Tag Archives: The Block Melbourne

Gay History: Alan McKail, Designer, Melbourne (1888-1931).

Alan McKail

b. 31 January 1888,

Beaumont, Hay, New South Wales

d. 5 November 1931

Warrandyte, Victoria

Buried Box Hill, Melbourne, Victoria

Also known as Hugh John Alan McKail, Alan M’Kail, Allan McKail

Designer (Textile Artist / Fashion Designer), Designer (Theatre / Film Designer)

A Melburnian auctioneer, fashion and theatre designer known for his costumes at Melbourne’s Artists’ Balls. Contemporary police and media reactions to his more flamboyant costumes give an insight into attitudes towards gay male and transgender identity in early twentieth century Melbourne.

AS EARLY AS 1868, the Block on Collins Street’s north side, stretching from Elizabeth to Swanston Street, was fashionable: ‘ablaze with its crowds of colonial fashionables and celebrities . . . passing the hour in an easy, careless, lounging, gossipy manner’. Whilst ‘doing the block’ on Saturday mornings, middle-class Melbourne showed that it was the best dressed in Australia. So popular indeed, that soon this celebrated stretch was sold, demolished and replaced, as it has been twice since.

Back then, the most desirable place to be seen in Melbourne was Café Gunsler on the Block, later known as the Vienna Café. In 1916 it was remodelled as the splendid, spacious Café Australia, and in 1927 became the Australia Hotel. In 1939 this was demolished and replaced by the larger, glamorous Hotel Australia, some of whose bars immediately became the most popular meeting place in Melbourne for homosexual (‘camp’) men, particularly the Collins Street first floor cocktail bar and the basement public bar, which from 1970-80 became the Woolshed. In 1992 the Hotel Australia and an adjoining hotel were demolished and replaced by Australia on Collins. This site has a significant architectural history in which creative women played a strong role, but after briefly tracing its development, I want to explore the much less known experiences and memories of its gay clientele, mainly from 1930-1992, as far as evidence allows.

Most of the rich experiences of gay men recounted in this article were concealed from the community and straight historians at least until the 1970s, and even today. Most of the gay men whose stories are quoted here seem to have led happy lives and did not feel oppressed, but they knew the limit of their behaviour, without exposing themselves and their friends to risk. So describing their lives openly for the public record was risky. Aberrant lives are known from court records, but until ALGA oral history interviews, the social experience of ordinary lesbians and gay men in Melbourne before about 1980 remained systematically unexplored. For instance, although it describes other underworlds and minority behaviour, Andrew Brown-May’s Melbourne Street Life, published in 1988, only once mentions homosexuality, and that as a nuisance in public urinals.

There is only the slightest evidence of whether the Café Australia, or the pre-war Prince of Wales supported a gay culture, or even that one existed in private. Other than the legal records and Truth’s prurient histrionics, the earliest evidence of generalised gay social life is from c.1930, from the gays born during the Great War who lived long enough and were courageous enough to record their memories on tape.

The eminent architect Lloyd Tayler designed Harrington’s Buildings (1879-1939) for the new owner and in 1891 the first building of the ambitious Block Arcade was completed. Soon after, Café Gunsler’s (to its left) was bought by Austrians who renamed it the Vienna Café (1890-1915). It remained fashionable and popular: theatre celebrities and famous men gathered there and its Melbourne Cup festivities were the highlight of the year, when Collins Street was thick with hansom cabs and often the vice-regal party attended. Oral history interviews can take us back as far as living memory allows (to about 1930). Before that often the only information about unconventional behaviour we have comes from court records. On 22 September 1908, Alan McKail (aged 20), Douglas Ogilvie (22) and Tom Page (25) were three young men-about-town who decided to dress as fashionable ladies, and have a champagne supper at the Vienna Cafe on the fashionable “Block” of Collins Street. The three were observed “going the pace” at the Vienna Cafe on the evening of 22 September, 1908. According to their statements, the three had come into the city that Saturday night in disguise to attempt to gain entry to the Scandinavian Ball. When refused entry to that function, they went to the theatre and decided to finish off their evening with supper at the most fashionable restaurant in Melbourne. Apparently, while there, “their behaviour was such to attract attention.” As they left the restaurant, a hostile crowd gathered in the street and the three were roughly handled by some of the toughs in the crowd. The police were called and the three found themselves in the City Court. They were charged with behaving indecently in a public place, Collins Street.

The presiding magistrate was unsure as to whether the defendants were “sexual perverts or brainless young idiots who needed to be brought up with a round turn.” He was of the firm opinion that “such conduct as theirs was a menace to every respectable woman, and not only a riot, but even murder, might take place if young men were permitted to carry on in that manner in a public cafe” and stated that the difference between male and female apparel was one of the “cornerstones of civilisation and no-one could be allowed to flaunt that convention.” Page and Ogilvie worked for the Melbourne Steamship Company, whilst McKail was ‘well connected’, had £500 a year and trained as a fashion designer in Paris.

