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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

'No place for cowards’: The artist’s new role in the fight against gentrification in Squizzy Taylor’s Fitzroy

It seems commonly understood that low-paid residents, poor communities, migrants and artists are often displaced, forced from their homes and workplaces as their neighbourhoods succumb to gentrification; overrun by ravenous developers, opportunistic landlords and unscrupulous real estate agents.


But what if the struggle against gentrification and for the right to safe and affordable housing actually presents an opportunity for our arts professionals to re-evaluate their place within their communities? 


What if artists for instance broke with their sense of exceptionalism to actually acknowledge their complicity in gentrification, in the displacement of long-term residents in low income and working-class neighbourhoods – and fight against the erosion of safe and affordable housing through education, advocacy and direct action? 


What if art professionals, and artists in particular, who tend to court the very finance capital that devastates their neighbourhoods – assume a new role, coming to better understand their neighbourhoods, more closely identify with the histories, debates and struggles of its inhabitants, keep from inhabiting developers’ investment properties posing as art spaces, and resist blindly fleeing to the relative safety of the next as-yet-untouched suburb when rents soar?  Would the outcomes be any different? 

Urban development today at 368 Smith Steet, Collingwood/Fitzroy


How can the stand apart notion of art as a pure form of social change – compromised in its courtship of capital - be reconsidered, particularly when such sentiment tends to encourage the destructive endeavours of many developers and landlords? 


I firmly believe there is a pressing need in the midst of our current economic challenges to delve into the intersection of art, real estate and the displacement of long-term residents; to reclaim the aesthetic and historical narratives of our inner cities from financiers and developers; and, embrace the simmering collective effort to resist the erosion of our city’s affordability and diverse cultural heritage.

Art has historically shaped the character and development of urban areas.  In recent times, art movements in cities like Berlin and New York have significantly influenced real estate trends and urban aesthetics, where art has transformed neighbourhoods hit by real estate development, gentrification and displacement, suffering profound social, economic and cultural damage.

Like Berlin and New York, Melbourne’s inner suburbs are studies in contraction.  Beautiful Victorian buildings and ornately lit streets point proudly to a certain grandeur, long weathered away.  But none fires the imagination to my mind more than the present-day Fitzroy.  Its main thoroughfare, Smith Street lined with cafes, bars and inviting stores of vintage and new clothes, brings together the best (and worst) of Melbourne.  Sexuality, diversity and excess is celebrated alongside homelessness, addiction and crime, no longer confined to the shadowy laneways.

122 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy (2024)

Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (2024)


Although these determined wide streets were designed to accommodate the needs of a growing city, by 1839 Melbourne’s planners had caved to utilising the small gaps of land that nestled between the well-planned parts of Fitzroy.  The result was a rabbit warren, a small pocket of narrow streets and lanes bordered by Brunswick and Gertrude Streets that became known as the Fitzroy Narrows - the perfect hiding place for anyone intending to commit a crime and lay low.


With its narrow streets and seemingly endless night-cart lanes paved with blue stone, the Narrows - at least until it was levelled in 1973, with most parts completely cleared to make way for the Victorian housing commission flats that stand there today - offered an unrivalled array of dark, secluded hiding places even in broad daylight.  But by night, the Narrows was a place to avoid at all cost.  

The Narrows, Fitzroy Photos: State Library of Victoria

By the end of 1918 the two-up school run by Henry Stokes, with Squizzy Taylor as his head of security, in nearby Richmond was thriving. But they knew that the bigger money was to be found in the Fitzroy Narrows. But the Narrows and most other parts of Fitzroy’s underworld were controlled by a title winning former boxer, Ted Whiting.


Whiting was a capable and violent standover man, who with his brother John “Bunny” Whiting and gunmen Frederick Thorpe and Henry Slater, systematically set about making every brothel, sly grog shop, opium den, pickpocket and drug dealer [aware] that they needed to pay them a fee to be protected from “people who would do them harm”.  (Roy Maloy,  ‘The Fitzroy Narrows - A Perfect Hiding Place’, 2020)

Champion boxer, Ted Whiting Photo: State Library of Victoria

In 1918, there were 33 deaths from gunfire across the Narrows, setting the stage for Australia’s most dramatic and deadly gang war.  Street scuffles and night time prowling intensified, with handguns being easily obtained by anyone with the money to buy one.  


