Cole’s Funny Picture Book 

When I was a child I would stay over at my best friend’s house and we would spend hours after dinner poring over an old book of her mother’s. It wasn’t the typical sort of children’s book that kids of the ‘80s were accustomed to – no bright colours or fancy paper, just a lot of dense columns of text interspersed with mainly black and white illustrations – but we were mesmerised by trying to find the hidden figures in the black and white etchings, and we puzzled over the riddles until bedtime. The only colour came from the rainbow and bright text on the book’s cover.

Photograph of cover of Cole's Funny Picture Book
Cover of Cole’s Funny Picture Book, 1885 edition

Cole’s Funny Picture Book (for that is what the book was) has been described as ‘a richly grotesque collection of Victoriana, some of it frightening to small children, some of it maudlin and sentimental, but most of it enormously entertaining… a grab bag of stories, rhymes, riddles, picture puzzles, poems, cartoons and moral tales, most of which were purloined by cutting and pasting from other sources, such as the English magazine Punch’.1

Whilst many may not be familiar with the man himself, or his legendary book arcade, a great number of Australians will be familiar with this book, which was groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1879, given the dearth of entertaining children’s books available at the time, and because of its affordability at just one shilling.2


Cole’s Book Arcade 

Decades after I first encountered the book, I was to discover that the man behind it, Edward William (E.W.) Cole, was about as colourful a character as you could imagine. Famous for his extraordinary book arcade, Cole could be thought of as the Willy Wonka of Melbourne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Born into poverty in Kent in the UK, he emigrated to Melbourne when he was just 19 years old. Ever industrious, he applied himself to several trades with varying degrees of success before coming into his own in the book selling industry. Starting at the Eastern Market with a barrow of books, he successfully plied his trade and moved to ever more illustrious premises, (including the first ‘arcade’ site at 158 Bourke St), finally opening his famous book arcade at its most well-known destination on the south side of Bourke St between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets. 3

The site had previously been home to a three-storey Spanish restaurant. 4 Inspired by the openness and beautiful glass covering of nearby Royal Arcade, Cole had similar visions for his new Bourke Street premises. 5 His grandson, Cole Turnley, says ‘He conceived a plan of gutting the present building, which had sound brick walls on bluestone foundations. He would then provide this solid shell with a new interior, glass-roofed, and with the present upper floors replaced by balconies allowing daylight to reach all levels’. 6 The final product has been described as something in between a Victorian railway station and a grand cathedral. 7

Black and white photograph showing interior view of Cole’s Book Arcade.
Main Arcade, p 2 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1

The Arcade grew over the years, at its peak stretching right from Bourke St Mall through to Collins Street, as can be seen on this City of Melbourne Map of 1910:

Index to City of Melbourne detail fire survey [map 11], 1910. Cartographic material by G. Mahlstedt, Mahlstedt, Melbourne

His boast of stocking over a million books was astounding for its day, but that was just the beginning. While books always remained at the heart of the Arcade, over its life, it came to include departments such as music, stationery, toys, pictures and frames, perfumery, confectionery, second-hand books, a lending library, a china ‘exhibition’, a photographic studio, a printing department, a fernery, an aviary, a tea salon, and a rather ill-considered monkey house! At times a live band could also be found in the arcade, entertaining customers by playing popular classics of the day. 8 It was so much more than just a book arcade, it was the place to be!

Black and white photograph showing band set up in the arcade in front of sign reading ‘the band is now playing’.
Arcade Band, p 17 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1
Black and white photograph showing staff at their counters in the stationery department.
Stationery Department, p 8 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1
Black and white photograph showing counter and shelves packed with small bottles.
Perfumery Department, p 9 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1
Black and white photograph showing two stories of book shelves with ladders, with sign reading ‘Cole’s Central Circulating Library’.
Circulating Library Collins Street, p 34 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1
Black and white photograph showing a floor filled with ornaments under a glass roof.
China and ormaments top floor Bourke St, p 41 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1

A tale of tails 

Where Wonka had his Oompa Loompas, in a humourous and clever promotional trick, Cole wrote an article appearing in the Herald newspaper’s classifieds section on the evening of 23 August 1873, relating the story of a fictitious traveler, a Mr. Thomas Jones, who boasts of the discovery of a species with tails living on an island in New Guinea. 

Newspaper headline reading ‘discovery of a race of human beings with tails’.
Headline from Melbourne Herald, 23 August 1873, p 1

The saga of the tailed-race known as the ‘Elocwe’ or ‘Elocweans’ continued for a week before its true purpose – an advertisement for Cole’s Books – announced itself in the final instalment. Some clever readers twigged early, noticing that Elocwe was actually E.W. Cole backwards.

In the story’s final installment, published 1 September 1873, Cole calls for ‘all tailless inhabitants of Melbourne’ to come and visit Cole’s Cheap Book Store (then situated at the Eastern Market) to find a variety of TALES.

The story proved incredibly successful with Monday’s Herald selling out and Cole’s grandson later writing ‘It is doubtful if anything else caused more remark in Melbourne that weekend…’. 9

Excerpt from Melbourne Herald, 1 September 1873, p 1

Cole’s medals 

Where Wonka’s chocolate factory could only be viewed by those lucky golden ticket holders, Cole’s Arcade had a far more welcoming tone. He strongly adhered to the principle of letting the public read for as long as they liked, with no pressure to buy. Although this came with the adverse effect of books being damaged and stolen, it also provided a place for the poor and uneducated to read at their leisure.10 Cole was passionate in maintaining this ‘no pressure to buy’ policy throughout the life of the arcade, despite the sometimes negative consequences and the bewilderment of many of his staff. 

