And there she was, just riding down the street …

By Dr Cheryl Griffin

(With apologies to Manfred Mann)

A horsewoman stopping to pose for a photo opportunity is not something you’d expect to see in the centre of Melbourne, even in 1929 when this photo was taken. But here she is on a sunny winter’s day, correctly kitted out, riding her horse along Exhibition St.

We don’t know who she is, why she’s there, or where she’s heading, but she’s just come from the direction of the Yarra River, so perhaps she’s come from the Tan, Melbourne’s answer to Hyde Park’s Rotten Row. This almost two-and-a-half-mile (four-kilometre) tanbark horse-riding track circuits the Royal Botanic Gardens. It’s been a favourite horse-riding spot for Melburnians since the early 20th century and it will continue to be until the 1960s. Move forward to 2020 and it has a different surface and is known as the Tan Track, but it’s still one of Melbourne’s go-to places, and probably Melbourne’s most popular walking and running track. 

Our horsewoman is posing near the corner of Collins St and the pedestrians turning the corner there are well rugged up, so despite the sunshine, it must be a chilly day. No trams are in sight and the street is almost empty of traffic, so it’s probably a weekend – Saturday afternoon once the shops are closed, or Sunday.

On the left of the photo is the Occidental Hotel. There’s been a hotel on this site since 1848. It’s a favourite with the rich and famous. For decades the society columns of the local newspapers report on its wedding receptions, parties and country, interstate and overseas visitors, including Dame Nellie Melba, who stays there frequently, admiring its homely atmosphere. 

In 1929, when the photo was taken, the Occidental is run by Mrs Mary Baird, whom journalist Clive Turnbull considered “a great exemplar of the best traditions of hotelkeeping”. In a 1954 article in The Herald newspaper, he waxed lyrical about Mrs Baird’s hospitality: “Mrs Baird knew all about her regular guests, their likes and dislikes, the state of their health, the fate of their relatives. To be greeted by Mrs Baird was like being received by some old and understanding friend”. 

Maybe our horsewoman is one of Mrs Baird’s guests. It’s unlikely to be Mrs Baird herself – she is 60 years old in 1929. Age does not stop her presiding over her hotel, though. She is its chatelaine from 1928 until just before her death in January 1944 aged 75. 

Prominent in the background of this photo is Lister House, designed by architects Oakden and Ballantyne in 1916. The basement, ground and first two floors are occupied by doctors and dentists, but above that are residences – flats – a concept in modern living that is new to Melbourne’s CBD. In some ways they can be seen as a 1920s version of the apartments that are scattered throughout the city in the 2000s, but they are the height of modernity in the 1920s, providing permanent homes for newlyweds and empty-nesters, pied-à-terres for well-off country families and city bases for longer-stay travellers. 

Both buildings are gone now. Lister House, built in 1916, was demolished in 1969 and Collins Place has taken over that corner. The Occidental Hotel was demolished in the late 1950s to make way for the Reserve Bank building, so ending more than a century of occupation that began with the Duke of York Hotel in the goldrush era of the 1850s. Such is the way of things that the site is under redevelopment once more. 

These two inter-war buildings were part of the Collins St landscape during a period when to refer to the “Paris end” needed no explanation. Here were elegant buildings in a tree-lined street, the haunt of sophisticated individuals sipping coffee at outdoor cafés (just a few and only for a short time in the late 1950s) or dropping into a bistro or bar before heading off for an evening’s entertainment at the theatre (this was the theatre district, too). Then back to the Occidental for a late night supper, perhaps. Or home to the Lister House and a neat, modern home away from home.

As to the horsewoman, her presence jars – she is out of time and out of place. She belongs in an “upstairs downstairs” world, one that is fast disappearing. This is the very end of the “Roaring ‘20s”, an era that epitomised the shaking off of the old order and an exuberant embracing of new ways of living after the devastation of the First World War and its aftermath. 

What neither photographer nor subject knows is that those years of prosperity are about to give way to another world-changing catastrophe – an economic depression that will only end a decade later with another war •

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