State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011


Wayne Murdoch
'Phone me up sometime': Melbourne's homosexual subcultures in the interwar years

Merbein P/O
Wednesday Night
July 25th 1919 My dear Ben,
I can feel you tonight very plainly. O for an embrace ... I take it that you are well again now. Be careful and look after your health. Don't go out at night. Another month or so and spring will be here when we will have great times together. . .
I want to probe your innermost soul first before deciding upon anything definite. All depends upon you. I had thought of going away from Victoria, then your first letter came offering me your heart, soul and hand. How, yes how indeed, can I refuse you after pouring out your troubled soul to me. I know you were pretty bad (sick I mean with the fast life) for you to again write to me. I also think that you [knew] that I had a kind soul within me. I will not dwell here. The past is gone. We are in the present and going on to the future with hope joy and peace. When I see you and talk matters over, you will say that our experience during the past two years has tended to one end, that [which] brings us closer together.
Again with all my love, trust that you are happy and well.
This is One of a number of remarkable letters written by Harry Bruin, a carpenter of Harcourt Street, Auburn, to Ben Morris, a 21 year old office clerk, over a six month period in 1919.1 Harry and Ben's relationship took place at a time when sexual contact between men was a crime punishable with prison and hard labour, and social attitudes forced them to hide their feelings for each other.
Homosexual history is hidden in archives and libraries and often only hinted at in the histories of the wider community. Most of the sources that historians take for granted simply don't exist for homosexual lives in the years before gay lib and decriminalisation. Letters and diaries detailing homosexual lives were either not produced in the first place, or were later destroyed by those who sought to avoid prosecution or social disgrace. Often the only substantial evidence of the homosexual subculture are the records of the persecutors; trial records, prison registers, outraged newspaper articles, medical and legal discussions of the 'problem' of homosexuality.
Harry and Ben's letters to each other survive only because they were used as evidence in court when they were accused of 'gross indecency' with each other following
a blackmail attempt in 1920. For the past 90 years, two bundles of letters; Ben's original letters to Harry, and Harry's carefully kept carbon copies to Ben, have been kept in the collection of Criminal Trial Briefs held at the Public Record Office of Victoria, testament to two men's love for each other and evidence of a hidden subculture which existed in Melbourne between the two world wars.
Melbourne in 1919 was Australia's capital city, albeit temporarily whilst the future capital of Canberra was taking shape. A city of three-quarters of a million people,2 half the Victorian population,3 its heart was surrounded by suburbs which spread in a ten mile arc from Sunshine in the west, to Preston in the north and out to Box Hill in the east and down the eastern bayside to Sandringham. The centre of the city was the business, commercial, shopping and entertainment heart of the city; by far the greatest proportion of Melbourne's population lived in the far flung suburbs, but they came into the city to work, shop, or be entertained.
During the 1920s and '30s the pace of life grew faster; more cars were on the roads, large new buildings were built in the centre of the city and the suburbs sprawled out well beyond the ten-mile arc. Melbourne's population growth was steady; it reached the one million mark in 1931 and then held steady to 1939,4 and the pace of modern life was clear to see all around. Wireless stations started broadcasting in 1924, telephones became a more common part of everyday life (65 531 private phones in Melbourne in 1931, with 2946 public phones).5 From about 1910 onwards some of the live theatres and music halls of Bourke Street were converted to cinemas, giving Melburnians another reason to come into the city. The weekly trip to the cinema became part of many people's lives, photographic tabloid newspapers were introduced with the Sun News-Pictorial in 1922, and a wider range of consumer goods appeared in the shops to tempt the public.
The interwar years can be said to be the first period of mass consumer culture; films, wireless, gramophone records of overseas dance music, pictorial newspapers, all brought the world and its fashions closer than ever. Melbourne absorbed styles from overseas quicker than ever before, in clothes, architecture, music, literature and ideas. Suburban Melburnians eagerly awaited international news and thrilled to feats of aviation daring, air and land speed records being broken and new scientific discoveries being made.
For all the fast pace of modern life, for most Victorians life in the 1920s and '30s was characterised by 'moral rectitude and social conservatism ... which gave Melbourne the reputation of being stultifyingly boring'.6 The overall tone of Melbourne in the first half of the twentieth century was that of one of staid provincialism. Historically, Victoria had significant numbers of non-conformists and Protestants, particularly Scots Presbyterians. In addition, the financial depression of the 1890s had influenced popular attitudes in Victoria. Janet McCalman has said that the financial depression of the 1890s 'were terrible years in Victoria. The Protestant churches saw their congregations shrink, the middle class was stricken with a failure of nerve, and a new chastened Puritanism overtook the suburbs. People acknowledged the virtue of living carefully'.7 The 'chastened
