The Library holds a set of images with a particularly intriguing name: Street characters: a series of photographs taken of Melbourne street personalities, about 1930. The seven portraits, taken by a photographer named Eric Rowell, are accompanied with a very brief description of each subject. Some are named, some are not. They are compelling snapshots of the social fabric of Melbourne at that time, images of characters long gone, likely long forgotten, their stories spent.

These images could have been taken yesterday in Melbourne, or in any city, really.

Maggie Malone

Old lady who sold matches for years at Royal Bank corner (Elizabeth and Collins Streets); H28258

This is Maggie Malone.

Maggie was a well-known sight outside the Royal Bank, where she sold matchsticks to passers-by, her wares displayed on an old wooden stool. She was easy to spot in her bedazzling hat, which was highly decorated with feathers and flowers. For decades she watched the world go by from her concrete perch.

A tiny, indomitable figure, she used to be there in all sorts of weather. She told me that the days of a searing north wind were the worst for her. The sting of the seasons chapped her face, but did not drive her away.

The Herald, 5 Dec 1936, p 4

Now and then Maggie was inclined to talk, with the Argus stating that she was worth cultivating for a week to get just five minutes’ conversation from her. (Argus, 26 Oct 1935, p 9)

I was a lass of eighteen when I came out from Dublin – a right bonny lass I was, too, in those days, with fair hair and bright blue eyes. Now the world’s gone mad! This crazy rushing about in trams and motors makes me dizzy. You’d hardly know Melbourne nowadays.

The Herald, 14 Oct 1933, p 31

In her early years in Victoria, Maggie worked as a nurse-maid in the homes of several country doctors, including in Castlemaine. In later years she was a soap peddler in Melbourne, and when her aging body could no longer walk from house to house she set up her match selling stand on the Royal Bank corner. (The Herald, 14 Oct 1933, p 31) This hard life was not an uncommon one for women like Maggie. The Vagabond – a regular commentator on the lives of Melbourne’s underclass in the 19th century – was particularly scathing in his assessment of women like Maggie:

The greatest nuisance of all are the old women under the pretence of match-selling, around Melbourne hotels. They are generally Irish, and may be seen on Sunday at St Francis’. They have fishlike eyes, and the perfume of alcohol hangs about their breath. They shuffle into the bars and thrust their matches before every drinker with a supplicating snivel…you give them a coin to go away.

Leader, 21 Sept 1895, p 6

In 1936 The Herald reported that the ‘independent little woman’ had at last accepted the care offered by a charitable institution. (The Herald, 5 Dec 1936, p 4) Her absence from Melbourne’s daily pattern of life was no doubt noticed by many.

Starlight

‘Starlight’, old African American boxer, often seen outside Tivoli Theatre; H28263

One of Australia’s last famous bareknuckle fighters, Edward William Rollins, aka ‘Starlight’, was born in 1852 on the banks of the Demerara River, Georgetown, British Guiana. Bored with school and keen for adventure, he found work on boats as a seaman and later as a cook, spending time in New York, London, Liverpool and Glasgow before ending up in Sydney in the early 1880s. He worked as a deckhand on a pearling lugger and tried his hand at pearl diving at Thursday Island, but after a near drowning decided a job as a cook on a coastal steamer was a much safer vocation. It was on this steamer that Rollins got into a stoush with a man who’d had a few too many beers, complained about the food and made racist insults.

I was a big raw-boned young chap who usually wouldn’t hurt a worm, but I was very angry that day. I cracked him, and that started a great old shindy … Harry told me that I’d make a good fighter if I learnt how to punch properly. After that I had a smack at every punching-ball I came across, and began to take an interest in fighting. I became ‘Starlight’.

Sporting Globe, 28 Dec 1935, p 7
Bob Fitzsimmons, on left, posing with Starlight Rollins in an open air picture theatre, 1910. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia, Arnold Thomas boxing collection (AuCNL) 3046935; 40204855

Rollins’ first ‘official’ fight began as a glorified street brawl and ended at Jack Dowridge’s boxing school in Brisbane. Though his contender Charlie Martin – ‘Moonlight’ – outweighed him 13.00 to 11.3, Rollins won the match. At the age of 34, Starlight’s career began. (Sporting Globe, 28 Dec 1935, p 7)

Starlight’s boxing career took him throughout Australia and abroad to England a couple of times – by his own assessment he fought about 200 fights. At the height of his career he was a top contender for Australian middleweight champion, and fought for the title four times. His last fight was with former world middleweight champion Dan Creedon in Melbourne in 1911. (Herald, 11 Nov 1911, p 2) His old opponent Creedon became a constant friend and companion in his later years.

