Detail of Mr Chateau, H28190/283

Want to meet some ordinary Melbournians from the 1880s? About 500 of them lurk in the pages of a ‘security album’ with photos of local exhibitors at the spectacular Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne held in 1888 at the Exhibition buildings.

The extravaganza boasted a carnival, paintings, marble sculptures, towers of ingots, hexagonal kiosks with elaborate jewellery, flags and bunting, new electric lights, wireworkers, displays of steam-driven and other machinery, samples of agriculture, engineering, art and commerce, an orchestra and 700-voice choir, a hat factory, an internal rail system, an aquarium, bakeries, fountains, florists, piano shops, melting waxworks, Pacific huts, real Tower of London weaponry (some of which may have gone astray) and a German beer garden.

A.A.E. Sleight

A.A.E. Sleight, H28190/398

Mr Alfred August Sleight, a prosperous undertaker, provided a formal identity picture of himself wearing a top hat and a house-shaped goatee. Mr Sleight wrote to the newspapers in 1880 recommending Springvale as a good cemetery spot for the ‘fine and noble feelings’ of the bereaved. Mr Wallis, below, appears to be wearing a tea-towel as a cravat to hide his lack of shirt.

MrWallisC. F. Wallis, H28190/186

Mr Stickland looks frantic: his hand’s in his jacket as if searching for a wallet. Mr Coop seems shickered, and Mr Playford resembles an insufferable fixed-wheel bicycle rider. He was a salesman for land at Dookie (and probably played down local typhoid outbreaks of the time)*.

AW Fern

AW Ferne,  H28190/272

Mr A.W. Ferne, founder of the London American Tailoring Company and future failed parliamentary candidate, has a boutonniere, pocket-kerchief, topper, white collar and tie, fob chain, and a twirly moustache. Not for him the ready-made jackets or trousers of the day, known as ‘slops’.


Mr Chateau, H28190/283

An S-shaped cove with a topiary moustache catches the eye: Mr Chateau of West End Brewery was later a WWI hero. The languidly confident Hans Irvine, of the Great Western Vineyards, went on to be an anti-socialist campaigner, and state politician.

Mr Spawn was the inventor of a ‘fruit evaporator’. Quakerish Mr Mourant, made wooden spigots for casks of wine and spirits. Mr Schultz had a twinkle in his eye, and would never know the dangers of his new asbestos industry.

Here are the biscuit industry titans: a fading Mr Lightfoot from Swallow and Ariel, and a luxuriantly moustachioed Adolph Brockhoff, whose Savoy crackers and Milk Arrowroots were sold by weight from printed tins all over the city.

Two Mr Gaunts fronted Thomas Gaunt and Co, the famous horological company that made most of Melbourne’s public tower clocks (the Town Hall, the GPO). Their Gog and Magog clockwork statues in the Royal Arcade off Bourke St mall still move and chime the hour, metres away from the original Gaunt shop.

A Mr Hoogklimmer represented the Victorian Soap and Candle Company but was also a spiritualist-about-town, attending séances and ‘materialisations’. In one such event, a spirit was said to emerge from a Russell St house to post a letter. I’m afraid that since Mr Hoogklimmer died we have not heard from him.


A page from the album of security identity portraits.

The Centennial exhibition allowed people to display their wares to thousands, hear some music, see the sights, exercise the charm, and make money, surfing the crest of the 1880s boom. Many were about to get dumped onto a decade of depression: several of the exhibitors would be wiped out. Others, like the biscuit boys, went on to create brands that were household names for more than a hundred years. Brockhoff’s 1888 Teddy Bear biscuits still look the same today, except that the teddies are now slightly less deranged about the eyes.^

You can see individual Victorian exhibitors’ photos online . The Library also holds another, non-digitised album showing the British exhibitors at the Exhibition. An 1888 tourists’ booklet called Popular Guide to the Centennial Exhibition With Which Is Incorporated the Strangers’ Guide to Melbourne details the exhibits. The lovely, illustrated book, recently published by Museum Victoria, is about the 1880 and 1888 exhibitions and an assiduous shopper at each one,Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at Melbourne’s International Exhibitions’.

*The Victorian town of Dookie is a delightful place now populated with lovely people in rude health.

^Mr Gerard Hayes, Picture Collection librarian, informs me kindly that there were probably no teddy bear biscuits until the first decade of the 1900s to coincide with the interest in all things Teddy (Roosevelt, bears). So, no teddy bear biccies until then. But whenever it was, those first ones really did look deranged, honestly.

You can read about the women of the 1888 exhibition in another Such was Life blog entry, Does my bustle look big in this?

Kaz Cooke is an SLV Fellow. Her project’s blog is at, and her exhibition of wearable items from the collection is on the fifth floor at the Library, in the Changing Face of Victoria galleries until November.

This article has 2 comments

  1. My grand uncle Gordon Coutts artist was in Melbourne about 1890. Any photos of him?

    Regards. Gordon Baker

    • Hello Gordon, We will look into this and reply to your email address. Thank you for your interest.

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