Introducing Cole’s Book Arcade

2020 edit: You can now preorder my middle-grade historical fantasy novel based on Cole’s Book Arcade, ‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World,’ from Affirm Press. It will be released on the 29th of September.

Today is the first Tuesday in November: Melbourne Cup Day.

My sister owns an ex-racehorse, and my great-grandmother was an illegal bookmaker. But today, it’s not the race I’m excited about. A hundred and thirty-four years ago today, Cole’s Book Arcade had its grand opening.


This is Cole’s Book Arcade. If you’ve been to Melbourne, you may recognise the porch. The Royal Arcade, which is still standing, still has a porch like this – once upon a time, all the shops on Bourke Street had a porch like this. Cole’s Book Arcade first opened on Melbourne Cup Day in 1883, and for nearly fifty years, it was synonymous with the City of Literature. These days, many visitors to Melbourne find themselves at a loss for grand sights and landmarks to visit, as Melbourne is more about a cultural experience than sightseeing – but in the 19th century, a trip to Cole’s Book Arcade was The Thing to do in Melbourne. 


The view from inside – a somewhat generous drawing, as photos of the Arcade show it was not quite this wide, but still a spacious and light-filled building.

Visitors to the Arcade were encouraged to ‘read for as long as you like: nobody asked to buy.’ The Book Arcade stocked hundreds of thousands of books on every subject available at the time – from gardening to religion to children’s books – but it was much more than a bookshop. The Arcade contained, at various points throughout its lifespan, the following:

  • a lolly shop
  • a toy shop
  • an in-house publishing company
  • a room of illusions known as Wonderland
  • a music shop
  • a merry live band
  • a china shop full of tea things
  • a tea shop full of Chinese things
  • an Indian spice shop
  • a second-hand bookshop
  • mirrored obelisks down its centre, to reflect daylight
  • hundreds of reading chairs
  • a fernery with talking parrots
  • a live monkey exhibit extolling the marvels of evolution
  • a perfumery
  • a soap mountain, from which customers could carve their own soap
  • a stationery shop
  • this chicken:

You fed it a penny, and it clucked and laid a tin egg, in which you found a lolly or a toy.

And before you ask, it has no relation to supermarket giant Coles. Rather, it was the vision of one extraordinary man, Edward William Cole, whose utopian dreams helped make Melbourne what it is today.


This is Edward William Cole. He’s a little bit PT Barnum and a little bit Willy Wonka – without any of the slavery, child abuse or exploitation of the disabled. In fact, Mr Cole (never Edward, according to a great-granddaughter I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to) must be one of the most wholesome people who has ever lived. He believed in equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of class, race, sex or creed. He was staunchly opposed to the White Australia Policy, and actively campaigned against it. He also had some absolutely remarkable predictions about the future, foreseeing that ‘flying machines and the magic lantern’ would be ubiquitous by the year 2000. Unfortunately, we still haven’t realised his dream of a federated world without war or suffering.

Born to a poor labourer and his wife in Kent, England, 1832, Cole was the eldest of ten children. His stepfather taught him to read from the Bible, but when he went to school, an enthusiastic teacher started giving young Cole dangerous ideas about the science of life, earth and the universe, and he was pulled out of school to work on the family farm. The way Cole told it to his children, he was pulled out of school after only a semester; however, it’s worth noting that he wasn’t one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, so it’s possible he may have exaggerated a little. He sailed out of London at eighteen, hoping to find a better life in South Africa.