On 15 January 1919, the first shots in the war were fired by Henry Slater killing 29 year old ship’s fireman Hugh Hanlon on the premises of a brothel in Little Napier Street, owned by one of Fitzroy’s most infamous madams, Minnie Clark.  (Roy Moloy)


Throughout 1919 Squizzy Taylor’s encroaching activities further upset the Fitzroy factions leading to tit-for-tat killings that became known as the Fitzroy Vendettas.

The notorious Squizzy Taylor (far left) Photo: State Library of Victoria

A popular form of deception and standover favoured by [Taylor's gang] was using female decoys to lure cashed up, married, men from racetracks and other events, to hotel rooms. Here the kissing and cuddling would start in earnest, then one of Taylor’s henchmen would break in on the canoodling couple. Pretending to be the husband of the woman in-flagrante, the standover began, as the “aggrieved” partner promptly demanded payment from the adulterous man in return for silence around his misconduct. Refusal brought forth the utterance of “Mr Taylor” and this usually made victims offer up cash hand over fist. Terror was an essential element for this blackmail and standover to work.

Two decades later a lesser known figure in the annals Australian crime, Jean Lee (the last women to suffer capital punishment in Australia), used an identical technique to make her ends meet, which ultimately took her to the hangman’s noose (Neil Boyack, 'Stralian Stories : Snow Business – the thrills and kills of Squizzy Taylor'.

Prostitute and convicted murderer Jean Lee was hanged, madly pleading her innocence and forced to sit in a chair at Pentridge Prison on Monday morning, 19 February 1951.


The real war is said to have begun one winter’s night when Taylor’s ‘moll’ Dolly Grey was sent to a sly-grog place at 27 Webb Street to test the feeling of the Fitzroy faction only to have her jewels whisked away and left semi-naked; within three weeks it was reported some eighteen bullets had been extracted from men ‘possessive of no motive’.  

At the war’s height, Taylor married Irene Lorna Kelly on 19 May 1920 at the manse of St James’s Congregational Church on Gore Street, Fitzroy.  On 6 May 1924 they were divorced.  Three weeks later again at St James’s Taylor married Ida Muriel Pender, the woman with whom he had shared much of his adult life.

On his release from prison in 1923, serving 6 months for ‘aiding and abetting’ in the robbery and murder of bank manager Thomas Berriman at Glenferrie railway station, Taylor continued his career of theft but concentrated his efforts on racetracks. Involved in selling cocaine, he came into conflict with several Sydney gangsters and was wounded in a gunfight with one of them, John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, (although others may have been involved it was reported) at a house in Barkly Street, Carlton, and died in St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy on 27 October 1927.

Billiard parlour, corner of Gertrude and Fitzroy Street Photo: ABC

Two children collect firewood on Napier Street, Fitzroy Photo: ABC

Boys play cricket at what is now Condell Reserve in Fitzroy Photo: ABC


Throughout the early 20th century Victoria’s Indigenous population was largely scattered across rural areas, with Melbourne itself almost totally devoid of an Indigenous presence.  As the economy began to recover after the Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930’s, Indigenous people began to return to Melbourne.

Like many people during this time, they came looking for work and increased economic opportunities.  Impoverished, they took the cheapest accommodation they could find; at that time the workers' cottages and rickety, terrace houses in the industrial inner suburbs.  This trickle of Indigenous arrivals increased during World War II.

Indigenous recruits at a Victorian army camp Photo: Australian War Memorial


Many Indigenous men served during the war, and their families often moved to the city in their absence, looking for access to services and support. The growing Indigenous community in Fitzroy provided a welcoming base, allowing an easy way for new arrivals to learn the ropes and socialise.  (Fitzroy Historical Society)

As the Indigenous population of the inner city grew, two focal points for their community emerged. The first was the Gore Street Congregational Church, where the growing Indigenous population of Fitzroy gathered, including a young charismatic Doug Nichols who in 1945 would become its pastor (and in 1976 the Governor of the State of South Australia).


Doug Nicholls was born on the Cummeragunja Aboriginal mission, in rural New South Wales, in 1906.  Under the powers of the Aboriginal Protection Board, he was removed from his family in 1920, and sent to work building levees on the Murray River.

The Gore Street Church Photos: State Library of Victoria

As a young man, Nicholls lead a nomadic existence, wandering through New South Wales and Victoria, picking up casual labouring work. A naturally gifted athlete, he would sometimes hustle up extra money by fighting in amateur boxing matches, or competing in local sprint races. Nichols also played Australian Rules football, appearing for a variety of rural clubs.

By the beginning of the 1930s, Nicholls was in Melbourne, where his skill as a footballer found a wider audience.

