Dad was conceived in one of the ten rooms, plus cellar, of the Newport Hotel in Little Lon—the most well-known of Melbourne’s slums. Selina, my grandmother, answered an advertisement in the Age: “WOMAN, young, general, good home, easy place. Newport Hotel, Little Lonsdale E[ast]”, (February 10, 1903). Within weeks she was pregnant and by July the “good home” had gone: the married couple who managed the hotel advertised again for a “generally useful” woman but with a new condition—“no family”. This is the tail end of a world whose nineteenth-century past is the subject of The Women of Little Lon: Sex Workers in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne by Barbara Minchinton.
Though the academic author promises to bring “the fascinating world of Little Lon to life” her account is more about modern prejudice than history: “It is here that the power of men and their attitudes towards women can be seen in action: in parliament and the police force, and in pulpits and newspapers, the men who circumscribed women’s opportunities in life condemned those women who then made what ‘respectable people’ regarded as poor choices.” Obviously she never met my grandmother.
This review appears in December’s Quadrant.
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The Women of Little Lon is published by La Trobe University Press and Black Inc. The cover shows a nineteenth-century Viennese prostitute. Though the author berates the users of “coy labels like ‘women of unstated but no doubt ancient, occupation’ (as one Melbourne historian [Weston Bate] described them), I hope to restore at least some dignity to the historical women of the sex industry and reduce the stigma attached to the work today”. In other words, historical writing has moved from her coy example from 1994 to coy and trite in 2021. The term “sex work” was adopted by feminists to be confronting and has never lost the imprint of smirking superiority they gave it.
The book’s map of Little Lon confuses Russell Street with Exhibition Street, one of its borders, and even if restored to its correct location is still inaccurate. Little Lon was the area between Spring, Exhibition, Lonsdale and Latrobe Streets but the entire block on the Latrobe side of Little Lonsdale with its lanes and slum houses has been deleted. From about 1903 to 1907 this is where my grandmother lived.
Another map showing the “sex-work precinct” in 1873 indicates hotels and pawnbrokers but does not name the hotels or give any street numbers. Text on the facing page mentioning the pawnshops does not match with the sites indicated on the map.
Photos are poorly chosen. Illustrations of slum lanes are familiar library images taken in Carlton and Fitzroy in the 1930s—in a book about Little Lon in the nineteenth century. An imposing Spring Street building is included because it stood opposite an unseen brothel. Another bawdy house is supposedly somewhere within a general street shot.
The past is being mistreated for contemporary purposes and “Dedicated to all the sex workers who have ever suffered from stigma, shame or discrimination on account of their job”. My grandmother would be pleased. The author never details the actual commercial “services” provided and always it is the “ugly moralism” that is accentuated, not the helpful moralism that worked to save lives: “Until sex workers and the services they provide are accorded legitimacy and respect, they will require a regulatory model that addresses the ugly moralism passed down from the nineteenth century.”
Open The Women of Little Lon and you are assailed by contemporary Guardian-speak platitudes—prostitution in Melbourne was “a female dominated economy, and the women had far more autonomy than most respectable women of the time”. Or Guardian-speak fables: “Too many historical female figures have been treated as badly as contemporary ones—especially women who ran brothels or sold sex for a living.” Or Guardian-speak archness: “but, hey, women were wicked, weren’t they?” This language is not the key to unlocking the world in which my grandmother lived.
The author does not read Quadrant and asserts that “questions like ‘do you know any sex workers?’ or ‘have you ever been in a brothel?’ can still be conversation stoppers”. In September when South Australian solicitor Loretta Polson published “Against the Legalisation of Prostitution” in Quadrant Online the comments from readers neither stopped conversations nor personal confessions. The Women of Little Lon is about women, not the customers, and the conversation-making questions that should be heard are “have you ever been a sex-worker?” or “when did you stop being a sex-worker?”
Polson was critical of “idealistic, educated women who have swallowed the ‘empowerment’ argument. Lucky for them their education gives them work choices and they are unlikely to have to sell themselves for a living.” She was talking about the sort of idealism and ignorance illustrated by Minchinton: “The predominance of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century brothels shows that in a world where sex has a commercial value, women can and will make use of their sexuality when it suits them, without necessarily suffering harmful consequences.” A breathtakingly ignorant proposition—and their children?
