Slander in suburbia (not to mention the pyjamas)

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Fences make for good neighbours. Allegedly.

Edwin Oswald was an elderly man, who in 1925 lived with his wife in Bayswater. But, like many a married man before and since, he decided he wasn’t getting enough at home, so resolved to get some elsewhere in exchange for a monetary transaction. If you get our meaning.

Fortunately for Edwin, he knew where some was available on King William Street in Bayswater and wrote a very precise letter stating the date and time he would turn up, together with a few somewhat explicit lines detailing what he would require when he got there. Then he put the missive in the mailbox and waited for the appointment.

At 7pm on his chosen day in March 1925, he arrived and knocked on the door. The door was opened by Mrs Ethel Drew who demanded to know what he wanted. After telling him she didn’t want him there, he replied with the romantic words “But I want you.” At this point, one Constable White stepped forwards from the shadows and arrested Edwin for using insulting words towards a lady.

But this was not a simple case of a mistaken address, for Edwin had good (if wrong) reasons for believing his indecent request would be fulfilled, for it was common knowledge that Ethel was King William Street’s most available prostitute. Only she wasn’t. She was a war widow with two young daughters, and nothing but gossip to link her to the world’s oldest profession.

The rumours had been started by one of Ethel’s neighbours, Edith Nelson. The pair had once been friends, and had fallen out for some reason or other now lost to us. Edith told everyone who would listen that more than a dozen men a week would go in and out of Ethel’s house, and that she only ever paid tradesmen with (ahem) gifts in kind.

She went around the neighbourhood letting mothers know that all sons should beware of a certain house on King William Street. And Edith was not without good evidence. Oh no. Not only had Ethel started dressing better of late, Edith, with her own eyes, had seen men’s pyjamas drying on the washing line. And why would an innocent widow have pyjamas on a line unless she was a hooker? Why indeed, we would still ask today.

So, like the good Christian she was, Edith went straight to the parson of the church where both Edith and Ethel worshipped, and demanded he denounce her neighbour from the pulpit. Rather understandably, Rev Howes declined the offer, even though Edith pointed out that the church was now in the unenviable position of taking offerings each Sunday from a woman of ill repute.

The visit of Edwin Oswald to her door seems to have been the last straw for the much-maligned Ethel, who sued her neighbour for slander. After a case which very much entertained the reporters, his Honour decided that Edith was indeed a slanderer, and she now owed her neighbour £60 in damages. Which presumably meant that Ethel could dress very nicely indeed after that victory.

An unwanted bed warmer

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Not just bed and breakfast

It can be hard on our country cousins when they don’t understand city ways. Take for example, Charles Sonesson who came down to Fremantle from Narrogin in 1917. Needing somewhere to sleep for the night he booked his bed at the Alhambra Café in Henry Street.

This café had opened in 1900 in the Marich Buildings, with a dining room decorated with mirrors and wall paintings. The upstairs bedrooms were described as considerably large and clean. Which is nice.

In accordance with the sign displayed outside the Alhambra, Charles paid one shilling for his room. It being early, our young Narrogin hero went for a walk, but was disgusted by how Fremantle girls were wearing their skirts way too short.

Disappointed in modern women he went back to the Alhambra, where the night porter said, “Oh, yes, this is your room, sir, but it’s another four shillings, please.”

“Nonsense!” said Charles, “I’ve paid for my bed.”

“That’s all right, old chap,” said the porter, “but you don’t know what’s in it yet. Step this way.”

After stepping that way and duly minding the step, Charles was shown into a bedroom where Miss Lily Smith, or, as her name was entered in the book—Miss Cherrynose—was lying on Charles’ bed.

The young man from Narrogin tried to explain he hadn’t requested any extras, but the night porter was having none of it.

“Come on, come on,” he said, “gimme the other four bob, she’s all right.”

It was not until he called the police that Charles could get his possessions and flee the Alhambra Café to find accommodation elsewhere in the delightful city.

Can anyone recommend accommodation in Fremantle now that provides additional services?

Our hidden heritage of hookers

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A place to find escorts?

Dodgy Perth recommends taking a stroll to the west end of James Street. The frontage of the Wilson Car Park conceals a secret. A secret about courtesans. Which are the best kind of secrets.

If you look carefully above the car park, there is an Art Deco building hidden behind the modern façade. Coming through the entrance, much of the older erection can still be seen. The signage proudly proclaims that it belonged to Martin Nixon, manufacturer of bodies.

Dodgy Perth is not interested in Martin right now. Although this particular body builder will appeal to the kind of bearded man interested in old buses and trucks, and a few of his vehicles still exist here and there, mostly in museums.

But Martin only purchased the ‘Modern Service Station’. The original had been erected to serve the rather different needs of Princess Josie de Bray in 1930. Which still involved bodies, however.

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Service was definitely what you got

Josie was Perth’s most prominent madam in the 1920s and ’30s. This James Street garage would not only offer your car a full service, it also provided a secret entrance into Josie’s back passage. That is, to her fabulous purpose-built brothel on Roe Street.

“Just going to fill her up,” would have been an expression on the lips of more than one Perth bloke.

So, next time you’re in James Street, have a look at the last remaining evidence of Perth’s famous red light district. And don’t forget to get a full service while you’re at it.

