Our party of three devours Devonshire teas beneath the flamboyant burgundy and gold ceiling rose in the café of the Guildford Hotel. Built in 1886, with an imposing Italianate style typical of the gold boom period, its location, at the junction of James and Johnson Streets, captured the traffic to and from the Goldfields. And according to my companions, the Guildford Hotel was once run as a brothel. The twins, Elsie and Sylvia, were born, raised and have lived in Guildford for the past 78 years. Their outfits are identical – except in colour. Glittery clips decorate their coiffures and emphasise playful eyes, as they regale the hotel’s scandalous past. Despite their crackly voices, they will not be outdone by the oversized fountain dominating the room.
“It was before our time, believe it or not, but I remember our Aunt Glenda telling us about it not long after we were married. It began quite subtly at first with a lady or two seen standing or sitting in the doorways,” says Elsie pointing to the James St entrance.
“They wore loose gowns or short chemises with their arms unclothed. A proper lady would never expose her arms, so that’s how people guessed at first. Some would also have bright stockings and painted faces.”
Stirring milky tea, Sylvia continues “There wasn’t really much talk about it until the French arrived. And they would gather up the top, in the tower, and be so raucous. Nothing in Perth had been seen like that before. Some would perform the wildest Moulin Rouge acts and they would dance the Can-Can as it was intended. That is, without underwear. And you can imagine the view from below.” Sylvia winks.
“Sylvia, don’t be so crude! Apparently, the men would make their selection from the ground, so the more obvious the lady, the more chance she would have of being chosen.”
Sylvia giggles at Elsie’s embarrassment as they rise to leave. I suspect they have enjoyed the afternoon of reminiscing and gossiping as much I have. Helping each other into their coats, the two hold hands as they cross James Street into StirlingPark before disappearing into the greenery, where some 3,000 sugar gum trees originally resided.
PROSTITUTION IN THE 1900s
After that meeting, I investigated prostitution in Perth at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Sex workers received a mere 40% of the fee, 50% to the madam or owner of the girls and then 10% for tax. The oriental girls were often smuggled out of Asia on foreign steamers to Hong Kong or Singapore, and then met by agents who sent them to brothels. French and Spanish women were lured by applying for domestic positions, and then their bosses would sell them to madams for fifteen pounds. If the girls were found guilty of prostitution, they would be sentenced to two months hard labour and a fine of five pounds. Their shelf-life was short, and most would eventually become sick with a venereal disease and become known as a “faded flower”. Often the clients also became ill, and in 1918 brothel workers started receiving regular medical checks.
There isn’t any record of the Guildford Hotel being registered as a brothel, only as a hotel. So presumably, the hotel operated downstairs as normal, and prostitution was conducted from the rooms above as a secret business. Records show that renovations were completed upstairs in the early 1900s to include accommodation, possibly for this very purpose.
Being on the direct traffic route to and from the Goldfields, Guildford experienced an economic boom in the 1890s. Presumably, the end of the Gold Boom contributed to the finale of prostitution in Guildford. Also, the relocation of the government railway workshops from Fremantle to Midland, assured the growth of Midland Junction as the commercial centre. Guildford’s role continued to decline, and as a result, the demand for accommodation lessened. These days, five kilometres away, Midland remains as the administrative hub, including three brothels, which I’m positive the residents of Guildford tolerate, especially since it is no longer on their own doorstep.
Returning from an afternoon of scouring the many quirky shops along James Street, I pass the flame tree that dominates Meadow Street. Its leaves bleed onto the pavement as it points its redness towards the Stirling Arms Hotel. In contrast to the Guildford Hotel, this shabby pub is littered by a clientele drawn to the TAB and skimpies. This is about as scandalous as Guildford gets nowadays, except for the numerous rumours one hears about its residents.
The daily ritual of lighting the fire in front of Alfred’s Kitchen at five o’clock in the evening is in process. Established in 1949, this iconic eatery is as synonymous to Guildford, as the heritage buildings. Deemed as a meeting place, people travel from all over Perth to consume hamburgers, the most delicious chips in Perth (in my opinion anyway) and its hearty pea and ham soup. The fire burns until the close of business at two in the morning carrying the smell of grilled beef across the district. Behind Alfred’s Kitchen, countless corellas screech their gossip from StirlingPark.
The Guildford Hotel sits protectively over its prime location. A train whizzes by as another aircraft makes its descent during the Sunday afternoon rush of arrivals. The patrons of the beer garden have left or have moved inside to a warmer spot. The garden is now empty, especially since its oldest residents, the sugar gum trees, have sadly gone to make room for more tables and chairs. Upstairs, the accommodation has been restored to opulent function rooms, waiting to entertain its guests in a more refined manner than it has in the past. The creaking floorboards whisper the intimate details of a bygone era. Or perhaps they are moaning because the secret is out. Either way, why don’t you come and decide for yourself?
Not long after writing this, the Guildford Hotel suffered an extensive fire in 2008 and remains in a terrible state of disrepair. Regardless of the approval process to rebuild, it should at least be protected by the elements and vandals with a roof and better fencing. Such a shame, the scandal continues http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/state-government-considers-buying-guildford-hotel-20140306-34a1g.htm
Since posting this story there has been a development and very good news regarding the restoration of the Guildford Hotel https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/wa/a/24204189/historic-guildford-hotel-to-be-rebuilt/?utm_source=PerthLiveNews&utm_medium=facebook