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Sex work was one of the major ways poor women could earn a reasonable income in the 19th century. Especially unmarried women with babies. Nor do we often meet these women in our history books. Social stigma belies the importance of prostitution in providing an independent living, and even property ownership, for numerous women in this period.
Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of this patch was Madame Brussels and her Bellevue-Villa , still commemorated today with a bar of the same name on Bourke Street. Clientele came from everywhere and every class, but proximity to the all-male enclave of parliament and treasury was a distinct advantage for these fancy brothels. The area has been extensively excavated by a series of archaeological projects over the last 30 years, and our recent intensive research on the artefacts recovered held at Museum Victoria and Heritage Victoria is revealing much more about the brothels and the women who owned them that had disappeared from memory.
The brothel owned by one Mrs Bond on Lonsdale Street was so quiet that no-one knew it was there until archaeologists dug up her back yard in The excavators speculated that the site had been a brothel and our work on the artefacts has confirmed it.
Alicia Bond arrived in Little Lon from Ireland as a widow but with a de facto husband suffering from tuberculosis. She started by renting a back lane cottage for a brothel, and eventually bought her own house on the main street and opened a grocery shop. She then poured her earnings into buying cottages which she rented out to other sex workers. This cover was very effective and the only reason we know about her brothel is because the artefacts recovered included an uncommonly large number of bottles champagne 77 , imported spirits 4 and absinthe 10 amongst the rubbish in her back yard, together with over oyster shells.
Archaeological evidence shows Melburnians often ate oysters at this time, but they seemed particularly popular at brothels. Such luxury items were typical of the higher class brothels, where the selection of dinner services and drinking glasses projected middle class status in order to create a familiar environment and attracted a wealthier clientele than the back lane cottages. Around the corner and down a side street, Mary Williams rented two very basic, detached two-room cottages from Mrs Bond.