A cul de sac when the lights are red - Philippe's Story


My family have been in South Yarra since 1860. And here we are in 2014. Continuous occupation. All my working life I’ve been here. We came back to Australian in 1954, when I was five. My father was an Australian in the British Army. And we were stationed in Malaya and Singapore, and then came back to our family home that’s been in the family since 1880, where my dear old mum still lives, on the home straight to 90. Fighting fit, so I think she’ll be there for a long time to come. So Punt Rd has been a big part of my life.

Early memories of it were: we used to play on the banks of the Yarra. That was our total playground. And we’d range up and down, we’d frighten the old homeless men who used to camp out near the Anderson St Bridge. We were the cowboys, they were the Indians. So we would stalk them and creep through the bushes until they saw us. Then we’d scream off on our bikes and find someone else to annoy.

We used to ride to the old Olympic Pool, which is long gone now. That was before the new Olympic Pool built for the 1956 Olympics came in. But all that area was our playground. One of our great desires, as little boys, was to be able to ride our bikes non-stop from Alexander Ave to Domain Road.  That was a sign of manhood, if you could do that. Up the hill. But in that era, there were no gears, so you were standing on the pedals to get them to go. So it really was a big effort.

I made it up eventually but there were a lot of dry runs. If our parents knew... but traffic was nothing like now. My old pal Mike, he and I say so many times that you could walk across Punt Rd with your eyes shut and you weren’t in any danger. There was just the odd car that came up and down. You would never see 10 cars at once on the hill, or anything like that. It really is very different. 

But that whole run of Punt Rd was great. If you go over the hill, over Domain Rd, and down on the left, Shipley St was on the left, and the Stockdale Bakery was there. And that was an old-fashioned bakery, the horse and carts used to come around South Yarra with Stockdale’s Bakery on it, I’ve got images of that. We’d go and buy our bread. We’d also call in there after school and they’d give us a roll or something like that. Or if our parents sent us round to buy it, we’d develop the technique of making a hole in the corner of the bread, and then you’d peel out all the bread, and my mother would then put the knife on to cut it and it would go crunch because there was no substance inside.

And then when we were late teens, if we were coming home from a party or a ball, we would call into Stockdale’s – because that’s when they were baking – and the smell of it was magnificent, and we’d buy some fresh bread to take home for breakfast. That was lovely. That was pulled down late ‘60s, 1970s, something like that. And it’s now a group of townhouses.

Many of the huge old mansions were still there when I was a little boy. A lot of those have now been demolished and there are blocks of flats in their place. But those mansions weren’t being used as mansions – they were divided into flats or they were boarding houses. In the old days, there weren’t as many blocks of flats around so people lived in the old mansions – usually a widow would run it. That was quite a respectable way to live. With a communal bathroom and kitchen.

There were rooming houses and there were boarding houses. Rooming houses were the lesser, and they normally had returned men from the war in gaberdine coats and hats, and carrying a gladstone bag, usually with about 4-5 bottles of beer to see them through the night. You’d hear them going past going clunk clunk clunk with the bottles. Whereas a boarding house was more upmarket, and that meant that you were fed. You would sit at a communal table for breakfast and dinner. And those places flied or died on their tables. So if Mrs Bloggs was known as a good cook, she had good customers. So that was the way a lot of it was done.

There used to be a pub on the corner of Shipley St and Punt Rd, way before my time. I think it was the Clarendon Hotel. I’ve got a photo of it but later on it became the outlet for the bakery. There are fabulous buildings such as Airlie, the police academy, I’ve got extensive history on that. And directly opposite was the German Embassy, which was recently sold, and there’s a tunnel, which I’ve seen, which stretches under Punt Rd and, reputedly during the war, Airlie was taken over by the military and they would go through to the German Embassy, I suppose to negotiate peace or something. I’ve seen it, I’ve got a photo of it, I think. The police have been there for many years. That was a big fancy mansion.

Opposite is Pulman House on the south-west corner. And that was a Church of England home for elderly women. And that was sold off in the late ‘70s and renovated into a private house. Originally the Pulman family, who were very wealthy early Melbourne people, they owned it. 

I went to a school called Yarra Bank, which is now defunct. I went there between 1954 and 1956. And it was a ‘dame school’. A dame school is where unmarried daughters would earn their living by running schools for young people. Some developed into senior schools but most were prep or junior schools. Only a small number of students. That ran, I think my sister, who’s two years younger than me, I think she was about the end of it. I’m 65 in August, so I left at the end of ’55. I was there two years. I think my sister was there another two years. Miss Mary and Miss Quinlan ran that. That was in Major Davidson’s old house dating back to the 1840s, now demolished, now a scungey block of flats. But I’ve got a lot of history on that. I used to walk there from my parents’ house on Murphy St, with my mum, not by myself, I was only a little tacker. And walk down to Davidson St. I always remember we had afternoon sleeps. And here I am at nearly 65, on a Monday, what do I do? I fall asleep on the couch. So the wheel turns.

There was a racecourse at the bottom of Darling St. On what the council insist on calling Darling Gardens. It’s official name was always Polly’s Park. Polly was a dog. It was Mrs Goolay’s dog. And all the locals called it Polly’s Park. The racecourse was there in the 1800s. It was wasteland, thistles, all sorts of stuff. Sidney Myer created Como Park and created Alexander Ave, and he did that in the 1929 Depression to create employment. He financed all of that. When Alexander Ave came through, two developers – Reg Biffen and Howard Lawson – bought all the land from the railway bridge down near Darling St up to Punt Rd. They basically developed all the flats, all the Beverly Hills. I can talk to you for hours about those two. Amazing guys. And they were very young when they did it.