He didn’t find it, so by age twenty, he was in the Ballarat goldfields. But Ballarat in the 1850s was a noisy, smelly place, full of drunken brawls and intercultural riots. Mining and panning for gold weren’t nearly as easy as it was made out to be. One day, Cole had an epiphany. Gold was a chump’s game, but the shopkeepers and stallholders in the area were turning a tidy profit. He realised there was a gap in the beverage market. He was dead against drinking; I don’t know why. Perhaps that pious stepfather was a raging alcoholic – after all, Cole never spoke to his family again after leaving Kent. Or perhaps, as a person who valued and prized intellect, he simply hated the stupefying influence of alcohol. In any case, while the Chinese miners had their tea, the Europeans (who generally didn’t mix with them) had nothing to drink except the river water, which often made them sick; or alcohol, mostly beer. Thus began Mr Cole’s lemonade stand. The sign, ‘Cole’s Cordials,’ was painted on a frying pan.

cole plate with jingle

A Cole’s Book Arcade children’s plate, complete with the lyrics to the Book Arcade jingle.

He did all right out of his lemonade stand, but soon moved on to boating down the Murray as an itinerant photographer. Eventually, he moved to Melbourne, where he struggled to make ends meet in various odd jobs, including carpentry. Nevertheless, he saved up enough money to spend two years in Melbourne’s public libraries, making up for the education he’d missed out on in childhood.

Regardless, this was an important time in his life. He knew that knowledge was power, recognised his own powerlessness, and overcame the odds to equip himself with knowledge. He started a pie stall at the Eastern Market at the top of Bourke Street. At the same time, he was trying to flog an essay he’d written, The Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul, his reasoning being that religious texts contained manifestly absurd occurrences that should be taken as metaphorical – and furthermore, that other religions contained the same essential messages of kindness and brotherhood. I know, I know – but in the 19th century, that was considered a scandalous idea! Nobody in Melbourne or Sydney wanted to publish it. He got an audience, though, by offering his pamphlet to customers for free while they ate their pies.

By 1865, Cole had upgraded from a pie stall to a book stall, which all started thanks to a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a barrowful of books from an old lady who was trying to refuse his sales tactics. That’s the kind of guy he was: he could turn any problem into a sales opportunity. Over the next decade, Cole’s Cheap Books prospered and Cole ending up buying most of the space in the Eastern Market and leasing it out to other stallholders. He was also behind much of the effort to popularise the market: he drove most of the advertising. He was then able to upgrade from a cart to a proper shop, Cole’s Cheap Book Store.

The first Cole’s Book Arcade opened in 1873. It was slightly smaller than the most famous one, also on Bourke Street but nearer to Parliament House. ‘Cole the bookseller’ was a pretty well-known Melbourne character by then, and increased his renown every day with a variety of strange and amusing advertisements. These often involved songs, jokes and cheeky poems, including parodies of well-known verses.

One of his most famous ads was a serial in the Herald newspaper about a New Guinean tribe of people with tails, calling themselves the Elocwe. (Yep; ‘Elocwe’ is ‘E. W. Cole’ backwards.) After a week of describing tail fashions, etiquette, musicianship and so forth, he concluded that people were much happier with tails than without, and that readers could find hundreds of tales at Cole’s Book Arcade.

His other famous ad was this, in 1875, which really got up people’s noses:





wish to obtain… a wife with the following characteristics: SHE MUST BE good tempered, intelligent, honest… neat, but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy… industrious, frugal…

I am quite sensible that I may be laughed at, but… the best thing a man can have is a good wife, and the worst thing a bad wife, yet in most cases, a very irrational principle of selection is followed, for nineteen out of twenty [marriages] originate from the merest accidents of life…

I have no more hesitation in advertising for… my partner for life, than I should have were I merely advertising for a business partner…’

Some people did laugh. Others sent hate mail. Others still sent applications on behalf of spinsters of their acquaintance. For what it’s worth, I think Cole was ahead of his time – it was the nearest thing available at the time to an online dating site. Curiously, nowhere in his ad did he ask that his wife be young or beautiful – in fact, as he was in his forties, he wanted a ‘spinster of thirty-five or thirty-six’ in the hope that she would have more in common with him.