Puritanism' resulted in the introduction of six o'clock closing in 1916 and gave the city a 'reputation as a dull city.8
Although the 1920s are usually portrayed as a period of liberation and rebellion following the horrors of the Great War, and as homosexual reform movements and subcultures developed in large cities around the world, including London, Paris and Berlin, homosexual lives and acts in Melbourne between the Wars were played out against a more restrictive legal and social background. Acts of sodomy, attempted sodomy or 'indecent assault upon a male person' attracted penalties of up to ten years imprisonment with hard labour and, thanks to new legislation introduced in 1919, any form of actual or attempted 'gross indecency' committed whether in public or in private was also potentially punishable with prison terms. Although first time offenders of minor acts and those involving consenting adults, would often be fined or held over on good behaviour bonds, being caught in a homosexual act had wider consequences than just court and punishment; names and addresses were published in the press (particularly the tabloid press), and social ostracism and disgrace would follow.
However, a survey of cases heard in the Melbourne Supreme Court and Court of General Sessions between 1919 and 1934 (the most recent date for which court records have been released) show that of 200 cases in that period, only 40 involved two (or more) consenting adults (over the age of 21) and of those only ten involved acts committed in private. By far the bulk of the 200 cases involved adult men having sex with underage boys (aged under 14) or youths (aged 14 to 21) or consenting adults found having sex in public.
The fact that only ten cases involving consenting adults having sex in private were prosecuted by the Supreme and General Sessions courts in a 15 year period seems to point to the fact that the police and the courts were not actively hunting homosexuals as was the case in the later 1940s and 1950s. There's no suggestion in the press or the Victorian Criminal Trial Briefs held at the Victorian Public Records Office that police were involved in entrapment of homosexuals or the use of 'pretty police' as agents provocateur to lure homosexual men to commit offences. The ten cases where men who committed homosexual acts in private did find themselves in front of the bench involved jealous ex-lovers, suspicious landladies and mothers and one case where an emotionally disturbed man turned himself in to the police!
It can be said then that although homosexual men in Melbourne lived their lives against a background of legal and social proscription, the interwar period did not seem to have been as bleak and forbidding as the period after the Second World War, when the Vice Squad deliberately entrapped men using beats and drilled holes in the walls of flats to gather evidence. The seeming lack of interest in homosexuals shown by the police, coupled with the fact that much of the public seemed unaware of homosexuals in their midst, allowed a greater degree of freedom for men who liked other men.
What then was life like for homosexual men in Melbourne between the Wars?
Of course, at any time in history, homosexual men have the same needs, concerns and activities as the wider population – finding somewhere to live, some way of supporting themselves, feeding themselves, and holding together relationships, be they family, friends or lovers. Added to these usual concerns was the fact that they belonged to a secret subculture, potentially liable to prosecution and social exposure. Then as now, the subculture ranged from men who didn't identify as homosexual (a word first used in an Australian newspaper in 1906)9 and who might live 'normal' lives, married in the suburbs and occasionally indulge in a furtive encounter in a park or other quiet place; men who lived with other men quietly as committed couples, passing themselves off as brothers, cousins or best friends to the neighbours, recognisable 'queans' who, though dressed as men, used makeup and effeminate mannerisms and a few, very brave souls who ventured out in full drag, even during the day to 'pass' (ie, as a woman) in Collins Street or Bourke Street.
Some of the institutions and aspects of homosexual life in the interwar period were well established before the Great War; beats, friendship networks and public places which acted as clandestine meeting places, such as hotels and cafes; others developed during the interwar period, taking advantage of new developments and technologies as they became available.
Beats are probably one of the oldest homosexual institutions; a way of meeting others for sex and (sometimes) socialising when other opportunities are not available. Wotherspoon, in his history of gay Sydney City of the Plain has commented that homosexuals have been
imaginative in creating other uses for a range of institutions established by the dominant culture, be they hotels, restaurants, cafes, baths or dressing sheds. This has been necessary since the ways in which heterosexuals can meet each other openly are not available to homosexuals. But one of the more contentious uses of society's institutions relates to the use, as a beat, of those generally ugly but ubiquitous facilities: public toilets. It is contentious not only because of the alleged nuisance problem, and alleged danger to minors, but also because it involves the issue of 'public' – and multiple partner – sex, notions that parts of our society find distasteful ... [F]or many male homosexuals, public toilets provided a venue for both fast anonymous sex and also – and more than just occasionally – a place where one could simply meet others of one's own kind ... [W]hile many people may find the notion utterly repugnant, it should be pointed out that if society denies access to legitimate meeting places for a minority, that minority simply develops its own meeting places, often by subverting institutions of the dominant culture.10
