Reaching Smith Street, the boundary between Fitzroy and Collingwood, I noticed an intriguing ghostsign on the corner of Argyle Street. The words I could decipher from the faded lettering were: ‘The Sportsman – Sporting paper sold here – Advertisements received.’ There was a word or two I couldn’t be certain of, just below ‘The Sportsman’: I guessed that they might read ‘The Best’ but it’s a shot in the dark. (A sporting chance.) Of the faded purple sign to the right of The Sportsman, it is hard to make out anything at all. Until recently there was something over the top, indicated by the remnants of a metal frame. But the only legible sign on this wall belongs to a paper I’d never heard of – The Sportsman.
Crossing Smith Street to get a different view, I realised that on the Smith Street wall of the same building another partial ghostsign survives. In ornate, Victorian lettering, this one reads:
Cash or …
Half the sign is obliterated; as on the side wall, there is a suspicion of other lettering. Along the bottom, in pale letters reversed out of black, something is advertised for hire – I’m not sure what.
Taken together, this little Victorian shop has a fine gallery of evocative ghostsigns.
The signs might be nearly as old as the building itself. They look older than the ones more frequently seen around Melbourne, which tend to date from the mid-20th century. Victorian specimens are rarer.
I looked up The Sportsman at the State Library of Victoria and found that it was a Melbourne paper published between 1882 and 1904. That’s quite a significant slab of sports coverage.
Who were the people, I wondered, who used to frequent this shop – buy The Sportsman, place an advertisement, buy or rent a cycle?
You can only learn so much about the past from official records. The lives of ordinary people are revealed by ephemeral sources – like sports papers.
So I checked out The Sportsman. The State Library is understandably not keen on letting you handle hard copies – Victorian newspapers, printed on paper full of acid, are now fragile and crumbly – but The Sportsman has been converted to microfilm and I spent a pleasant afternoon reading it on screen. Choosing the years from the late 1880s to early 1890s, I ventured into a world of moustaches and virility – Victorian men’s magazines.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it was a world both startlingly different from and similar to our own. Victorian men – and it was, I’m afraid, a newspaper pretty much universally for and about men, sport apparently not something that women might have any interest in – were a combination of chest-thumping virility, unacknowledged desires and crippling anxieties.
But enough of the pop psychology. What’s happening in the cricket?
In March 1892, an English team led by Lord Sheffield – obviously, it had to be led by a lord – was on a tour of Australia, playing three tests and a number of matches against state sides. This one against Victoria was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The match report tells us that “dark, ominous clouds hung around” but the rain held off and “the enclosure was in beautiful trim”. But the wicket was damp and difficult to bat on. The Vics collapsed twice.
The English won the match with some ease – the captain,W.G. Grace, scoring 44 before being bowled by Hugh Trumble. Catching the eye for Victoria was the dashing Melbourne batsman William Bruce. The reporter notes:
‘No matter where the bowlers pitched the ball Bruce played it in a masterly style. Splendid drives, lovely cuts and judicious pulls he indulged in until the English trundlers knew not where to pitch the leathern sphere for safety.’
Naturally, this being Melbourne, football received extensive coverage, though it didn’t dominate the sports pages to the extent it does today.
Here’s the ladder from 1893. Back then, Williamstown and Port Melbourne were playing with the big boys. Matches were low-scoring by today’s standards and there was a surprising number of draws. Poor old North Melbourne only managed 16 goals in seven games.
The Sportsman paid a lot of attention to boxing and horse racing. They had columns on lawn tennis (written by ‘Racquet’), cycling (by ‘Pedals’), football gossip (by ‘Drop kick’), and skittles (by the inexplicably named ‘Cheese’).
The paper assumed that its readers were interested in the latest shows at the theatre (‘Whispers from the wings’ by ‘Quince’), chiefly perhaps as an excuse for badly-drawn pictures of popular actresses, which is almost the only acknowledgement in these pages that women actually exist in the world.