When I tried to put our century-old family story together it was the miserable lives lived by my father and his siblings that touched me, yet records regarding neglected children or the Infant Life Protection Act (1890) have been left untouched by Minchinton’s research. My grandmother’s choices hurt her five children and shadowed their adult lives.
To represent Victorian criticism of prostitution simply as moralistic cant is irresponsible history writing. It must also be recognised as a humanitarian reaction against prostitution’s destruction of lives. When Polson discussed prostitution in realistic language—something unseen in The Women of Little Lon—she suggested that modern “Supporters of decriminalisation have a utopian view of the industry which is at odds with the lived experience of prostituted women.” Even though Minchinton tells her readers that she will talk of her nineteenth-century characters and relate “their child-bearing histories and their methods of contraception, the risks they faced in terms of sexually transmitted infections and abortions”, she actually tells the reader very little and superficially, and in-depth discussion of subjects like wet nurses, neglected children and adoption are entirely missing. To modern readers gonorrhoea and syphilis probably sound medieval yet Minchinton does not detail what the real effects were on those who contracted them. Marriage and less commercial relationships with men are hardly mentioned. For family historians wandering through Ancestry and Trove there is little if any guidance to distinguish between hotels, boarding houses and brothels. Even the most basic examination of the business of prostitution is absent—how much was paid and what services were performed in return.
Charities receive a dismissive mention in a chapter titled “The Crusade Against Vice” where Minchinton refers to the activities of a Salvation Army official “peddling rescue of the body in return for reform of the soul”. I don’t know if Selina considered reform of any sort but in our case the rescue being peddled saved the life of my father and his siblings. Dad was born at the Women’s Hospital and then he and his mother were taken in by the Victorian Infant Asylum and Selina was taught how to care for a child.
Minchinton argues for feminist capitalism and laissez-faire and the recognition of the financial contribution generated and distributed by the sex workers: “At a time when most working-class women were restricted to factory, shop or domestic work, and middle-class women were confined to home duties, sex workers were contributing a substantial amount to Melbourne’s economy.” Seeing my grandmother and her forebears as key elements in our economic history is an interesting suggestion—I always thought Australia was built on the sheep’s back.
I don’t know if my father was with her or was with a wet nurse in 1906, but Selina was back working in Little Lon and living in a temperance boarding house. Fourteen of the sixteen women lodgers, including my grandmother, gave their occupations as those “home duties” of which Minchinton so disapproves. The two exceptions were a charwoman and a barmaid. The single man at the address was the husband of the manageress. Later he ran away to Fitzroy with one of the lodgers and was swiftly divorced by his wife. Minchinton notes that boarding houses found in the archives may be places where a sex worker was renting rooms to other sex workers. Was this Melbourne’s only temperance brothel?
Thirty-three houses away on the same side of the street lived a married Chinese cabinetmaker who would be the father of Selina’s second son—it’s a story of DNA. He was killed by pirates when travelling from Australia to Hong Kong with his wife in 1918. Dad’s brother was first placed with a deaf wet nurse in Fitzroy and then, aged eleven months, had the good fortune to be adopted by a Chinese couple living in Bendigo. The matter was handled by a Collins Street solicitor who prepared a statement for the Chief Commissioner of Police in which Selina is described as a housemaid and her illegitimate son’s father as a Chinese man who “has returned to China without making any provision for the support of his child”. It takes a hundred years for family members to come together. When my uncle was surrendered in January 1907, Selina would have been six months pregnant, and she would marry in early March.
When I first met Selina in the records and had not worked out the most important part of her life story, I was impressed by her marriage certificate. The writing is firm and clear and it details a Presbyterian marriage conducted in Queen Street, Melbourne. I was surprised my country-born grandmother was married in what I imagined would have been an impressive central city church building—perhaps an odd place to marry the Catholic Michael Connor. Only later did I realise that the service was held at 448 Queen Street, near the Victoria Market and opposite the old cemetery. It is the address of Holt’s Matrimonial Agency, where marriage ceremonies were performed daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.—“no notice required”. Weddings cost five shillings and sixpence or ten shillings and sixpence with “guaranteed gold rings”. At least four different brands of religious services were offered and Selina was married by an Independent Presbyterian minister. The ceremony was witnessed by James Holt and his wife Annie. Ten years before, during the bigamy case he was hearing, the Chief Justice referred to the marrying place as “one of those rascally places still permitted to blight this community, Holt’s Matrimonial Agency”.