Mr. Fogarty, for defendants, without calling any evidence in defence contended that not the slightest testimony had been given that defendants had behaved in an improper or an indecent manner. Their disguise was obvious. If they could not go to a fancy dress ball in female costume the’ University students’ precession and characters in this Eight-hours demonstration,were also illegal.

Mr. Dwyer, P.M., said the suggestions made against the defendants in the case had not been justified by the evidence. They had not conducted themselves improperly, nor taken other undue advantages of tho costumes they were wearing. Unless there was a law which forbade man to assume the garb of woman, or vice versa, there seemed to be nothing against defendants. Still, they wore silly young donkeys, and he (Mr. Dwyer) did not for a: moment regard their action as a proper proceeding, which only tended to raise scandal and injure their reputations; They were treading on thin ice, and might get themselves into trouble without the intervention of the law if they were not more careful.

‘Defendants were discharged.

In late 1915, the significant Chicago architect of Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) and his wife Marion Mahony (1871-1961) redesigned and rebuilt the interiors as ‘the most beautiful café in Australia’, and our earliest architectural modernism. When it opened in November 1916 Australia was at war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose capital was Vienna, so the name was sensibly switched to Café Australia. Six o’clock closing had been imposed that October, substantially reducing its opening hours. At least one patron remembered the Café Australia as being ‘slightly gay’ in the 1930s.

In 1927 it was renamed the Australia Hotel and by 1932, sold to hotelier Norman Carlyon’s company, The Australia Hotel Pty Ltd.10 Later, Carlyon owned the freehold with Frederick Matear (1888-1968). The State Library of Victoria holds an evocative mid-1930s street photograph looking east, depicting the Block Arcade, the Australia, the Tatler Bar and their neighbours.

The twenties: the decline and fall of our hero Alan McKail.

After getting so much unwanted attention parading around Melbourne’s ‘Block’ dragged-up as a Gibson Girl in the Edwardian years, then charming the social pages as a cubist Pierrot during the Indian Summer of the pre-war era, one would have imagined the Roaring Twenties would have been Alan McKail’s crowning glory. But, although our Alan could obviously still turn heads in the Jazz Age, noted among the well-dressed patrons of the Moonee Valley racecourse in ‘Table Talk’ in January 1925, he seems to have been falling out of the social spotlight.

The twenties began with McKail in a sound enough position to help out friends in need, purchasing ‘The Robins’, artist Penleigh Boyd’s Warrandyte retreat, after Boyd’s tragic death in a car accident in 1923 had left his family in financial limbo. McKail’s company, Decoration Co., who had worked with Penleigh Boyd on the sale of his studio contents only a few month earlier, handled the sale of Boyd’s estate. As Steve Duke pointed out, the security afforded by McKail’s purchase and the estate sale ensured that Boyd’s youngest son Robin would go on to write ‘The Australian Ugliness’, his influential book about poor aesthetic standards in local architecture and design, among many other career highlights.In February 1926 the Decoration Co. auction business, whose shareholders included Alan McKail, his former life partner Cyril John McClelland and his aunt Effie Eliza Ball, was valued by Melbourne ‘Herald’ at £20,000 (about A$1,500,000 in today’s money). Later that year ‘The Herald’ reported that McKail was about to head off to Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), for a holiday.

But things weren’t all going well in The Robins. Steve Duke often speculated that Alan McKail’s poverty-stricken death from tuberculosis in 1931 may have been caused by the renowned excesses of the age. Evidence has recently emerged from Victoria’s health records which, sadly, confirms Steve’s theory.

In November 1925 Alan McKail checked into the Pleasant View licensed house in his childhood home suburb of Preston, staying there for a week. The idyllic name of the house, which looked across the Lower Yarra Valley towards the Dandenongs, disguised its purpose; it was a clinic for recovering alcoholics. Nineteen months later, and not too long after his return from Colombo, McKail voluntarily checked into the less euphemistically-titled Lara Inebriates Retreat, north of Geelong, for another week’s drying out.

On the 2nd July 1927, Alan McKail checked out of the Lara Inebriates Retreat. At the time of writing, there are no further known references to him in the Melbourne press until his death notices appeared in November 1931. [1]

There is an Alan McKail Day cemetery walk at Box Hill cemetery in January (see link in References) which visits LGBT graves in the cemetery and plants rainbow flags on them.

Citation [1] The twenties: the decline and fall of our hero Alan McKail by Steve Duke BA FRGS (1957-2017) and Eric Ridder. By permission, and with thanks to Eric Riddler, and the Three Mullets Club https://www.facebook.com/threemulletsclub/?fref=ts

References

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