What makes a Melbourne icon? I reflected on this as I headed south from Richmond into the handkerchief-sized suburb of Cremorne, a place where Melbourne icons are thick on the ground.
Cremorne is tucked into a few streets south of Richmond and north of the River Yarra and the Monash Freeway. This little pocket of narrow streets, red bricks and bluestone laneways was once a hub of industry, the home of products that were literally household names, such as Bryant and May matches and Rosella tomato sauce. It’s been a long time, though, since these iconic products were actually made here.
Looking back further, in the 1850s this part of Richmond was home to the Cremorne Gardens (the origin of the suburb’s present name), pleasure gardens set up by a theatrical entrepreneur who filled the place with tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, fireworks displays, dramatic panoramas of historical events, and the first balloon flight in Australia.
These days, though, it is crammed with hip design studios, furniture makers, event managers, creative agencies, and cafes offering ‘bespoke espresso’ (doesn’t that just mean they make one for you when you ask for it?) There’s even a hotel … for cats.
Cremorne has undergone a few transitions, but to wander around it today is to be confronted at every step by traces of its industrial past.
There it is – the Nylex Plastics sign and clock, perched atop the silos. Erected in the 1960s, it was an example of a ‘skysign’ popular in the mid-20th century (Stephen Banham has written beautifully about skysigns in his book Characters, a must for anyone with an interest in culture and typography). Many of Melbourne’s skysigns have gone now, but the Nylex sign survives, and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
The Nylex sign is an example of the advertising becoming more famous than the brand itself – Nylex Plastics went out of business a few years ago but the sign grows ever more famous, despite the fact that it and the clock have not functioned for years (although the clock did briefly and mysteriously start working again for a few hours in 2015.)
The clock was famously mentioned in the song ‘Leaps and bounds’ by another Melbourne icon, Paul Kelly, who performed on top of the silo in the ‘Leaps and bounds’ video. So connected is the sign with the song (at least in my mind) that it’s hard to think of one without the other. (Go on, click on the link and watch it. It only takes three minutes, it’s great and I’ll still be here when you get back.)
Not far away, tucked down Dover Street, is another classic neon sign: Slade Knitwear. Erected in 1970, it has not been lit up since the mid-1990s. Nevertheless it is worth making a pilgrimage into the heart of Cremorne to crane your neck up at the impressive scale of the signage.
Like the Nylex sign, it’s a local icon. A group of local activists fighting to preserve it took the name of RING (Residents in a Neon Glow). Accordingly it was celebrated in Hayden Dewar’s mural, painted on the side of yet another icon, the old Dimmeys store.
Turning from neon to paint, on Balmain Street you can see the fading remains of the Rosella preserving company, which produced jams and tinned fruit, and until quite recently tomato sauce for every Aussie barbecue – what could be more iconic than that?
According to Janet McCalman’s history of Richmond, Struggletown, the Rosella preserving and canning factory was a major source of employment for young women. But the work was seasonal and insecure, and piece work favoured the young and strong who could work fast. Knowing that Richmond contained a large pool of people desperate for jobs, the company could always find casual labour when it needed it – especially in times of hardship.
The Rosella buildings were on both sides of Balmain Street. This was on the south side:
And here’s what part of it looks like now. The right hand side has been, weirdly, chopped in half and a road goes through it. But the Rosella signage is still there.
There was much lamenting when the company finally closed, at the loss of another ‘Aussie icon’. (Also lots of ‘outsauced’ jokes). But you can still get Rosella products, though of course the brand is now owned by an overseas company.
Another major local employer was Bryant and May, the British match manufacturer. Its Melbourne operation produced Redhead matches, which were … iconic.
The Bryant and May complex is a magnificent set of industrial red brick buildings, built in the early 20th century, including a chimney monogrammed with the letters B & M, and a clock whose letters spell out the name of the company. There was obviously an expectation of permanence about the business.
Bryant and May was a long established British company that had been the object of the ‘matchgirls’ strike’ in London in the 1880s. Workers protested against the use of white phosphorus, which caused match factory employees to develop appalling, potentially fatal diseases, in particular a bone disease affecting the face known as ‘phossy jaw’.
By the time the Melbourne factory opened, white phosphorus had been banned internationally. The new product, using alternative chemicals, was called ‘safety matches’ – as well as being less dangerous to workers, they were less prone to explode in your pocket.
Working conditions at Bryant & May’s in Cremorne were regarded as generous – Janet McCalman writes: “The large modern factories mollified their legions of semi-skilled and unskilled hands with good working conditions and plentiful organised recreation.” In the 1920s the company was known for its work picnics, competitive sports and Christmas parties. There are even tennis courts. But even at Bryant and May, workers were never immune from contractions in the economy, such as the post-war slump of the 1920s.
Match production ceased here in the 1980s, and Redheads today come from Sweden. The buildings – under heritage protection – are owned by ANZ, whose plans for them are unclear.
What do our icons say about us? Whereas some cities’ icons celebrate centuries of history, spectacular architecture or natural beauties, Melbourne’s are low-key. Neon signs and a clock, a bottle of sauce and boxes of matches are among our symbols. They represent simple pleasures, daily work and ordinary suburban life (surely the Nylex sign is only celebrated because so many people drive past it on their way to and from work). Paul Kelly, the much-loved troubadour whose songs are about the ordinary heartbreaks of life, (think of ‘How to Make Gravy’) seems typically Melbourne in a way that a more flamboyant performer never would.
These symbols also, I think, remind us of the people who worked in those places, the working-class lives in suburbs like Richmond that depended on manufacturing industries back when we had them. It’s hard to feel much emotional connection to a product that is just another part of the global economy. Perhaps that is what we forlornly try to hang on to, in our nostalgic attachment to these icons – hankering for a time when everything wasn’t so disconnected.
Wandering around Cremorne I came across this spectacular artwork by street artist Adnate, whose depictions of Indigenous children are a reminder of the land’s original ownership and the fact that all these icons, however treasured, are recent arrivals.
More about the neon signs of Richmond and Cremorne, and Melbourne neon generally, can be found in Characters by Stephen Banham.
More about Richmond’s industries can be found in Janet McCalman’s history, Struggletown.
For more about the history of this area, including some great old photos, check out the Richmond and Burnley Historical Society.