He also had his own golden tickets of sorts – these came in the form of medals advertising the arcade, which he would get his staff to scatter around the city on their way home from work. 11 These medals were used not only to promote the arcade, but also to spread Cole’s ‘enthusiasms’ as biographer Richard Broinowski refers to them:

..Aphorisms on the obverse of Edwards’s coins promoted in simple language such concepts as world federation education, language, the dignity of labour, and the truth about religion and morality, as well as his pet themes about the equality of men, the perils of foolish expenditure, the evils of war and the coming of aviation… 12

Medal reading ‘Reading and thinking bring wisdom’
Medal – Coles book arcade federation of the world, reading & thinking, c.1885. Photo by Jon Augier. Museums Victoria. CC BY 4.0 
https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/76350  

It is believed that around 300,000 medals were minted between their inception in 1879 and Cole’s death in 1918 at a total cost of £1500. Over this time about 50 different categories of coins were minted in various finishes of copper, gold, silver, bronze and occasionally brass and aluminium. 13

Black and white photograph showing many different medals around a plaque reading ‘issued at a cost of £1500’.
Medals issued by Mr. E. W. Cole, p 40 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1

End of an era

Throughout its life and various iterations, Cole’s Book Arcade touched the lives of many Melbournians. This is captured beautifully in the words of Lisa Lang: 

Over four decades, Cole’s Book Arcade became part of Melbourne’s soul. For many, it was synonymous with the city itself. A trip to town meant a trip to Cole’s, for afternoon tea, the latest book or to catch the monkeys in some rude act. It was like no other store in the world, for it was not really a store at all. It was an extension of Edward Cole himself, an expression of his unique ideas and passions. If Edward could picture the future as a harmonious Utopia, then the Arcade was its blueprint, mapping out the way it could be achieved. 14

Black and white photograph showing large tubs of lollies running along a counter.
Confectionery Department Arcade, p 24 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1
Black and white photograph showing keeper, Harry Gay, standing in front of aviary
Aviary at the Arcade, p 19 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1.
Shows keeper, Harry Gay, who was sometimes mistaken for Edward Cole 15

This proved to be the case indeed. Edward passed away at the age of 86 on December 16, 1918. Despite carefully selecting four Trustees who he believed shared his vision, they lacked Edward’s enthusiasm, business acumen and drive and were unable to work together cohesively. It would seem that Cole really was the lifeblood of the Arcade. When he was no longer able to see to it, the Arcade quickly fell apart, and became financially untenable, closing just 10 years after Edward’s death. 16

Black and white photograph showing the Cole family in the fernery.
Fernery at the Arcade, p 18 from Coles Book Arcade: Album of photographs, 1923. Album compiled by Henry Williams; MS10111/PHO1.
Shows Cole family, from left to right: Eddy, Ivy, Linda (standing), Vally, Mrs Cole, Edward Cole, Pearl 17

Sadly, all that remains today of Cole’s Book Arcade is the glass roof running above Howey Place. Next time you pass by, take a moment to look up at that glass ceiling. This was once a part of the famous Cole’s Book Arcade – a place of entertainment, imagination, and hope!

Black and white photograph showing entrance to Howey Place on left and entrance to ‘Cole’s Book Arcade: Toyland’ on the right.
Coles Book Arcade, 1883/1903. Photo by Spencer Shier; H96.207.1

More to explore

Want to learn more about E.W. Cole and his book arcade? Watch the video below to see Dr. Anna Welch, Senior Librarian, take us through some of the related items held in our Library’s collection.


References

  1. Broinowski, RP, 2020, Under the rainbow: the life and times of EW Cole, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic., p 121-122
  2. Lang, L, 2007, E.W. Cole: chasing the rainbow, Arcade Publications, North Fitzroy, Vic.
  3. Broinowski, RP, 2020, Under the rainbow: the life and times of EW Cole, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic.
  4. As above
  5. Lang, L, 2007, E.W. Cole: chasing the rainbow, Arcade Publications, North Fitzroy, Vic.
  6. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic., p 69
  7. Lang, L, 2007, E.W. Cole: chasing the rainbow, Arcade Publications, North Fitzroy, Vic.
  8. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic.
  9. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic., p 38
  10. Lang, L, 2007, E.W. Cole: chasing the rainbow, Arcade Publications, North Fitzroy, Vic.
  11. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic.
  12. Broinowski, RP, 2020, Under the rainbow: the life and times of EW Cole, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic., p 115
  13. Broinowski, RP, 2020, Under the rainbow: the life and times of EW Cole, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic.
  14. Lang, L, 2007, E.W. Cole: chasing the rainbow, Arcade Publications, North Fitzroy, Vic., p 55-56
  15. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic.
  16. Broinowski, RP, 2020, Under the rainbow: the life and times of EW Cole, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic.
  17. Turnley, C, 1974, Cole of the book arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Cole Publications, Hawthorn, Vic.

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