Marvellous Melbourne wasn't all elegant balls and leisured promenades down Collins Street, especially if you were a woman.
Wayward Women? is now open at the Old Treasury Building, and as the name suggests, through public records from the collection of Public Record Office Victoria, the exhibition introduces some characters who don’t fit the stereotype of demure Victorian womanhood.
There are some well-known names amongst them. There's Madam Brussels, the successful brothel-keeper, who started out as a policeman’s wife and ended as the owner of some of the most profitable ‘flash houses’ in the city. And Brettena Smyth, the larger-than-life feminist, who made a living selling contraceptives from her druggist shop in North Melbourne, while campaigning for votes for women.
We also meet some of the state’s infamous murderers including Frances Knorr, the ‘Brunswick baby farmer’ and ‘the worst woman in Melbourne’ Beatrice Phillips, who may have been the most-convicted woman of her time racking up at least 227 convictions.
But the exhibition is not all doom and gloom. Despite the challenging nature of many of these stories, there is a glimmer of hope too. Some of these women attracted the attention of determined reformers like Vida Goldstein and Rev. Charles Strong. In time their collective efforts helped to improve the position of all women and won many of the reforms we now take for granted – support for mothers and babies, the old-age pension, reliable contraception – and of course more equal political rights.
Old Treasury Building
Spring Street, Melbourne
More information can be found on the Old Treasury Building website here.
This exhibition is showing until mid-2021.
The exhibition features records and photographs from our collection of female prison registers including those below. You can search the series here by simply typing a name into the green search box.