Footscray revisited

On 27 August I took a group of keen psychogeographers on a tour around Footscray as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. The walk took in a number of my favourite locations – including ghost signs, street art, evidence of past lives and lost histories. The tour was an attempt to explore some of the many layers of this fascinating suburb, and to suggest ways that suburban locations can be the starting point for writing.

Having lived in the inner west for many years I’m reasonably familiar with much of Footscray, but it’s always the case that when you walk slowly and attentively along a suburban street you notice details you have never spotted before.

We began beside the Maribyrnong river, where this small building bears a ghostsign for Griffiths & Baird, toolmakers, a company that was there in the 1950s, and their telephone number, MW 3953. That’s easy to spot – but look more closely, to the left of the door,  and you can just make out a second ghostsign for the firm of Moloney and Watts, and the words ‘Sydney and Melbourne’. Moloney and Watts were here some time before 1935. The building is a palimpsest of industrial history.


Photo: Felicity Watson

On Hopkins Street we passed the mural of the legendary furniture mogul, Franco Cozzo (top). Franco has been superbly rendered on the wall of his own shop, welcoming people to Footscray, surrounded by baroque airborne chairs and dressers flying in on angels’ wings. And here’s one of Franco’s ads from the 1980s. Megalo, Megalo, megalo!

A little further up Hopkins Street is the old Footscray Monte de Piete, built in 1891. This was a pawn shop and money lender – I’ve also seen the remains of a Monte de Piete in Richmond, and they used to be a common sight across the Melbourne suburbs, especially in working class areas. This shop continued to be a second-hand dealer  into the mid-20th century, before becoming a restaurant in the 1960s.


We took a short walk through the Trocadero Arcade at the corner of Hopkins and Leeds Streets. There used to be a cinema, the Trocadero, on this spot, but it was pulled down and replaced by this nondescript arcade in the 1970s. Few shops can be found inside – two of the last survivors are a flower shop and a picture framing place. Is it a symbol of despair, or hope? Perhaps, like a green shoot pushing its way up through concrete, the flower shop will herald a commercial revival.


Photo: Felicity Watson

We next headed into Maddern Square, which is thick with varying examples of street art and a few ghostsigns.


One of Footscray’s best pieces of street art is the large paste-up by Baby Guerrilla on the back of the former Grand Theatre, visible from Maddern Square. A former cinema is a good place to find lovers: so many people have romantic memories of cinemas, which are places packed with emotional history. As the years pass, these flying lovers have begun to peel and dissolve, as love itself can do. How long before they lose touch with each other completely?


Around the front of the Grand, on Paisley Street, you can see the signage of the Fiesta Bingo hall and various other businesses over the Grand Theatre’s facade, culminating in the signage of the furniture store for which the Grand is now basically a warehouse. If you want to know more about the story of The Grand, I wrote about it here.


The Dancing Dog cafe is a well-known Footscray cafe/bar and performance venue, but its original use is not so well known – for many years, from 1909 until the late 20th century it was a ‘UFS dispensary’, ie a pharmacy operated by the United Friendly Societies.


You can still see a ghostsign on the side wall for one of these friendly societies, the Australian Natives Association. The ANA was founded in the late 19th century and was a society for Australian-born members only. Members gained access to certain benefits including hospital and medical insurance. The society was a strong advocate of Australian federation and numbered Alfred Deakin among its members – though that was before this particular building was built. The society went on into at least the 1970s before being rolled into a larger financial institution, as many friendly societies were.


A little further down Albert Street you get a good view of another mural, this one on the wall of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre depicting Malcolm Fraser and his pro-refugee statements. You could call this a kind of ghostsign, too: the ghost of decency in Australian policy towards refugees.


Not far away we reached the Hot Shot pool saloon – the shell of a cafe and pool hall with its beaten up facade. I wrote a poem about this place a couple of years ago and it hasn’t changed much since – though some work seems to be going on inside, so perhaps the Hot Shot will finally get a face lift.




Many more striking artworks by Baby Guerrilla can be seen all over Footscray.


Another Baby Guerrilla artwork, on the wall of Victoria University. Photo: Felicity Watson.

Our final stop was outside 92 Cowper Street, where an old grocer’s shop is still adorned with beautiful ghostsigns for McAlpins malto-pepsin self-raising flour, and Preservene Soap.


I enjoyed leading this psychogeography walk as part of the Writers’ Festival.  I’m now resuming my circumnavigation of Melbourne, and will be picking up the walk again in Albert Park in the next post.

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