Miss Eliza Jordan – the only serious applicant as far as Cole was concerned – was twenty-nine, but they were well-matched in character, including a shared sense of humour and love of good clean fun. She wrote to him stating that she thought his idea ‘a very sensible one’. They were both somewhat shy, and Eliza was self-conscious about her looks (one of the tabloids later called her ‘the ugliest woman in Victoria,’ which, while she wasn’t a model, strikes me as monstrously unfair), but they got on so well that they were married within a month.


Brief sketch of King and Queen Cole by yours truly

My favourite story of Mr and Mrs Cole’s courtship goes like this. While visiting Eliza’s hometown of Hobart in Tasmania, Eliza suddenly pulled Cole into a shop doorway on the street and had to explain that she was avoiding another young man who had tried to court her before. In fact, she’d originally gone to Melbourne to get away from him. Her reasons for refusing to marry him were that a), he was unpleasantly moody, and b) he had a silly name. Cole too had a weakness for silly names, so although they were both afraid of seeming shallow, they had a good laugh over it and grew closer than ever.

Soon after their marriage, though, Eliza’s unwanted suitor turned up in Melbourne, asking to see her one more time. Cole went along, being uneasy about what might happen between them, at which the suitor was most displeased. Cole replied that, were their positions reversed, he would rather know that Eliza had made a good match and was happy. The suitor threatened that he was going to drown himself in the river, at which Eliza said something like, ‘Of course you’re not! Back in Hobart, you said the same thing – and if you didn’t throw yourself in the lovely Derwent, you won’t throw yourself in the Yarra.’*

At this, he was about to retort, but then laughed instead, after which they all went and had tea at the Book Arcade.

The big Book Arcade – the really famous one – opened in 1883 on Melbourne Cup Day. Cole wanted to provide an alternative to the drinking and gambling of the races, but people, even intellectuals, rather liked the races, so most of Melbourne went to both events. The crowd crush at the Book Arcade was so terrible that people were likely to be stampeded to death, so Cole’s genius solution was to have his lads stop people at the door and collect a threepenny bronze token, which could be exchanged for store credit or kept as a souvenir. These tokens were, from time to time, scattered around the city. They bore sweet little mottoes like ‘Be Good and Do Good’ or ‘Reading and Thinking Bring Wisdom’ and today, they are collectors’ items. Many of them now have holes in them, because for a while it was fashionable among young people to wear them as pendants. I don’t have one yet – but I hope to soon.


Let’s have another look at the Arcade from the outside.

You may notice the eight-striped rainbow at the top. Cole adopted the rainbow as his Book Arcade logo after noticing how delighted it made the families in the park, and therefore how well it caught people’s attention and how memorable it would be. Religious folks weren’t happy. Cole didn’t care. They didn’t own the rainbow. Just think how they’d flip out over the Pride flag.


Colourised photo taken from the opposite side of Bourke Street

You may notice the little bench, just inside the Arcade. This was another very clever advertising tactic: two mechanical dolls turned a set of metal signs with mottoes on them like those on the medallions. Not only would people stop to read the entire rotation of signs, but the metallic sound of the turning signs attracted passersby.

You may also notice the curtains on the second floor. This was the apartment in which Mr and Mrs Cole lived with their six children: Linda (Ada Belinda), Eddie (Jr), Vally (Valentine), Ruby, Pearl and Ivy. They were a very sweet, clever and fun-loving family. They were healthy and energetic, played lots of games together, and the kids were allowed to decide whether they were tutored at home (which Cole preferred, being of the opinion that kids should study topics that interested them) or went to school (to be with their friends). Mr and Mrs Cole didn’t believe in corporal punishment, and the kids had the run of the Arcade. Unusually for the time, the family ate a lot of fresh produce. The prevalent belief was that fruit and vegetables were acidic and caused poor health, but Cole believed that humans should eat similar food to other apes. This diet – along with Cole’s daily walks, tee-totaling, active mind and tobacco avoidance – probably contributed to his long life.

The major family tragedy was that little Ruby died at eight years old from scarlet fever. Her father published a number of books over the lifetime of the Arcade, including children’s books, and a lovely tribute to Ruby can be read in the Project Gutenberg edition of Cole’s Funny Picture Book #1.