Evidence of beats in Melbourne can be found as far back as the 1860s when various urinals (particularly that on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale streets – in operation from the 1860s to the 1990s) and laneways in the city (Star Alley, off Little Bourke street) were the subject of police interest.
By the 1920s and '30s, there was a well-established network of beats and cruising areas around the city, ranging from public toilets, to parks, laneways and stretches of city streets, where men would meet, strike up conversations, 'suss' each other out and
then adjourn to somewhere more private, such as a hotel, flat or boarding house, for sex. Some of the more popular park beats were the Fitzroy, Carlton and Flagstaff Gardens, although the Treasury Gardens were known to work as well. South of the Yarra, Alexandra Gardens, the Botanic Gardens, and the now-vanished Snowden Gardens (on the site of Hamer Hall) were all well known. Further afield, the wharves along the southern bank of the Yarra (where the Melbourne Exhibition Centre now stands) and the main Victoria Docks area were also sites of activity.
Melbourne's web of laneways also offered opportunities for sexual encounters. Around midnight on a Saturday in March 1925, wharf labourer James Gore was discovered in a darkened doorway of a warehouse in Wright's Lane in the central city with his trousers around his knees and his 'person' in the 'fundament' of Selwyn Lindsay, an actor. Later in court, the two denied doing anything wrong; Gore said he had stepped into the doorway to answer a call of nature, whilst Lindsay explained that he had bought a new pair of braces that day and was in the process of adjusting them as they were too tight. The pair maintained that neither was aware of the other's presence in the doorway until a suspicious night watchman shone his electric torch on them. The court chose to believe the watchman's story, particularly after a powder puff with rouge was found in Lindsay's pocket. Lindsay swore that the puff was a necessary piece of his professional kit, which he had put in his pocket without thinking in the rush of his packing when leaving his last engagement in Wonthaggi two days previously. The jury was not convinced and both men were found guilty and sentenced to 15 months hard labour at Pentridge.11 Most of the outdoor beats worked best at night under the cover of darkness (efficient sodium lighting of parks and streets was not to be introduced until the 1950s), but indoor beats in public toilets and urinals could function at any time of the day.
Fifty-six year old, Scottish-born seaman, John Smith, decided to spend a day in March 1921, trying his luck at a couple of central city beats. He started his morning in the toilets at the Bijou Theatre Arcade in Bourke street where he was observed masturbating by Dennis Dunn, a city businessman. Dunn rebuffed Smith's suggestion of a mutual tug and so Smith left and wandered up Bourke street to the Eastern Markets to investigate the situation there. Having no luck in the toilets at the Market, he headed back to the Bijou where he found a willing Frederick Boscher, a printer's assistant. The outraged Dunn, however, had followed Smith from the Bijou to the Eastern Market and then back again to the Bijou and on the way approached a policeman, telling him what was going on. Dunn and the cop burst into the cubicle where Smith and Boscher had secreted themselves and both were arrested. Boscher, with the help of a clever barrister, managed to convince the court that he had just arrived as Dunn and the policeman turned up, but Smith was caught (dare we say it?) with his pants down and ended up with six months.12
Many men picked up other men on the street, particularly in the crowded streets of the central city; Bourke Street, Lonsdale Street and outside the busy Flinders Street Railway Station all feature in criminal trial records of the period. Princes Bridge was another popular pick-up spot; a busy thoroughfare, it was also close to the darkness of
Alexandra Gardens. The footpath along St Kilda Road was popular for the same reason. By far the majority of police prosecutions of consenting adult men for gross indecency and indecent assault were the result of men being found engaging in sex in public places. Many of the men arrested at beats were married, or had nowhere else to go, but it may have been that others were attracted to beats by the frisson of danger and thrill attendant on public sex.
Of course not all homosexual men used beats to meet others. Discrete friendship groups operated during the period, as they had before the Great War and continue to operate up to the present. Although some men were introduced to established friendship groups through others they had met at beats or on the street, still others revolved around men who were connected with amateur theatrical groups, church groups or mainstream social organisations. We know less of these groups than we do of beats, as they were less likely to arouse police and public suspicion and have therefore left little in the way of public records such as trial briefs. Nonetheless, sensational newspaper articles point to some clandestine gatherings in the 1920s and '30s. Truth sent an intrepid reporter to a basement in East Melbourne in October 1932 to uncover the truth about the 'Queer Exotic Cults' which were in the process of invading Melbourne.13 Truth's man on the scene reported a darkened basement with men dressed as women and women dressed as men and strange music being played in the smoky den. Other parties might be more sedate, whilst others were definitely outrageous. In June 1938 police raided a party held in private rooms above a cafe in Elizabeth street: 'A licensing police raid on June 4 disclosed an amazing scene in lavishly appointed apartments behind the dull facade of a little Elizabeth street cafe. Dozens of men, many dressed as women, milled about two "cocktail bars", extraordinary notices were scattered here and there, and a cardboard sign directed the way to higher apartments where there was a luxuriously appointed bedroom littered with women's clothing and make-up'.14
