Snake oil and head shapes

A PHRENOLOGIST studying the shape of your head looking for criminal aberrations, a palmist reading futures in the lines of your hand, and the “Goanna Man” selling snake oil as a cure for polio: this is the history of William Street’s businesses.

The William Street Collective’s Lake Bovell and The Butcher Shop staffer Alex Fuller have been delving into the archives to uncover what the street’s businesses used to be, and they’re hoping people will come forward with their own memories, stories, photos and articles about the strip’s long history. Oddly enough, they discovered the Butcher Shop (now an arts supply store) once was actually a butcher’s, but the shop wasn’t named for the fact and it’s just a coincidence.

The “Once Was” project started when Ms Bovell came across the old postal directories, regular publications that listed businesses between 1893 to 1949.

“Once I found those directories… you get stuck in the history hole, you can’t get enough of the stories,” Ms Bovell says.

01. 892NEWS

• William Street traders are looking into the forgotten history of their business places. Pictured are (l-r) Georgia Macleod, Martin E Wills, Alex Fuller and Lake Bovell. Photo by Matthew Dwyer

One of the strangest figures they’ve come across in the street’s history is the “Goanna Man” who once sold dubious wares on the strip in what is now the Noise Pollution record shop. He’d claimed to have wandered the desert and come across a band of wise Aboriginals who’d taught him the secret healing powers of goanna fat. He brought the allegedly ancient knowledge back to Perth and started giving people goanna fat massages as a panacea. “He said it could cure anything, especially polio,” tapping into the foremost health fears of the day.

He wasn’t the only one selling curious cure-alls: strip club Xotica once housed Mr Lazell, a herbalist who sold tinctures to heal “mysterious ailments of the leg”.

Bovell and Fuller are planning to use the stories they gather at 2016’s community Streetside festival, and hope to recreate shopfronts in the guise of their historical counterparts.

It’s an open source project and they’re looking for people to join the team to scour old directories and dig up the interesting tales about the old businesses, or just share stories or photos about the traders of old. If you want to get involved head to or give Ms Bovell a call on 0401 947 926.


Katherines Corsetry 10x4.6

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