By Dr. Cheryl Griffin
As the photographer Pierre Robin stopped outside the John Danks & Co Store Yard at 409 Bourke St, it is likely he had one thing in mind; to record the site before it disappeared from view.
Robin spent many hours walking city streets in the late 1950s and early 1960s recording the changing streetscapes, and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria is fortunate to have more than 400 of his images in its collection. This image was taken in 1958, almost 100 years since the Danks company began its plumbing business in this Bourke St block between Elizabeth and Queen streets.
Its retail space was just down the street, almost out of view of the camera, but Robin’s attention on the day he took this photo was the store yard where the iconic sign “Whelan the Wrecker Is Here” indicates that big changes were afoot. This was a period of transition for Danks. Its retail site (393-403 Bourke St) was later taken over by hardware retailers McEwans and later still was converted into an apartment building, The Foundry.
The demolition company Whelan the Wrecker, with its famous slogan “Whelan the Wrecker Is Here”, had been a Melbourne institution since the 1890s. By the time this photograph was taken, the company’s sign could be seen on many city blocks as old buildings gave way to new.
The store yard site is flanked by the Four-O-Five Milk Bar and Andrews’ Jewellers and Evans House, the home of Thomas Evans Pty Ltd who were tent, tarpaulin and flag manufacturers.
As a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the nostalgia evoked by the milk bar’s façade drew me to the building with its imposing advertising for a long-gone ice cream and all the things that milk bars meant in the days before convenience stores and fast food took over. Milk bars appeared on the scene in the 1930s and here people could meet, have a chat and a coffee or milk shake. You’d find them in every suburb and country town. And as you see here, there were milk bars in the centre of the CBD, too.
On Saturdays, Australian children everywhere flocked to milk bars clutching their pocket money in readiness for the weekly ritual of choosing which lollies they would buy. Thinking back to the late 1950s, I’m amazed at how far I could make my threepence go. I only just remember the Sennitt’s ice cream advertising, with its polar bear licking an ice cream cone. I was always a Peters ice cream fan (“the health food of a nation”) and a vanilla cone was the ultimate Sunday afternoon treat in our household. The Sennitt’s slogan “Bear in mind Sennitt’s ice cream” disappeared along with the brand in 1961, just three years after this photograph was taken. Streets took the place of Sennitt’s and the name Sennitt’s slipped away into history.
This particular milk bar – the Four-O-Five – had not been there long when the photograph was taken. In the 1940s it had been a fruiterer’s business but by the end of that decade it had transformed into the exotic sounding Tropical Coffee Lounge. By the time Pierre Robin took his photograph in 1958 it was the Four-O-Five, selling sandwiches, coffee, milkshakes and ice creams, among other things, to city workers.
If you look carefully, slightly off centre and next to the light pole, there is a milk pail, presumably empty, set out by the kerb, waiting to be collected and replaced by a full pail. No crates of milk cartons here. The pail is a reminder of a far-distant past when packaging and waste were at a minimum and the milk sold came straight from a local dairy. The pail is a reminder, too, that this was an era when milk and bread were delivered to your doorstep every day, although this practice also disappeared in the 1960s with the establishment of more and more supermarkets.
The Four-O-Five survived into the 1960s but by the middle of that decade it had gone and, by the 1970s, milk bars began to disappear everywhere as convenience stores and fast food chains took over.