Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rediscovering Little Lon

Previously, I introduced Little Lon, a notorious slum and red-light district, which existed in Melbourne from around 1840 to 1948.  Despite its reputation as a “den of iniquity,” the area was also home to a vibrant community and network of buzzing laneways. Today Little Lon no longer exists; its laneways and cottages have been subsumed by modern redevelopments and its community has long moved on. Despite this, there are a number of ways we can rediscover Little Lon so that our connection with this unique part of Melbourne's history is not lost forever.

17 Casselden Place

Stumbling upon 17 Casselden Place is like being jolted back in time. One moment you are in 2010, surrounded by modern office buildings and city workers carrying iPads and take-away coffees. The next moment, you are faced with an unexpected glimpse into Melbourne's past - a tiny, redbrick cottage dating back to 1877. The cottage, known as 17 Casselden Place, is the last of a terrace of six identical homes built by John Casselden, a shoemaker and small-time developer. Whereas the other cottages have been demolished, 17 Casselden Place provides a rare and treasured glimpse into what life would have been like in the days of Little Lon. 

Stepping back in time: Casselden Place, 2010 (my own pic)

17 Casselden Place, 2010 (my own pic)
Row of cottages at Casselden Place (all but one
are now demolished),  1950 (pic: SLV) 

Covering only 53 square metres, the cottage comprises two tiny rooms and an outside toilet, revealing just how cramped life must have been, especially with the large families that were typical of the era! It is not possible to view the inside of the cottage today as it now an architect's office. However, for a virtual tour of the interior (prior to its conversion into an office), click here. 

The Urban Workshop

The Urban Workshop, 2010 (my own pic)
Located at 50 Lonsdale Street, the Urban Workshop is a 34-storey office tower built on the site of Little Lon in 2005. The  ground floor of the Urban Workshop aims to remember, reinterpret and give new life to Little Lon: the laneways lost to title consolidation in the mid-20th century have been returned to the city as pedestrian thoroughfares passing through the foyer; and the project connects Lonsdale and Little Lonsdale Streets with the reinstatement of Little Leichardt Street. While it would be ideal to have the original laneways and buildings of Little Lon still in existence, the Urban Workshop offers an innovative and stylish tribute to Melbourne's past. (It may be worthwhile noting that the construction of the tower took place 50 years after Little Lon had already vanished, and was not the instigator of its demolition!)

There have been two major-scale archaeological excavations of the Little Lon site prior to redevelopments. While most of the artefacts are held by Museum Victoria, the foyer of the Urban Workshop displays a fascinating selection of items from the 2002 dig. This is one of the most simply and beautifully executed exhibitions that I have seen anywhere in the world! 

Artefacts exhibition in foyer of the Urban Workshop, 2010 (my own pics here and below) 

The former Black Eagle Hotel is another important feature showcased beautifully by the Urban Workshop. Built back in 1850, it is one of Melbourne's oldest surviving buildings. Today it is used as a giftware shop, but since its construction it has also been a boarding house, Chinese furniture factory and a printing business. I love how the Urban Workshop seamlessly incorporates the building into its foyer. The use of glass mitigates the extent to which the modern tower may detract from the old-world beauty of the Black Eagle building. 

Former Black Eagle Hotel at the Lonsdale Street entrance of the Urban Workshop, 2010 (my own pic) 

Back of the former Black Eagle Hotel, incorporated into the foyer, 2010 (my own pic)

Finally, Madame Brussels is remembered with the inclusion of a laneway named in her honour. It seems entirely appropriate that a tribute to Little Lon should include Madame Brussels as she owned eight of the precinct's brothels and she is undoubtedly one of the most notorious inhabitants of the area! Unfortunately, the spelling is wrong: it should be Madame Brussels, not Brussells, as appears on the signposts and Urban Workshop website. I wonder why this was never checked! 

Madame "Brussells" Lane 


A number of interesting books also illustrate what life would have been like in Little Lon. John Leckey's Low Degraded Broots? Industry and Entrepreneurialism in Melbourne's Little Lon, 1860-1940 (2004) and Annie Hider's Growing Up in Little Lon both provide an interesting historical account of life in Little Lon. Furthermore, Chrissie Michaels' new novel, In Lonnie's Shadow (2010), is set in Casselden and Cumberland Place in 1891. For more information about the novel and its author, click here.

So, despite Little Lon having vanished a long time ago, there are still a number of ways to get a sense of this unique and fascinating part of Melbourne's history. The next time you are around the top of Lonsdale Street, I would really recommend having a quick look at 17 Casselden Place and the foyer of the Urban Workshop. If you have already visited the precinct, I would love to hear your thoughts! If you have a suggestion for a future post, please feel free to comment or email me. 


Bate, Weston, Essential But Unplanned: The Story of Melbourne's Lanes (1994)
Hider, Annie, Growing up in the City (interview with Marie Hayes):
Leckey, John, Low, Degraded Broots? Industry and Entrepreneurialism in Melbourne's Little Lon, 1860-1940 (2004)


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David

Gillian said...

Thanks for the good feedback and for letting me know, David.

I am unable to do mobile formatting but I will try to make some improvements with the layout!


Rohan said...

Nice write up - did you know that 17 Casselden Place, Black eagle Hotel and Oddfellows Hotel (on LItt Lon) were recently added to the Victorian Heritage Register ? Have a look at> Also, Little Lon was not just this block - the NAt Trust recently got the City of Melbourne to list 5 buildings in a a row at nos. 116- 132 (NT file B0574) as a heritage precinct. Lots of poor, criminal, down and out history there too, but no confirmed brothels !

Anonymous said...

I never knew about this part of Melbourne's history until I went to the Melbourne museum. They had a great feature on Little Lon. I like how Melbourne has come full circle - going from people living in the city, to a long period of very few city livers to now where people living in the city has brought life and colour.

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