Melbourne Heritage Action’s first ever walking tour took to the streets of the CBD in May, with both tour participants and tour guide learning more than they expected.
The education extended way beyond the subject of the tour – CBD Pubs – and included the wider wealth of social histories surrounding much of our city’s built heritage.
Starting at the sadly-doomed Duke of Kent Hotel, the tour learned that what seemed like a standard 20th century pub well past its used-by date was, in fact, a rare artefact of neo-Egyptian art deco design inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. At one time it hosted one of Australia’s most influential radical theatre groups, the New Theatre of the 1930s.
Through that portal, we learned about the role of theatre in political agitation and even the complications of international politics. One play hosted there was censored by Robert Menzies on behalf of the German consulate, due to its vitriolic criticism of the then “friendly” Nazi regime. There’s quite a lot to think about in a standard 20th century pub, soon to be replaced by a car park podium.
Moving on from the Duke of Kent we walked through the Guildford Lane precinct, once home to the kind of workers who would have frequented the pub in it’s better years. Here we see a story of industrial decline being turned into residences and art spaces – themselves now converted into restaurants and cat cafes.
Some on the tour were looking at Guildford Lane with new eyes, something strange for veteran heritage advocates to think about, but clearly showing how much more we can be doing to use stories and connections to allow more people to explore our heritage precincts.
We passed more pubs like the Celtic, Metropolitan, Greater Western and Ship Inn, some of which no one had ever bothered to photograph or write historic record about. But newspaper clippings reveal intriguing stories of crime and death but also wealth and personal success, and personal anecdotes from the tour revealed even more recent social history.
Towards the end of the tour, near the Hosies Hotel mural, a number of participants remarked that, through all their times in the city, they’d never looked up to such amazing artworks or historic buildings – a lesson to all of us about curiosity and the ability we all have to approach our routine places with fresh eyes.
Above all, the stories we heard on the tour really show that beyond the mere bricks and mortar of heritage, which are so often seen as the only thing being destroyed when a heritage place is lost to development, there’s a plethora of knowledge waiting to be unlocked, or lost forever.