The use of a cafe's facilities for a private party points to the continued importance of cafes and coffee shops as places for homosexual men to meet. The development of a mature hotel and restaurant culture was hindered in many parts of Australia, including Melbourne, by six o'clock closing of public bars which was enforced from 1916 to the 1960s. Although some hotels were known to tolerate quiet groups of homosexual men who would gather in one part of the bar, a great deal of camp (and straight) socialising took place in cafes, tearooms and coffee shops. The first reference in the press to a camp presence in a Melbourne tearoom was in 1908 when three young men dressed up as women and had tea at the stylish Vienna Cafe in Collins Street. They were arrested on a charge of creating a public nuisance and fronted the dock still dressed in their finery. When they explained that the stunt was done as a dare, the judge replied that they must either be sexual perverts or darn young fools.15
During the 1920s and '30s, several coffee shops and cafes opened which welcomed a camp clientele. Among the largest of these was Tait's in the basement of the Manchester Unity Building. When it opened in 1932 it could seat a couple of hundred customers
and on Saturday nights was known as being host to a large, noisy and quite visible camp crowd. BYO sly grog was the order of the night, with customers smuggling their own booze into the cafe and drinking it out of tea cups! Further up the street was 'Cinderella's', a one woman show run by an elderly lady who dressed each night in a rusty black evening gown and hand-picked those who would gain entrance to the cafe from the crowd gathered at the door. She apparently had a knack for picking out the gays and lesbians in the waiting queue and ushering them in for a convivial evening of tea and raisin toast; the toaster and urn were hidden behind a curtain at the rear of the shop.
A few years earlier, the Austral Cafe in Exhibition Street, gained some notoriety for offering services beyond those normally offered by a cafe. One day in 1926, 18 year old Ernest Pollard, a labourer, visited the cafe to have his shoes cleaned by the resident shoe shine, Fred Lee. Fred took young Pollard into the back room of the cafe and there gave him oral sex. Pollard later told Police 'He knelt down in front of me and started to brush my trousers. He then ripped open my fly and grabbed my hands pushing me against the table. He then started sucking my penis. I said 'Let me go!' He laughed. He kept on sucking my penis for some little time. He let me go after I spent in his mouth. I went out of the shop and told the first Constable I saw.'16 If Pollard was the first person to complain of Fred's extra services, how many regular customers were inconvenienced when Fred went to Pentridge for three months?
Beats and other meeting places, friendship networks and discretely welcoming commercial establishments such as cafes and coffee shops, are all examples of institutions which had been in existence prior to the Great War and continued to be part of homosexual life during the 1920s and '30s. There were, however, new developments in camp life as the post-war years unfurled.
Among the most striking examples of modern life which many homosexual men turned to their advantage were the growing numbers of inner suburban blocks of flats, the dramatic rise in the number of motor vehicles on the roads and the spread of telephones. Flats are particularly important in the shaping of a modern homosexual subculture in the interwar period: 'In a country like Australia, where the most common domestic unit is the nuclear family, and the most common housing stock the detached bungalow owner-occupied by the nuclear family, flats and boarding houses provided one of the few situations where people could escape family and peer-group pressure, and live their lives as they wanted'.17
The first flats had appeared in Melbourne just prior to the Great War. In an attempt to attract well-heeled tenants, these early flats set out to be socially exclusive, offering restaurants, in-house catering, accommodation for servants. By the early 1920s, however, flats had become more egalitarian; smaller, self-contained and, most importantly for many people, anonymous. Before flats became common, the usual form of non-family accommodation for young males was boarding houses. These could range from the 'strictly supervised suburban boarding house, with 'prayers before meals', to the far more casually managed institution, the latter often being in inner city areas where there was a
larger transient population. Another factor affecting the style of the boarding house was neighbourhood attitudes, and here once again the nature of the inner-city areas meant that less conformity was expected than in the outer suburbs'.18 Flats allowed middle-class homosexuals the opportunity to move out of family homes and boarding houses and establish private lives for themselves; to entertain friends and lovers without having to explain themselves to landladies or parents and without the fear of their movements and visitors being noted by suspicious third parties. Flats also allowed homosexuals to host private parties, thereby making the flats of friends and acquaintances accessible to those men who weren't able to afford a flat of their own.
