Melbourne Brothels Glittering Age
Melbourne Brothels, madames and prostitutes in the glittering age of Marvellous Melbourne
In the late 19th century the area bounded by Little Lonsdale, Spring, Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets in Melbourne was the home of countless brothels, opium dens and rowdy pubs. It was known as Little Lon and here prostitutes lived and worked side by side with tradespeople and merchants in a part of Melbourne’s slums separated from the affluence that was the age called “Marvellous Melbourne” around them. This area, and its residents, fascinated Victorians. It housed the poor in an era where no social security net existed. These Melbourne Brothels were the red-light district but also contained families, factories, workshops and immigrants.
Its proximity to parliament, churches and the theatre life of Marvellous Melbourne at a time of fabulous affluence made it infamous. It was visited by tourists, written into novels, evangelised by missionaries and was the source of endless scandal and innuendo by newspapers such as the Truth. Little Lon more than rivalled the waterfront bawdiness of Williamstown, a place rife with its own seafarer’s brothels, opium dens and prostitutes. Marvellous Melbourne was an apt name as at this time it was one of the richest cities in the world modelled in a very French chic style. As such, it was the target of educators and moral crusaders of the Victorian Age keen to rid the city of Melbourne Brothels at its seedier heart.
Madame Brussels was, and remains, Melbourne Brothels’ best-known madame. The vitriol directed at her, particularly by male members of the church, media and parliament during her career, reveals much about social attitudes to women at the time of Federation, which was a strange mixture of inferiority and superiority. Women were widely accepted as inferior intellectually and physically and in need of protection. On the other hand, they were considered morally superior to men who were subject to the pleasures of the flesh. Men had strong sex drives. Women did not – unless they were ‘fallen’ or occasionally romantically aroused, unintentionally, by their husbands. Madame Brussels was clearly not of superior morals, employed female sex workers and had the cheek to run a successful business empire. One, by all accounts, that was well frequented by men of the wealthier classes. It was even said that tunnels ran from the Parliament into Little Lon and many a notable MP’s reputation was sullied in the arms of Madame Brussels’ prostitutes in her up-market Melbourne Brothels.
In 1891, the parliamentary mace famously went missing, causing a scandal as it was said to have been used by members for rude, quite un-parliamentary things in her most famous and refined Melbourne brothel at 32 Lonsdale Street. Despite the reward it was never found and rumour has it that it was the sex toy of choice for many of her distinguished guests.
As the high-profile representative of a despised industry, Madame Brussels attracted extreme bile. Nearly a dozen Melbourne brothels in Little Lon were controlled by her at some stage, and most were high-class establishments, but others like the one at 4 Casselden Place were of a more dubious calibre. In 1878, a local policeman, Sergeant Dalton, was cited in the Report on the Bill for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases that “she has two splendid houses in Lonsdale Street that cost her 1,300 pounds and those two houses are her own property, plus two cottages and another nearby house let out for prostitution”. He was quoted as saying that her weekly earnings were “something enormous: 3 or 4 pounds”. He also said that no other Melbourne Brothels were as extensive as Madame Brussels’.
Her infamy reached its peak in 1889, when conservative moral crusaders claimed that she had been parading along fashionable Collins Street in charge of a beautiful 20-year-old girl with a white feather in her hat, indicating that her maiden’s virtue was to be had for a price “in her gilded den”.
By all accounts, Madame Brussels herself cut a fine, if dowdy, figure. Her real name was Caroline Hodgson and it is said she was always well-dressed, drove in a smart carriage, and educated her daughter at a respectable private school while they resided at 39 Beaconsfield Parade, St Kilda, Melbourne’s riviera at the time.
Marvellous Melbourne was never as straitlaced as its reputation would have us believe and in its glory days this jewel in the Empire’s crown flourished as a sinkhole of prostitution, gambling and debauchery around Little Lon. It even had the highest per capita consumption of champagne in the world for fifty years – apparently the beery 6 o’clock swill of the sixties couldn’t hold a candle to Melbourne society of the 19th century.
Madame Brussels found herself used a political football in 1906. The Government was campaigning to control gambling and they came under attack from vested interests. In 1906 the Chief Secretary Sir Samuel Gillott was forced to resign after being accused of financially supporting the “wickedest woman in Melbourne”. In 1908, the new Police Offences Act forced Madame Brussels to close after 32 years in business but came too late to cause the gambling laws to be curtailed, and the pandora’s box of Melbourne Brothel operations had long been open.
Madame Brussels died in 1908, more famous than any of the politicians of her era and subsequently enjoys near cult status around Melbourne Brothels having made a fortune running “flash houses”—luxury bordellos—for the colony’s wealthy.
Today, this raunchy vision of the past seems a little fantastic, but there are relics and museums around the old red-light area, including artefacts unearthed when modern buildings’ foundations were dug—personal items of women who worked as prostitutes there in the 1880s, from bone-handled combs to cheap necklaces, from oyster shells to champagne bottles. A nearby lane has even been renamed after Madame Brussels. The woman once denounced from the pulpit as the “Queen of Harlots” is more celebrated now than any mutton-chopped governor or pastor ever was.
We’ve yet to see another iconic personality emerge in the Melbourne Brothel business to rival Madame Brussels. We can only hope, for the sake of preserving this part of Marvellous Melbourne, that one day…