Our retail precinct derives its name from a rather notorious Melburnian, Madame Brussels. Brothel owner and resident of Lonsdale Street, she was on a collision course with the forces of morality in the 1880s.
Born Caroline Baum in Potsdam, Germany in 1851, Madame Brussels opened her first brothel at 8 Lonsdale Street. She was a 28 year old widow. As business thrived, she purchased 32 Lonsdale Street, a brick house with seven rooms. She bought the adjoining six-room house at 34 Lonsdale Street in 1889. She connected the houses and retained ownership of both until her death in July 1908.
Perhaps bravely for the times in which she lived, Madame Brussels listed her main establishment at 32-34 Lonsdale Street as a brothel in the directory. Eight of the brothels in the precinct surrounding 50 Lonsdale Street were controlled by her in those days. Most were considered “high class”, but others like the one at 4 Casselden Place were of a more dubious calibre. In 1878, Local Policeman, Sergeant Dalton, was cited in the Report on the Bill for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases that “she has two splendid houses in [Lonsdale] Street that cost her 1,300 pounds and those two houses are her own property, plus two cottages and another nearby house let out for prostitution”. He was quoted as saying that her weekly earnings were “something enormous: 3 or 4 pounds”. He also said that no other brothels were as extensive as Madame Brussels’.
Her infamy reached its zenith in 1889, when conservative moral crusaders claimed that she had been parading in Collins Street in charge of a beautiful girl under 20 with a white feather in her hat, indicating that her maiden virtue was to be had for a price “in her gilded den”.
The foyer of 50 Lonsdale Street has some wonderful artifacts, redolent with history. Do make some time to cast your eye over the flotsam that emerged during the excavation of this site. And if ghosts could walk today in Madame Brussels Lane, no doubt they could regail us with colourful stories of the lives of these early Melburnians.
Source material derived from: Meudell, G. The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift. London, 1920s. Report on the Bill for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases,October 1878. Davidson, G. The Outcasts of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1985