Large nineteenth-century mansions in formerly exclusive inner suburbs such as South Yarra and East Melbourne had already been cut up into rooming and boarding houses by the time of the Great War. Their gardens were ripe for subdivision and were soon covered with double-storey blocks containing four or six flats in a range of architectural styles from Olde English to Spanish Mission and Art Moderne. These suburbs, together with St Kilda, a popular bayside resort with a shifting population and a risqué reputation, became the centre of Melbourne's 'flatland'. Flats gained a reputation as being, at best, bohemian and, at worst, serious dens of sin and iniquity. As early as April 1921 Truth asserted that 'Melbourne's flatland' was infested with 'Curious Creatures – Painted and Powdered Effeminates'.19 Ten years later, investigating a robbery at a luxurious flat in East Melbourne, police were
Amazed at the surroundings in which they found themselves . . . Persian rugs, incense holders, great beaten brass gongs were mingled with easels, paints and many works of art – statuary, pictures and curios of outstanding merit . . . While they were there, some young lads arrived. Their appearance also interested the police and as a result of questioning, a very serious charge was preferred against Lewis [the resident of the flat]. This charge arose from his alleged relations with the young men.20
By the eve of the Second World War, the connexion of homosexuals with flats was so well established in the minds of the tabloid-reading public that all that was required were a few key terms and the newspapers could assume their readers would be able to read between the lines. Reporting the suicide of American singer and composer Jack Dale in January 1939, newspaper headlines screamed 'Swing Band Musician Dead in St Kilda Flat – £70 Week Star Whistler's Queer Note Before End'. 21 The note next to Dale's body read ' To whom it may concern – and I'll bet that's plenty', (It stated there were three people who had mattered in his life and without them, he could not see what he had to live for) 'I lost one of them by death, one of them by marriage and the other by my own unfaithfulness', continued the note. 'With their inspiration I feel I could have reached the top of the tree, but now I cannot go on.'22 The combination of the St Kilda flat, the 'Queer' note and the lack of pronouns in the reporting of the three people referred to by Dale in his suicide note were enough for Truth's readers to draw conclusions.
Another aspect of modernity that homosexual men took advantage of during the interwar period was the motor car. The number of motor vehicles on the streets of
Melbourne increased dramatically; in 1919 there were 12 646 cars on Victorian roads23 and the number increased each year, until by 1938 there were over 215 000 private and commercial vehicles registered or about one car for every ten people in the state.24 The car, and the motorcycle, allowed mobility as never before. For those who could afford it, ownership of a car allowed the freedom to travel around town and out of town without having to rely on public transport or shank's pony. 'Cars helped revolutionise the recreational activities of many people. They could travel more easily within the city and for picnics or to the holiday homes which were springing up in the Dandenongs and at beach resorts within driving distance of Melbourne.'25 No longer would a young man at a dance dismiss an attractive girl from a distant suburb not easily reached by public transport as 'G.I. – geographically impossible'.26 And what goes for young men with an interest in girls also applies to young men with an interest in other young men.
Since the 1920s, society's moralisers had been warning about the impact of the motor vehicle. For example, in 1935 the Bishop of Bendigo, in an article 'The Car Conquers the Cradle', had criticised young married couples for putting off having children, to enable them to save money to buy a car: 'What also happened ... was that cars became, in effect, "mobile bedrooms" for the young'27 with the car providing a degree of privacy for those without any other place to go. Sometimes, you didn't even have to own a car to take advantage of one; around 11pm on the evening of Monday 16 May 1927, 30 year old Myer's department manager, Russell Luke, left the King's Theatre after seeing Judith Anderson in 'The Green Hat' and walked down Swanston Street to Flinders Street where he met 21 year old Stan Clark, a taxi driver employed by the Yellow Cab Company, standing by his cab at the Princes Bridge Station taxi rank.28
The two struck up a conversation about the warmth of the evening and 'Clarke then said, indicating a stationary electric train in Princes Bridge Station, 'The train's nearly empty'. I [Luke] said 'Most people are at home I suppose'. Clark said 'Yes and not a bad place either'. I said 'Why? You must be married?' He said 'No, I wish I was I'd have somebody to go home to now'. I said 'Why, is that how things are?' Clark then pressed up against me and on looking down I saw that his trousers were bulging out in front at the fly. He said 'Which way do you live?' I told him and he said 'I'll be going along that way as the rank is pretty full and I think I'll move'. I said 'You can drive me to Domain Road'. 29
The two drove to Domain Road where, according to Clark:
I drove up Domain Road to opposite the Botanical Hotel and Luke said "Now turn to the left, and to the left again and stop". I then turned my taxi into the Govt House Domain and opposite Park Street South Yarra and turning west drove towards the wireless station.
Luke then said "Pull up". And I stopped my cab on the right hand side of the road through the Domain. I then got out of my cab on the right hand side and opened the door of the cab. Luke said "What do I owe you?" I said "four and threepence". He then gave me two two shilling pieces a sixpence and two threepenny bits – five shillings in all – and handed it to me. He then said "Hop in here". I got in the cab beside him and sat there a few minutes.