On their wedding day Selina and her husband were living together in a sixpenny lodging house in Latrobe Street and it was also here the following month that she had a daughter. In giving birth she was helped by Mrs Sam—the wife of a Chinese grocer, whose shop was at the end of a nearby lane leading into Little Lonsdale Street. Though Kathleen had a birth certificate listing two parents, a first in our family, her father Michael Connor may have been disconcerted to notice that his daughter had Chinese features. It may have been through connections like Mrs Sam that Selina was able to find a home for her daughter in Bendigo.
Some of the better-known stories of madams and brothels get retold in Minchinton’s book. It is refreshing that at least once not everything modern comes from the Guardian. A chapter on “The Persecution of Madame Brussels” asserts that “silly blogs claim she took her name because she had ‘nipples like brussels sprouts’”. The author dutifully offers a footnote: “I refuse to dignify any of these efforts with references.” Strange, the only reference to these words Google can find for me is a quotation from this book.
The further poverty of Minchinton’s history writing is her abuse of the male creators of the historical sources she uses. Henry Cornwell, the author of “constant grumbling complaints” regarding his noisy and threatening prostitute neighbours, is a “sanctimonious” butcher. Her portrait of him is disdainfully belittling and Minchinton does not consider that the equally disturbed sleep sufferer Mrs Cornwell may have been guiding her husband’s hand as he wrote to the police. In his protests Cornwell was seeking protection for himself and his family from the insecurity of the streets—a modern writer should understand this.
Against poor Marcus Clarke, who she simply identifies as a journalist, her invective is a waste of time. Hostilities begin with an oddly framed argument that links land selection and the city slums: “According to public opinion, Little Lon was a disorderly area, and towards the end of the 1860s, when the land selection acts were finally beginning to satisfy the multitude of working men who wanted to obtain their own piece of earth, public attention turned once again to the denizens of Melbourne’s slums. Marcus Clarke led the attack under his nom de plume ‘the Peripatetic Philosopher’.”
Clarke is described as a “misogynist”, “voyeuristic”, “impolite”, possessing “unseemly nosiness” and holding a “privileged male view of the world”. The text that particularly annoys Minchinton is Clarke’s essay “Melbourne Streets at Midnight” published by the Argus on February 28, 1868, a few months before its author’s twenty-second birthday. It is vivid, highly coloured, crammed with life and characters and surely influenced by his wide reading. It is the sort of fact- and character-packed reportage that would delight most novelists and historians searching for detail, but not Minchinton: “In all of his journalism, his descriptions of women were both graphic and insulting.” Where she sees “his disgust” I see his amusement. Rather than using the text to retrace his steps and even identify the places and people he was describing, Minchinton provides pages of useless invective.
Minchinton diverts a specific description into a general slander by selecting from his words: “and most of them were ‘thieves as well as prostitutes’”. Clarke was describing a particular lane: “Most of these women are thieves as well as prostitutes; and in the fetid and dingy back premises lurk ill-looking ruffians, who are prepared to silence any opposition on the part of the not sufficiently stupefied victim.” The historian does not spare a word for the hurt feelings of the ruffians nor attempt to identify exactly where Clarke was, and her attack continues in terms of strangely Victorian hauteur: “Nor did the fact of motherhood draw from him any veneration.” Though here, in Minchinton’s defence, she hadn’t met my grandmother. “These were not people to the Peripatetic Philosopher, they were mere props supporting his privileged male view of the world.” And finally a summing up that could have fallen from the Guardian every day this week in describing any white male, as Clarke is damned “as not only a misogynist but also as someone who held foggy, ill-examined middle-class ideas about working-class life in general, and prostitution in particular”. Oddly, the last thirteen words perfectly describe our modern author, who holds “foggy, ill-examined middle-class ideas about working-class life in general, and prostitution in particular”.
The Women of Little Lon: Sex Workers in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne
by Barbara Minchinton
La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc, 2021, 304 pages, $32.99