Missionary position?

So how do you imagine the inside of a 1920s brothel on Roe Street?

Like the above, perhaps? Not even close.

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Paul Hasluck once accompanied the police on their rounds and described the interiors:

Beyond the door we walked down a passageway to a sitting-room—very like the sitting-room of a Methodist parsonage with a green baize tablecloth on a dining-table with a lace doily in the centre and a vase of listless leaves and china ornaments of shepherdesses and dogs on the mantelpiece. In one of the smaller places, obviously not a Methodist, there was a cheap coloured print of the Madonna with uplifted face.

One empty bedroom shown to us was very much like the sort of bedroom the spinster sister of the Methodist minister might have slept in by herself, with a bass bedstead, a white quilt with tassels, and a china toilet set in the willow pattern.

Apparently Josie Villa was a little livelier, with brighter lights, bolder pictures and a piano. The girls there were more animated with thinner dresses, and tidier hair and makeup compared to the other brothels on the Rue de Roe.

The above quotation comes from the incomparable Selling Sex by Raelene Frances. The complete guide to everything you ever wanted to know about the history of prostitution in Australia but were afraid to ask.

Josie v The Nazis

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I know I promised to move on to Audrey and her amazing eyes, but since I needed to write up Josie’s story today, I thought I’d offer it here for general consumption.

Regular readers will have seen most of the details before, but there are (hopefully) a couple of added twists.

Enjoy:

What a story. What a dame. She was a peroxide blonde, French beauty who dominated Perth’s prostitution business for decades. She held wild, wild parties, was shot in the middle of the night, captured by Nazis, and owned a chain of service stations, one of which was the secret entrance to her Hooker HQ.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Princess Josie De Bray. Widely thought to be the first peroxide blonde Perth had ever seen.

Of course, she wasn’t really a princess. Except to those men who whispered her name in the Weld Club or in the Officer’s Mess. Nor was she even Josie De Bray, although that was the only name people knew her by. She was, in fact, Marie-Louise Monnier, from the small French Town of St Nazaire. But we’ll call her Josie.

Josie started working in the goldfields during the boom years. She probably started off as a working girl herself, but it wasn’t to remain that way for long.

Continue reading →

The shootout on the Rue de Roe

The red light area on Roe Street, shortly before the brothels were closed (image 1958).

The red light area on Roe Street, shortly before the brothels were closed (image 1958).

Josie Villa wasn’t always at 222 Roe Street. Just after the Great War, it was located closer to town at number 98 on the same street.

It was at this location that Josie De Bray was wounded in a shooting, possibly carried out by drunk soldiers.

In August 1919, at 3.30am, a car was driven along the red light district, with the occupants demanding admission to the houses there.

At this time of night, the only occupants of Josie Villa were Josie herself and Esther Miller. They had just eaten a late supper, and were preparing to retire to their rooms, when they heard the car pull up outside the house.

Footsteps were heard on the front verandah, and a rap on the door followed. Although Esther said she would answer, Josie was ahead of her. She approached the front door and asked who was outside.

One of the men demanded admission, but Josie replied that no one would be admitted at that time of day. Looked through the peephole in the door she saw some of the visitors were wearing military uniforms.

The men repeated their demand, but Josie again refused them admission. They clearly became agitated and started shouting.

Suddenly two shots rang through the house. A revolver had been placed close to the peephole and fired into the passageway.

At the first shot, Josie felt a stinging pain on her left elbow. The second bullet missed her, sped through the length of the passage, leaving a hole in the wall at the end.

If Josie had not, by sheer chance, stepped aside from the peephole at the right moment, she could easily have been killed.

After firing the shots, the men fled the scene.

Josie managed to get to the rear of the house, leaving a trail of blood along the way. A doctor was summoned, and she was carried to a nearby private hospital on St George’s Terrace.

A fortune on furs

ML Monnier

It is not easy to square the post war picture of Mme Marie-Louise Monnier with the pre-war image of her as a strikingly colourful peroxide blonde princess. But being held in a concentration camp might well make you a different person.

Undoubtedly, she came from a good French family. She had received a good education, and had contacts in France which suggested her family moved in the best circles.

She was pretty in her younger days, but grew very plump with increasing age. Her clothes came from Australia’s most exclusive stores. Her money was good, even if her profession wasn’t. And she spent a small fortune on furs while travelling in a smart car with her own chauffeur.

Her striking blonde hair was said to be a matter of her own taste, not necessarily a preference of gentlemen. In fact she was probably the first peroxide blonde in Perth.

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At 137 Joel Terrace, Princess Josie had an exclusive home with a river frontage. Neighbours turned an appraising eye as hundreds of pounds worth of expensive furniture went into the house, gazed with intrigued interest at the blonde, middle-aged, expensively dressed lady who followed it in.

But excitement simmered when whispers carried the name ‘Josie’—whispers that became almost a bellow of protest as some of the girls from Roe Street began to visit the house on social calls.

After Josie went overseas, the house was left in charge of one of her friends, who was tipped off by the police not to allow any of the girls from Roe Street to come there.

It was subsequently leased to a lady with several daughters. She exited hastily as soon as she learned the identity of its owner.