By Rachael Fleury
The cottage at 17 Casselden Place in Melbourne’s CBD has enjoyed a rich history since it was built 144 years ago; from sly grog shop to brothel and squatters’ residence and now as a boutique gin distillery.
The cottage is the last remaining of six brick two-roomed homes built by shoemaker and small-time developer John Casselden in 1877.
The “Little Lon” precinct was long associated with slums, brothels and opium dens until 1948 when the Commonwealth Government compulsorily acquired the area to develop government offices. The cottage survived the development but was left vacant for many years until, during the early 1980s, photographer Cheyenne Morrison came across the building and started researching its history.
“I was living in a warehouse in the city at the time, but I came across this tiny little cottage right in the middle of the CBD. It had been left empty and looked like it needed some love,” Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison went to the Land and Titles’ office (now known as Landata) to do a title search. He was able to find that the government owned the building, but there had been no other records made since the 1950s. Mr Morrison decided he would move in.
“I used the ‘Squatters Guide’ and was very careful about what I did. I wasn’t a squatter because I was poor. I squatted because I had found this amazing cottage in the middle of the city, and it was empty, so I decided to look after it,” Mr Morrison said.
“The place was filthy when I moved in. I found old newspapers inside dating back to the 1950s, so I think no one had lived there for 30 years.”
Despite now living in Queensland, Mr Morrison feels a deep connection to inner-city Melbourne. Until the age of five, he lived with his paternal grandmother, Hazel Morrison, in her apartment at number two Collins St. Mrs Morrison worked as a milliner for Melbourne high-fashion store Le Louvre.
“My grandmother knew all the high-society people of Melbourne. She made hats for them all and dressed them for the races. She also knew all the fashion photographers, which is where my love of photography began,” he said.
When Mr Morrison moved into 17 Casselden St, there was no water and no power. He used to fill up jerry cans of water at Parliament Station and carry them back down to the cottage.
“It was like camping in the middle of the city; I had kerosene lanterns and a little gas cooking stove. I also had a battery-powered black and white TV.”
Mr Morrison left Melbourne in 2000 and, before this visit, had not returned to the city since. He lived overseas before settling in Queensland.
Mr Morrison said he began researching a few years ago into the Melbourne buildings in which he used to live. Through his research, he discovered that the little cottage was now operating as a boutique gin distillery – the Little Lon Distilling Co.
Brad Wilson, founder of Little Lon Distilling Co., said Mr Morrison had reached out to him more than a year ago to tell him about his time living in the cottage and that he planned to visit Melbourne. Various COVID-19 lockdowns had thwarted their plans to meet, but finally, the two were able to meet in early April.
“It’s been amazing to finally meet him, to hear his stories, and to be taken back to that time during the ‘80s when no one wanted this little cottage,” Mr Wilson said.
Little Lon Distilling Co. has embraced the rich heritage of the “Little Lon” precinct, and each of their gins takes inspiration from the stories of the area and previous residents of the cottage. Mr Wilson said the more he researched into the history of the area, the more he realised the same names such as “Yokohama” and “Constable Proudfoot” kept popping up in the historical records.
“We have a lychee-infused gin named Miss Yoko, who we named after Yokohama (real name Tiecome Ah Chung), who was a brothel-keeper of the cottage up until the 1920s. We felt if we were going to be working in her cottage, we needed a gin in her honour. Then there’s Constable Proudfoot, a robust fellow – so we created a really robust London-style gin with juniper and rosemary,” Mr Wilson said.
Mr Morrison said that he loved seeing what the Little Lon Distilling Co. had done with such a tiny space and that he was “so happy” the little cottage had been protected by Heritage Victoria.
“This little house typifies the rich history of Melbourne. I’m just one in a long line of people who have lived here, from the prostitutes in the red-light district to someone like me and now Brad and his gin distillery. The history of all the people that lived here is really precious,” he said.