Police mug-shot of Russell Luke, convicted on 1 June 1927 of committing an 'act of gross indecency'.

PROVPRS 30: Criminal Trial Briefs, 1927/349.
Luke then unbuttoned the front of my trousers and took hold of my person and then said "How do you switch this light out?" (indicating the meter light). I told him and he leaned through the front window and switched the lights out and then unbuttoned his trousers at the back and pulled them down and caught hold of my penis again and started to rub his hand up down it until I got an erection.
Luke then turned over and knelt on the floor of the cab and bent his head over the seat and pulled his trousers down to his knees. He then said "Oh, what a beaut! The best I ever felt" at the same time rubbing his hand up and down my penis.
I then got behind him and he guided my penis into his backside with his hand at the same time saying "Oh, it's lovely". And I then began to push my penis back and forward in his back passage and was doing this when the constable arrived.30
It was the arrival of the Constable which ensured that Luke and Clark's evening adventure was recorded for posterity; the two were charged with committing an act of gross indecency with each other and ended up with sentences of three months (Clark) and nine months (Luke).
Of course, car ownership was nowhere near as widespread as it was to become in the 1950s and '60s and was largely restricted to the middle class. This meant, however, that homosexual men in possession of a car could turn this to their advantage in picking up younger, or poorer, men. The relative rarity of a car meant that many lads would quite willingly go for a spin; in 1933 Alan Barr, a commercial traveller for a pharmaceutical company invited Stan Hickman, a shop assistant working at an Armadale chemist shop to go for a drive with him; they ended up parked at the railway reserve near Tooronga Station,31 whilst in 1939 Melbourne doctor Robert Storer was found 'parking' in his car with his office boy at the Studley Park Golf Course.32
For those without a car, public transport continued to be the main means of getting around the city; trains, cable trams and buses. The Victorian Railways were upto-the minute; the first metropolitan line (Essendon to Sandringham) was electrified in May 1919; within five years the entire metropolitan service had been converted from steam to electricity, and the cable tram system was converted to electricity between 1924 and 1940. Flinders Street Railway Station, the hub of the metropolitan system and in the heart of the city, handled millions of passengers each year; in 1923/24 there were 157 969 687 suburban railway journeys undertaken in Victoria.33 A great many of these would have passed through Flinders Street Station and out under the clocks into the city.
'Under the clocks' at Flinders Street Station became one of Melbourne's key meeting points, and homosexual men made as much use of the Station as other members of the public; at 8:15 on a June night in 1925 45 year old painter Ernest Casey met 18 year old lensmaker James Moore on the footpath outside Flinders street. 'How's about a stuf [sic]' he said to the lad and the two boarded a train heading for St Kilda. They got off at the station and headed into the darkness of the Albert Park Reserve. The two had sex in the park without attracting any attention and afterwards, decided to head to Fitzroy Street, St Kilda for something to eat. On leaving the reserve they attracted the attention of two police officers in Fitzroy Street whose attention was drawn by the grass stains and damp condition of the knees of young Moore's trousers! Under questioning by the police the story came out and Casey found himself charged with buggery. Moore was not charged, as due to his age and having been the one who was buggered, was seen by the courts as being the victim – albeit a willing one.34
Train station lavoratories also operated as a beat during the 1920s; around 6:35pm on 23 November 1929, Harold Porter, by all appearances a fairly obvious 'quean' was discovered on his knees in a lavatory cubicle giving Thomas Dillon oral sex. The
attendant alerted two of the Victorian Railways Special Inquiry Officers who arrested the pair. When interrupted Dillon said to the arresting Officer 'It is a pity you did not come along a couple of minutes later I would have blown off. It was lovely.'35
