brown, the grocer, having nearly emptied a cask of sugar in front of his shop, a number of naughty boys, seeing his back turned, commenced to steal some. Mr. Brown, spying them through the window, came out, and the reader can see what happened—A bystander informs us that muttered howls of agony arose from the cask, and all the boys' interest in sugar was at an end.

I particularly like this image

Dreaming of a world with one government and one language, and of a time when war no longer occurred, he also published his messages on medallions.

Books he wrote and published covered a range of topics from Jesus to Cotton Growing.
One particularly interesting title called The White Australia Question, published in 1903, consisted of four essays
  • 'A White Australia Impossible',
  • 'The Cause of Colour in Mankind',
  • 'The Whole Human Race is Mixing' and
  • 'The Negro'

Museum Victoria says the book took “the then radical step of arguing that a White Australia Policy and the associated laws were undesirable and unchristian. The book ends with several pages of drawings and photographs of people organized by racial type, including 'Negros of Africa', Group of Kaffir Women', 'Group of Educated Kaffirs' and 'American Negros'.

The Arcade stretched for two city blocks, and included an arcade between Collins and Little Collins Street. A glass ceiling in Howey Place [a dogleg shaped lane] is all that remains of Cole's retail fantasyland.

*First settled illegally in 1837, then host to the gold rushes of the 1850s, Melbourne grew so quickly that by 1890 it was the second largest city in the Empire after London. ‘Marvellous’ indeed. For more, see here and here.


  1. I knew quite a bit about Coles, but I know more now. I don't recall that he was an author too. Dinge queen. Wasn't there a zoo there too, or maybe it was just the monkeys. I do like the whipping machine image too. Oops, TMI.

    1. Frottage I had heard of, but dinge queen is a new one. Hmmm, was he now!?

      I shouldn't be surprised if there were more than just monkeys amongst the livestock.

      The list of rules above the whipping machine is extensive. Pupil or Master, Andrew, now that would be WTMI.