A frequent sight on the streets of Melbourne, Starlight was in his mid-eighties the day our photographer came across him outside the Tivoli theatre. He told a Globe reporter in 1935: “Life has been kind to me – I keep pretty healthy, and any day I can walk down the street, and meet people who have a cheery ‘Hello Star; good to see you looking well!’ – so why shouldn’t I be contented?” (Sporting Globe, 1 Jan 1936, p 12)

Starlight died in 1939 at the age of 87.

Killarney Kate

‘Killarney Kate’ [Ellen Cahill]. Used to sing near Argus Building, Latrobe Street, in 1930. Had purple hat; H28262

Killarney Kate – born Ellen Cahill in 1863 – was a well-known Melbourne street singer, noted for her beautiful singing voice. She earnt the nickname Killarney Kate for her propensity to regularly break out into her favourite song – Killarney Lakes – in her native Irish brogue. Often she would sing on trams, sometimes on tramlines, refusing to move until she had finished her ditty. She was a prominent feature of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Day festivities. She serenaded Melburnians in several city locations, including the Town Hall, and the Queen Vic Market. Sometimes she would sing to patients convalescing on the verandahs at the Homoeopathic Hospital on St Kilda Road.

Killarney Kate was notorious enough to have her own entry on the Australian Dictionary of Biography website. She was well-known to law enforcement, having been arrested and imprisoned regularly over a two decade period, and appears in the Public Records Office of Victoria’s Central Register of Female Prisoners files for petty crimes including: theft, offensive behaviour and drunkenness, and – most unjustly – having insufficient means of support (once a gaolable offence). Originally from a well-to-do family, a love affair that ended badly apparently led to her itinerant life on Melbourne’s streets.

She died in 1934 not long after this image was taken. (Weekly Times, 13 Jan 1934, p 55)

Bible Joe

‘Bible Joe’. Very well-known character; disappeared about the time of the beginning of the Second World War. Always carried a billy and a bible – and was once a solicitor, it was said; H28261

Bible Joe – Robert/Robinson Gainsford Surgey – was a well-known sight on Melbourne’s streets, always with his blackened billycan, a well-worn copy of the Bible, and the works of Greek philosophers in hand. A scholar and theologian, he would read aloud from his texts in Hebrew as he walked. He reportedly received a small subsistence fund from distant relatives, administered by an English law firm. His past was shrouded in mystery and subject to much speculation by those who encountered him. When he died in 1942 at the age of 86, taking with him ‘the secrets of his early days’, his passing was remarked upon in the newspaper in towns as far afield as Broken Hill. (Barrier Miner, 24 Jul 1942, p 5)

For more than 30 years the old man, with untidy, grey, curly beard, shuffled around the city … Facet’s of the old man’s life, relieved of loneliness by his passion for dead languages, reveal generosity, shyness – and an intellect sharp and clear...

Barrier Miner, 24 Jul 1942, p 5

He captured the imagination of the artist William Hunter, who memorialised him in the etching below.

Ex libris, Joe, for his delight was in the law of the Lord and in His law doth he meditate day and night, 1942. Etching by William Hunter; H98.211. This item is in copyright

So far I have had no luck finding anything information about the subjects of the three remaining portraits below, which include ‘Anzac’, who parked cars on Bourke Street, an unnamed Harold Lloyd impersonator, and a ventriloquist. Hopefully their stories too, can one day be told.

‘Anzac’ – a relic of Coles Book Arcade haunted Bourke Street, helping people to park cars, at later period after store closed; H28257
Nameless character who dressed and acted like Harold Lloyd. Seen in coffee places in period 1934 in Collins street etc.; H28259
Ventriloquist outside St Paul’s Cathedral; H28260

Postscript

The Library holds a copy of Starlight’s biography, The life of Starlight (E.W. Rolins i.e. Rollins) : ex-middle weight champion of Australia (1928), which has also been digitised.

