A story titled “Life in Australia” was published in Reynolds’s Newspaper in London in 1882. It described the type of fare offered in Melbourne’s sixpenny restaurants, including “Colonial Goose“, a joint of mutton boned, rolled and stuffed like the traditional goose. The writer, a Mr. J. Schleman, described the city as a “working man’s haven”, owing to the ready availability of cheap and varied meals. An extract follows…

LIFE IN AUSTRALIA

J. Schleman  

I have elsewhere remarked upon the number of characters who loaf about the city, waiting for something to turn up, whose particular lines of business it would be difficult to define – waifs who have seen better days at home, but who lack that energy, that determination to conquer, which is so essential in the colonies. It seems the refuge of men with whom, from whatever cause, times have not gone well, who have landed in the colonies with the vain hope of finding suitable employment, and whose abilities and education par excellence entitle them to gentlemanly employment, but for which there is no demand.

A young fellow whom I knew as a professional linguist, and who flattered himself he was A 1 on the guitar, was driving a team of oxen up country; the son of a wealthy merchant was seeking for gentlemanly employment, ultimately resolving itself in that of night porter in a commercial hotel; and so amongst the considerable infusion of broken gentlemen it is not surprising to find applications for situations from men who probably, at one time, would have rather drowned themselves than accept. The descent has been made step by step.

On this occasion I fell in with a young fellow who, having failed to cultivate the acquaintance of Mr. Grimes, a riding master, was returning to Melbourne in a rather despondent state of mind; the poor wretch confessed to me that he had made himself scarce in consequence of a report circulated amongst his friends at home that a certain signature appearing upon certain papers had been written by himself; brought up in the best of society, nursed in the lap of luxury, he had made one mistake which necessitated his removing to the distant Australian shore – the shore upon which many a young life has been wrecked. Physically he was as well fitted for the post of equestrian as a child of tender years would have been to work at quartz mining.

Arriving in Melbourne, we adjourned to a restaurant in Swanston-street, and having ascertained that this young fellow was almost penniless, I for once in my life exercised that generosity which unfortunately I have rarely found amongst those varied individuals with whom, in my travels, it has been my lot to associate. I know about that time I was expecting a letter containing “the needful,” which, together with the knowledge that I had a capital in hand of four and sixpence, may have caused a little recklessness on my part – I say “may have” because I had a tendency at times to “go in a bit,” and probably, like many others, I was a little wild, but then I was amongst a queer class of people, and after all I was not infallible.

Waiting for breakfast in sixpenny restaurants
Image: State Library of Victoria

One of the most interesting features in the affairs of Victoria is that food can be obtained in any possible quantities; nowhere have I seen such interest displayed in the matter of providing food for the million. The “new chum” views with wonder the dishes, a printed list of which is put into his hand as he passes along; he is simply astounded when, after dining sumptuously upon soups and a choice of five of six dishes, with pastry, he is charged the remarkably low sum of sixpence.

Farm labourers of England who subsist for the most part on bread and bacon, and who manage to exist upon a rate of wage which is a puzzle to many, would be struck dumb when told that a choice of eight or ten hot dishes with bread and butter, a breakfast of steak and onions with tea or coffee, or such luxuries as “colonial goose,” curries, and beetroot, could be obtained for sixpence. A country where such dinners can be had must be suitable to all. The dock labourers who clamour for a day’s work at half a crown a day should be invited to try Melbourne, for surely such a place must be the working man’s haven. I appreciate good living, and experience has taught me to eye with suspicion “made” dishes; yet beyond the fact of an occasional fly or an unfortunate mosquito dropping into your mutton broth, there is nothing which would justify the most fastidious in rejecting the fare set before you.

Sixpenny restaurants are conducted upon the principle of small profits and quick returns; there is no dilly-dallying in these places – men have no time to loiter over their chop and tomatoes. At the usual dinner hour a great rush is made, and every seat is occupied; here is to be seen the Chinaman dining with the Malay, the Yankee, and the Southerner. The inroads made upon steak puddings by the usual frequenters of these establishments is something wonderful to behold – bread ad libitum – these men go in for beef and potatoes in a manner which testifies not only to their appetites being “fair,” but as to the likelihood of their determination to “crack up” the proprietor.

Most of the better class of restaurants, where a shilling is charged for dinner, and where such dishes include chicken and fowl, are as inviting as similar places in London. These are in the main streets, notably Bourke-street, where handbills are freely distributed by a man specially engaged for the purpose. Inside there  is undoubtedly high tone, where one can dine apart from the mere object of eating to live. The spotless linen, the bright glass (imported), the active young girls in attendance, the superior cookery, one who, like myself, had roughed it in the bush was not slow to appreciate; my companion, too, having satisfied the inner man, departed evidently with the conviction that Melbourne was, after all, not such a bad place for “broken gentlemen” – which I hope he has fully realized.