Stores now surplus

A LARGE chunk of Wellington Street’s Army Surplus Stores was demolished this week, but the section that was once an infamous 19th century brothel remains.

History buffs will be relieved that most of the Surplus’ corner building—heritage listed by Perth council—will not be pulled down when the site is re-developed into a 30-storey, student housing complex.

The corner shop has a rich and sometimes spotty history as an “immoral house”, and for a time around 1899 it was owned by prominent property speculator Hamlet Wheeler.

In early 1899, news broke that he was running a brothel there with “French girls”.

• Workers pulling down the Wellington Street army surplus stores on Tuesday (above) and the flattened site (below, left). Photos
by Steve Grant

It made national headlines in the Murchison Advocate, with magistrate A.S. Roe saying the store “was one of the worst cases that it would be possible to find.

“Here was a man who controlled a good deal of property, deliberately seeking for disreputable tenants,” the article said, decrying the “greed and avarice of such men as the defendant, who allowed the consideration of money to outweigh that of decency and propriety, and thus enabled the unfortunate women to horde in the respectable portion of the city”.

The January 24, 1899 edition of the West Australian stated that Wheeler pushed out all the “respectable” tenants, who were paying 15 shillings a week, and told one ousted resident that he “could get £3 a week from bad girls”.

When the constables showed up to see if the rumours of it being a “low house” were true, Wheeler played dumb, saying “one can hardly shut one’s eyes to that, seeing women in the ship with low dresses and bare arms,” but he said it couldn’t be proved that meant it was a “house of ill fame”.

The magistrate disagreed. Wheeler was fined £10.

Parts of the building have also hosted a Chinese laundry operated by Sam Lung, Molin & Matson Jewellery Manufacturers, and from the 1910s to the 1970s, it was the Prince of Wales Wine Saloon.

A Griffiths Architects’ heritage assessment concluded the corner shop was worth keeping, but that later expansions had little heritage value, and the shop in the “Federation free classical” style of shops and residences, is associated with the pattern of commercial development following the 1890s gold boom. It’s also an example of the way shopkeepers used to live upstairs from their stores, which became very rare after World War II.

The corner building was originally a general store, before specialising in military surplus goods in 1948, where you could buy Lee Enfield .303 rifles and ex-military pistols.

• The proposed student housing complex. Images courtesy Urbis

Even in the store’s final years, the shelves were lined with bladed weaponry, ranging from utilitarian to “cool-looking-but-entirely-impractical” Klingon-looking knives, along with standard camping goods.

The store closed in August and the current owner is the nascent company “Wellington Street RE Pty Ltd”, listed as based in Brisbane.

Heritage listing the store, and then keeping parts of the surrounding building, meant that under Perth council’s heritage incentive scheme, the new owners got an extra 962sqm when it was approved by the Development Assessment Panel in December.

by DAVID BELL

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