Copious column inches were devoted to boxing, which in those days were a brutal and bloody exhibition. Many boxers had come up through bare-knuckle fighting, although by the 1890s gloves were supposed to be worn for professional fights. Even then, this wasn’t always adhered to – one boxer turned up for a title bout without his gloves, so he borrowed a pair of driving gloves from a chap in the crowd. Fights could go on for many rounds and sometimes lasted for hours.
The Sportsman was obsessed with the career of ‘Melbourne’s idol’, Paddy Slavin, a heavyweight who won the championship of England and defeated some notable American fighters. His most bruising encounter was with his great Australian rival, Peter Jackson, who beat him in a contest remarkably brutal even for those days. Jackson, known as ‘the Black Prince’ was born in Jamaica but came to Australia where he commenced a very successful boxing career. I wonder if Jackson was Australia’s first black champion?
While the sports coverage is fascinating, the advertisements are even more so. The obsessions of men who read sports papers have not changed much in the last 125 years. Then, as now, it was all about cars, alcohol, betting, watches and smoking. The nature of the ads suggests that The Sportsman‘s readership was the more well-heeled section of society. In the early 1890s, during a disastrous economic crash, not many ordinary men would have been able to buy new watches, let alone carriages.
I like this advertisement for a ‘pipe hospital.’
Besides the advertisements for consumer goods, there are many offering treatment or advice for ‘nervous men’, ‘lost manhood’ and ‘weak men made strong’. Anxious masculinity is at its height in these pages – after reading the exploits of heroic boxers and the like, the average chap was likely to feel inadequate. A range of products were on offer to deal with ‘private and nervous diseases’ and problems whose nature could only be hinted at. Some of them were presumably STDs, described as ‘the results of early follies, transgressions or excesses’. Some ads reached a pitch of hyperbole designed to drive the reader beyond the point of despair:
‘ASK YOURSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS: Am I subject to frightful or secret dreams, palpitation of the heart, flushes of heat, dryness of the skin, pale, sallow complexion, restlessness at night, a despair of recovery, anxiety without cause, fear of death, tendency to suicide, lack of mental capacity, nervous irritability, losses or oozing during the day or night, a desire to marry, but a consciousness that to marry would be criminal, nervous prostration, sluggish liver, foul breath, hacking cough, singing noises in the head, irregularity of the bowels, sleepy feeling during the day, specks before the eyes, violent temper, lack of ambition, lack of development, epilepsy …’
The solution is the Eureka Electric Belt.
It looks like something you might find in a kinky sex shop these days, but in the 1890s so-called electric belts and girdles were all the rage. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you probably know I have an interest in Victorian quack medicine (see previous posts about Dr King the celebrated specialist and Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills) but this is the first I’ve heard of electric girdles and electric belts, supposed to cure all forms of ‘nervousness’, a word that apparently covered everything we would now call mental illness, along with sexual dysfunctions and a wide gamut of symptoms. Just how wearing an electric belt was supposed to help with frightful dreams or bad breath is a mystery.
So next time you see a picture of a solid and respectable Victorian chap, remember he might be getting ‘a soothing current of electricity through all the weakened parts’. Maybe that explains the dreamy look in his eyes.
After a pleasant few hours in the company of The Sportsman, I checked out the history of the shop on the Argyle Street corner, 363 Smith Street, in Sands & McDougall street directories.
During the 1890s it was occupied by at least three different newsagents – Henry Cooper, Scott & Son, and J R Ross. Before and after the ’90s, other businesses – not newsagents – occupied the shop. The turnover of occupants is suggestive of the economic difficulties of that period. Perhaps it was Cooper, Scott or Ross who had The Sportsman sign painted.
As for St Leonard cycles, I haven’t yet tracked it down yet. I’ll do it later. I’m just going to slip into my electric belt and pop out to the pipe hospital. Toodle-oo.