Suburban trains also gave homosexual men a chance to meet each other. Elizabeth Street jeweller Henry Dodd met Myer's window dresser Edward Edwards on the Essendon train during the morning commute around July 1930: 'A little over 12 months ago I met Henry Dodd in the Essendon train whilst travelling to Flinders Street. He was in the same compartment, sitting opposite me, the compartment was crowded and we both sitting forward on the seats, our knees were almost touching. Dodd began to rub his legs against mine. This occurred about Kensington. He continued until the trained pulled up at Spencer Street, where I got out. Dodd followed me and in Spencer Street he said 'What about meeting tonight?' I said 'Yes'.36 This was the beginning of an affair which lasted over twelve months with the two meeting in the workshop behind Dodd's showroom about two or three times a week.
Telephones, although not a new piece of technology (the Melbourne exchange dated from 1880), were another modern convenience which homosexual men took advantage of. The relative prosperity of the 1920s made the phone a necessary requirement for businesses and the number of home and public phones increased as well. Australian figures give some indication of the rise in subscribers over the period; in 1920 there were 205 262 phones connected in Australia,37 by 1939 this number had increased to 674797.38
The telephone allowed immediate, and perhaps just as importantly for homosexual men, relatively private communication possible, particularly after the staged introduction of automatic exchanges began in Melbourne in 1914.39 Letters and other mailed items carried the risk of falling into the wrong hands; in 1919, Lance McWilliam and Charlie Scott, two men who had been conducting an affair for a number of months were found out when a letter that Lance had written to 19 year old Charlie was opened by Charlie's mother. She then informed police of the relationship her son was involved in and Lance was charged with buggery. Interestingly enough, Lance's letter actually invited Charlie to 'Ring me up if you like and let me know if you can come out'.40 Two years later, two penfriends who seem to have been in the habit of exchanging naked photos of each other found themselves in trouble when postal authorities intercepted a letter from Roderick McDonald of Melbourne to Gus Kelly of Surry Hills, New South Wales.41 The telephone, although not allowing the exchange of risqué photos, did, however, allow men a degree of privacy to arrange meetings with friends and acquaintances and issue invitations to parties without leaving written evidence which could later end up in court. Even so, just having your name, address and telephone number in the address book of a known homosexual could be risky too. Police had been known to confiscate address books belonging to men who were charged with homosexual offences and then conduct searches of the homes of individuals listed.42
By the eve of the Second World War Melbourne was a major city of over one million people; economic recovery after the Great Depression was obvious, the skyline was bristling with new commercial blocks and offices and new wonders including neon signs and the city's first multi-storey car park (built 1939). The suburbs had stretched out in 'a blazing and monotonous expanse of red brick and terracotta roof that has flowed over the hills and valleys to the east like lava, and leaked slowly in an ever lengthening arc right round the eastern shore of Port Phillip Bay twenty-five miles to Frankston'.43 Melbourne still had its reputation for provincial staidness, but the seismic upheaval of the coming War, with the threat of invasion, mass mobilisation of the population for the war effort and the 'American Invasion' which saw well over two-hundred-thousand U.S. servicemen and women pass through Melbourne in a two year period, would change the city forever.
The 1920s and '30s mark the emergence of a modern homosexual subculture in Melbourne, at very much the same time as in other major cities around the world. This development was assisted in large part by the development of modern ways of living and technologies which allowed homosexual men access to privacy, mobility, immediate communication and built on existing institutions and ways of life of the subculture. Building on these developments, the subculture would continue to mature during the War years and into to the post-War period, setting the scene for the social and political changes of the 1960s and beyond.