Most of the building materials came from demolished commercial buildings and mansions. Lawson was the world champion bricklayer in 1911. That was laying bricks for the Britania or Britanica Hotel. They fell foul of the labour laws of the time. As a result, Lawson went to jail. His family were horrified and they won’t talk about him. The daughter lives at Tweed Heads, I’ve known her for 40 years, and she won’t talk. I was told they burnt everything. All the records. Because of the shame.

And there were vineyards on both sides of Punt Rd. Ogilvie had the vineyard on the western side, and that ran from Domain Rd down to Alexander Ave. Colonel Davidson had the vineyard on the eastern side. The eastern side was okay; the western side the grapes were not much good.

I’ve got a lot of great history on the houses around there. Sadly a few of them are gone. I’ve got a photo of the punt, of the pedestrian zigzag bridge that came next, and of the new bridge, which I think was 1939. 

Of course the other great feature there is the magnificent golden elm tree. On the corner of Alexander. But that’s only been there since the war. It’s probably 70-years-old. 

There were the Pleasure Gardens in Cremorne and there were some others further up, to the upstream side of the Chapel Bridge. That’s wrong – where they were is now a park in Richmond, behind the wall of the freeway, and the old bluestone quarry is there. That’s where the first hot air balloon went up.

There was a famous murder, down past Wesley, between High St and the Junction. I don’t think he was a gangster but he was shot on a vacant block and he lived in Walsh St. And about 25-years-ago there was a neo-Nazi bloke shot with double-barreled shotgun, just behind a house on Punt Rd, which became a massage parlour. 

My brother-in-law is John Wren's grandson. They’re all entrenched Collingwood supporters. He’s a QC so about as far from a criminal as you can get. He’s very nervous about his grandfather but I keep saying, 'In the modern world he’d be a successful businessman.' It was only in that time.

There used to be a fake Elizabethan Hotel, on the Yarra, by Punt Rd bridge in Richmond. It was demolished when that slipway to the freeway came through. There was a famous murder of a sailor there. It would’ve been in the ‘50s. You’d need to look at Truth or something. When I was a kid we were always told never go near that place because of the crowd. The rough crowd that were there.

I work in real estate and, on a Saturday, we’ve got to get from A to B very quickly. And you would never in your wildest use Punt Rd. After a while you get to know all the shortcuts. Punt Rd is never a shortcut. As for a strategy: only avoidance. There’s nothing else. I always laugh, whenever we’re selling a property on Punt Rd, and people complain that it’s noisy, I always say, 'No no no, it’s a cul de sac when the lights are red.' 

Between High St and the Junction, there used to be the Taiping Chinese Restaurant. My grandparents would never let me go there – they said they used to kill cats. Not real of course – that was the story. So all my life I could never walk into that restaurant. A couple of times when I was in my 20s or 30s people would say, 'We’re going to the Taiping for dinner', and I’d say, 'No, thanks, can’t do that.' It’s not a Chinese restaurant anymore.

I went to Christchurch, the school up here on the corner of Toorak Road. I was there from ’56 till the end of ’60. The traffic wasn’t an issue. My grandparents wouldn’t let me walk on the south side of Toorak Road, because that’s where all the bad people lived. Toorak Rd was very much northside, southside. They weren’t bad, they were mainly Greek immigrants. And my grandmother was French so why she had that set, who knows? But as a kid all those Fawkner and Argo Streets were great, but in earlier times streets like Argo St were quite dangerous. They had all the sly grogs, the SP bookies, there were murders. It was all in that Argo Hotel, that later on became very civilised but used to be a real bloodhouse. 

The bookies in the laneways always had a cockatoo, a man who was on watch. So if the police came anywhere near he’d give a shrill whistle and they’d all bolt. I’d never heard the term until 20 years ago. We sold a property on Oxford St in South Yarra down by Chapel St, and there was an SP bookie that used to work the lane there. And dear old Sol was filling me in on that. 

Very different now. I used to get a shilling for a hessian bag of horse manure. Sixpence a bag for oak leaves, when I was a kid. So every time the horse and cart went past – because you’ve got your ice, meat, fruit, bread, milk – all delivered by horse. This was in the ‘50s, early ‘60s. You’d go scurrying out and chase with the old pan you clean the hearth with, and you’d have the broom and the thing, and your mother would go nuts, sweeping up horse poo with her indoor brush. 

I'd sell the manure to Mrs Goolay who lived on the corner. For her garden. My other claim to fame with her, she lived at 67 Murphy St, she had a kitchen with slate paving, in the early ‘60s. One day I walked into the kitchen with her son Russ and she said, 'I’m so proud, I’ve bought these unbreakable glasses. Would you like to have a drink in the unbreakable glasses?' I held up the glass and dropped it. Of course it hit the slate and shattered into a million pieces. She went nuts. And I said, 'Mrs Goolay, you told me it was an unbreakable glass.' She said, 'Not on bloody slate!'

Image credits:
Courtesy of the State Library Victoria: www.slv.vic.gov.au
Photograph of the punt on the Yarra River, Melbourne.
Date(s): 1872.
Copyright status: This work is out of copyright.