He was the first Indigenous man to play in the VFA, and was successful enough to be lured to VFL club Fitzroy in 1934. His hard-running style, and fearlessness, cemented his reputation, and his skills made him both admired and a target for racial abuse.

Nicholls would eventually play 54 games for Fitzroy across six seasons, feature in two Premierships, and play two State of Origin games for Victoria.

Doug Nicholls Photo: Brisbane Lions


With Nicholls dedicating his free time to the cause of Indigenous rights, the Gore Street Church soon became a centre of political activism.

But for a more relaxed environment, the Indigenous population of Fitzroy had another meeting place; the Builders Arms Hotel.

Built in 1853, the Builders Arms Hotel on Gertrude Street is one of the oldest pubs in Melbourne.

In the 1940’s, as Fitzroy became home to large numbers of immigrants and Indigenous families, the pub became a casual meeting place for these marginalised groups. (‘The Builders Arms: The Black Pub of Melbourne’, The Melbourne Files , The Museum of Lost Things, 2018)

The Builders Arms Hotel (2024) Photo: The Builders Arms Hotel

It was the first pub in Melbourne to allow Indigenous people to drink in the public bar with the other patrons -other venues forced them into a segregated ‘blacks only’ bar.

‘The Builders’ Arms used to have a big piano in the back room, and it was to a lot of us our meeting place. On Saturday after noon the young women used to dress up in their Sunday best. The men had on nice white shirts and polished shoes. After lunch everyone would go in the pub and the piano and guitar would be going and people used to sing to it and enjoy themselves.’


E. Harding, local Indigenous resident in ‘Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb’


A local Indigenous couple enjoy a beer at the Builder's Arms. Photo:  The Museum of Lost Things


‘If you wanted to find someone, if you were new in town, just down from the mission, just call at the Builders, someone’d know where you lived. The Builders was our meeting place. That’s where we talked about a lot of things. We all helped each other.’


Bunta Patten, interview with Megan Evans in ‘Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb’


In subsequent decades, the street that the pub stood on, Gertrude Street, became the epicentre of Melbourne’s Indigenous rights movement.


At the top of the street, in the Exhibition Gardens, a large Moreton Bay Fig became an open pulpit for Indigenous leaders to deliver oratory. Led by Doug Nichols, these community leaders would deliver speeches to large audiences, on everything from welfare to legal rights, to citizenship status and the Stolen Generation. Marches and public protests in the 1940’s and 1950’s often started at the Moreton Bay Fig. (The Melbourne Files)

The Moreton Bay Fig in Exhibition Gardens Photo: The Melbourne Files


A block east at 43 Gertrude St, young Indigenous activists started ‘The Koori Club’ in the 1960s.  

Enforcing a ‘blacks only’ policy, to protest the ‘no blacks’ rule of many public venues, The Koori Club provided an outlet for more radical activism.

Their self-printed newspaper, ‘The Koorier’ was an early voice demanding equal rights for Indigenous people, and the club gave a start to many important local political figures.

In the 1970s, Gertrude Street would also be the site for the first Indigenous Legal Aid service, the first Indigenous Housing Office, and the first Indigenous Health Service.

And the employees and volunteers that ran these services, as well as the people they served, would continue to gather at The Builders Arms, for a quiet beer and a yarn. The pub remained a noted hangout for local Indigenous people until well into the 1980s.

The former location of the Koorie Club at 43 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy Photo: The Melbourne Files

Sipping on my beer outside the Builders Arms Hotel on a sunny afternoon recently I was inspired to research and write this article by a small plaque installed by the local Council on the exterior of this now trendy pub, just to the side of the entrance to the main bar, recalling its significant place in the history of the city as 'The Black Pub of Melbourne'.

Our arts community too has an influencial role to play in preserving and reclaiming the artistic and historical narratives of our treasured inner-city communities, notably by joining local initiatives that are having some success at resisting displacement and achieving policy reform in affordable housing and cultural preservation – re-imaging a future where urban development and cultural preservation coexist. 

This begins by acknowledging the intricate relationship between art, real estate, and displacement. And encouraging support for initiatives and policies that protect urban affordability and cultural diversity.


Now is an important moment to reflect on how to maintain our cities' unique aesthetic and historical narratives, before it is too late. It remains no place for cowards.

The plaque affixed to the exterior wall of the Builders Arms Hotel, Fitzroy Photo: Author

Joseph Theodore Leslie Taylor (1988 - 1927) earned the nickname 'Squizzy' due to an ulcerated, droopy left eyelid forcing him to squint


Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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