However, the other children all grew up and had families – although Pearl, who was a bit of a party girl according to her grand-niece, never married. My research for today’s post comes from interviews with the family, newspapers of the day, and most of all from ‘Cole of the Book Arcade’, a biography written by Cole Turnley, Linda’s son. Turnley also re-released the Funny Picture Book series throughout the 20th century, although a number of revisions were made. Next week, I’ll go into more detail about Cole Sr’s writing career, and what it has to do with me.

Sadly, the Arcade doesn’t exist anymore. If you visit Howey Place in Melbourne, the glass roof that Cole illegally installed is still over the laneway, as well as the original stonework on the toy shop (currently a fashion outlet). But where the Arcade itself once stood at 299 Bourke Street, there is now a hideous pinkish edifice housing a David Jones. The Melbourne Museum still has the Arcade’s symphonion (a sort of early jukebox), the mechanical dolls and that marvellous chicken. The State Library has many original photographs and pamphlets from the Arcade. Mr Cole died in 1918, two weeks before his 87th birthday. The Book Arcade had another ten years, but without him, it lost its gleam somewhat, and had to close in 1929. Linda and her husband ran their own bookshop for a number of years, but it was comparatively modest and was finally finished off by the Great Depression.

If you’d like to read more about Cole and the Book Arcade, you can check out this article from the Museum, or this entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by Turnley.  There’s also a fictionalisation of Cole’s life, Utopian Man – a dramatic and beautifully-written literary novel for adults. Turnley’s biography is my go-to, though; Linda, Eddie, Vally, Pearl and Ivy were all alive to relate every sort of crazy anecdote about life in the Arcade, from Eddie’s pranks to their mother’s habit of announcing that she had ‘had a brainwave’. The Funny Picture Books are also full of cute and amusing stories. More on them next week.


A young Vally and his dog, Ebenezer. And people think the Victorians had no sense of humour!

*The Yarra was, at this time, the outfall of all Melbourne’s most revolting effluvium. It was a sewer, a tip, a storm drain – I picture it like the Ankh sludge-glacier from Discworld.

19 thoughts on “Introducing Cole’s Book Arcade

  1. thalia says:

    Very nice article. I wish I’d been around to see Cole’s Book Arcade – it must have been a wonderful place. I’ve got Cole Turnley’s bio, the reprinted Funny Picture Books and I recently bought my 6th Book Arcade token. I wish I could afford to collect more. I’d also love to own one of the children’s china plates but they are definitely out of my league.


    • Amelia says:

      Wow! What an incredible collection. How much do the tokens go for, usually?
      I’d really love an edition of No. 1 with the Ruby Cole song in it; I have a reprinted No.2 and a 1926 Intellect Sharpener.


    • Amelia says:

      Hi Jacquie, congratulations on your acquisition. There were a lot of mirrors all around the Arcade to create the impression of space and to reflect light. There were also the Funny Mirrors which eventually went to Luna Park. That’s as far as my mirrors-in-Cole’s-Book-Arcade knowledge goes as a humble author. You’ll need an antiques dealer, I think!


  2. Cindy Dawson says:

    Dear Amelia, I have just read your book The Grandest Bookshop in the World in two days straight and I loved every page of it. I couldn’t put it down. You did a magnificent job in bringing the bookshop and the Cole family back to life and I felt like I was in the story at times. Only wish I’d lived in that era and been able to see the store. I also really appreciated the historical note at the end. A wonderful read and would recommend it to any lover of reading. Kind regards Cindy


    • Amelia says:

      Hi Cindy, thank you so much for your lovely comment! It would be wonderful to return to Cole’s Book Arcade. When I was researching it, I’d stare at the pictures sometimes, thinking: ‘let me in!’ And if you liked the historical note, visit the Museum and see the Arcade automata when you have the chance. They’re very beautiful.


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