Further reading

Cannon, M, Flippen, R G, & McDonald, W, 2016, The Vagabond papers, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Vic

This article has 25 comments

  1. Wonderful stories, thank you Kylie.

  2. I absolutely love this pensive stroll down memory lane, thank you so much Kylie Best for your interpretation of the colourful early days in the history/ herstory of our magnificent city.

    • So glad you enjoyed the blog Lea. It was such a fascinating exercise to ‘exhume’ these characters of Melbourne’s past! Kind regards, Kylie

  3. Fantastic research and writing, so interesting to read. Melbourne is probably too big now for its eccentrics to achieve this kind of local fame. There used to be the Irishman who dressed as a judge and harangued passersby from the steps of the GPO through a megaphone but perhaps he was the last of them.

  4. Kylie
    Loved the characters and the stories. I’m sure we may even have some modern street characters to include.keep up the good work,

  5. Perhaps Melbourne city council can add colour to our city streets by capturing these stories in some form for others to read. Thank you for introducing us to these folk.

  6. What about the Count of Perhapsberg? I’m told he would dress flamboyantly and wander around department stores, ordering items in a grand manner to be sent to his ‘mansion’. I believe shop staff would humour him pretending to take orders. He would then sweep off to another store and repeat the process. There may also have been a Countess of Perhapsberg – but it’s been a long time since I heard the story.
    I look forward to seeing the exhibition.

    Faye April 22, 2022

    • Hi Faye, I have not come across the Count of Perhapsberg before – certainly sounds like a character! Will keep an eye out for any references. Kind regards, Kylie

    • Thank you for these stories. The true history of our social structure comes from the stories of the little people

  7. Hello Kylie,
    A fantastic article.
    Although I can not help ID any of your last three characters the cap on ‘Anzac’s’ head may yield a clue.
    I am currently finishing a book on WW1 Australian military uniform and personal equipment from WW1. I also exhibit memorabilia in Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance so you see I have a bit of knowledge about 1st AIF uniform.
    I can’t help but notice that ‘Anzac’s’ cap appears to be a leather ‘Drivers’ cap (albeit somewhat modified). Drivers came in two categories, horse transport or motor transport drivers. The slouch hat while fine on a horse drawn vehicle was too annoying in the cab of a motor transport vehicle so a more weatherproof version of the peaked Service Dress cap was provided but in leather.
    This means that ‘Anzac’ had most probably once been a motor transport driver in the 1st AIF (probably AASC [Service Corps] or AMC [Medical Corps]) which tallies with your story about him helping people park their cars.
    I hope this may be helpful and add a little more information about the gentleman.
    Regards
    Rod Wilson

    • Hi Rod, so glad you enjoyed the blog. Fantastic, thank you so much. I definitely plan to keep digging around to try and identify the other three. This is a great clue for Anzac, really appreciate it! Kind regards, Kylie

  8. Thanks Kylie. Loved all the characters you highlighted.

    • Thank you Shonali, so glad you enjoyed the blog. I had such a wonderful time researching them. Kind regards, Kylie

  9. This is a great blog post!

  10. Awesome blog. I love how each characters were described.

  11. Wonderful work, thank you Kylie. Fascinating and important records showing us a glimpse of everyday life and people, with historic references.

  12. Just lovely

  13. What a wonderful blog and a great piece of research. So interesting!

  14. Jacqueline Ann

    In the 80,s I remember some interesting characters around town, valli kemp a tattooed artist in her 70,s I believe, but looked much younger, and the French tram conductor who used to entertain tram passengers for years, would love to see their stories and pictures of th hem recorded for post.

  15. What about the two women (mother and daughter) who had a burger van parked at flinders street station late at night around the 1960s selling “Ma’s burgers”. The best darn burgers I ever had.

  16. I loved seeing this, thanks. Linda

  17. Love to be reminded of the amazing characters that have graced our beloved city of Melbourne through the years. It also reminds me of the characters in the city and Carlton that I always saw and wondered about when I was growing up and makes me wonder about the wonderful characters to come in decades ahead! Thanks for your post!

  18. Vivien Bridges

    Kylie,
    The articles are fascinating, I enjoyed reading them so much .
    Hope you can unearth more about these people .
    Good luxk in your endeavours.

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