Trial of Harry Bruin and Ben Morris, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs 1920/100.


Geoffrey Blainey, A History of Camberwell, Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1964, p. 84.


Susan Priestley, Making Their Mark, Sydney: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, 1984, p. 126.


1,076,500 in 1940 – Don Garden, Victoria: a history, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1984, p. 365.


Ibid, p. 335.


Ibid, p. 292.


Janet McCalman, Journeyings: the biography of a middle class generation, 1920-1990, Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1993, p. 55.


Garden, p. 332.


'The Unsexed – Men in Female Form – Woman with Men's Bodies – The Ellis-Weinenger Sex Theory – The Effeminancy of Whitman – Some Famous Homo-Sexuals', Truth, 3 October 1906, p. 12.


Garry Wotherspoon, City of the Plain: history of a gay subculture, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1991, p. 68.


Trial of James Gore & Selwyn Lindsay, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs, 1925/230.


Trial of John Smith & Frederick Boscher, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs, 1921/204.


'Queer Exotic Cults Invade Melbourne', Truth, 8 October 1932, p. 8.


Truth, 25 June 1938, p. 15.


'The Female Impersonators – McKail, Ogilvie & Page Before the Court – Ball for ' Girls Only' Their Alleged Objective', Truth, 5 December 1908, p. 5.


Trial of Fred Lee, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 1926/168.


Wotherspoon, p. 71.


Ibid, p. 70.


'Curious Creatures – Painted and Powdered Effeminates – Is There an 'Intermediate Sex'? – Something Needed to Protect the Young from Perversion', Truth, 19 April 1921, p. 7.


'High Caste Indian Mystery Man – Suicided After Serious Charge', Truth, 1 August 1931, p. 9.


'Swing Band Musician Dead in St Kilda Flat – £70 Week Star Whistler's Queer Note Before End', Truth, 21 January 1939, p. 11.




'The Triumphal Car', Argus, 15 October 1919, p. 6.


'More Cars in State', Argus, 6 January 1938, p. 4.


Garden, p. 341.


'The Cars that Ate Melbourne', Age 14 February 2004.


Wotherspoon, p. 147.


Argus, 16 May 1927, p. 20.


Trial of Russell Luke & Stanley Clark, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs, 1927/349.




Trial of Alan Barr, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs, 1933/632.


'Dr Storer Arrested in Studley Park', Truth, 16 September 1939, p. 14.


'Railway Finances – Surplus for Year', Argus, 4 September 1924, p. 9.


Trial of Ernest Casey, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs, 1925/420.


Trial of Harold Porter & Thomas Dillon, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs 1929/917.


Trial of Henry Dodd, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs. 1931/642.


'Postal Department: The Year's Transactions', West Australian, 15 April 1921, p. 6.


'More Telephones', Argus, 18 December 1939, p. 9.


'Brighton Exchange: Official Enquiry: "Satisfactory on the Whole"', Argus, 22 July 1914, p. 13.


Trial of Lancelot McWilliam, Public Record Office of Victoria, VPRS30 Criminal Trial Briefs 1919/353.


'Indecent Photos – Sent Through the Post – Young Man Fined £10', Truth, 10 September 1921, p. 3.


'Judge Says Law Should Catch Up With Science – Homily on Homosexuality', Truth, 14 February 1942, p. 5.


Graham McInnes, The Road to Gundagai, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1965, p. 61.