The Builders Arms in Collingwood is a popular, trendy, local pub. In decades past, it also played a key role in the Indigenous history of Melbourne, and the push for Indigenous rights.
Melbourne in the 1930s was a very different place to today. For starters, it looked different. There was no Federation Square, no City Square, no Docklands, no NGV, and no Westgate Bridge.
The city also had a very different demographic make-up.
The population of Melbourne was still largely homogenous; white families descended from the original waves of settlers in the 19th century. The great migrations of Italians, Greeks, and South East Asians were still some decades away.
And another demographic group was missing as well.
Since the beginning of European colonisation in 1835, Melbourne’s Indigenous population had been steadily driven away from the city. Originally confined to camps near the Yarra, local Indigenous families were eventually relocated to increasingly isolated ‘reservations’.
But even these would be re-claimed by the government, as the city continued to expand.
Finally, Victoria’s Indigenous population was largely scattered across rural areas, far from the major cities. By the early twentieth century, Melbourne itself was almost totally devoid of an Indigenous presence.
But change was coming.
At the beginning of the 1930’s, as the economy began to recover after the Great Depression, 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.
‘By the mid 1930’s the Aboriginal community of Melbourne consisted of about 10 – 12 families living in Fitzroy. With a couple in North Melbourne and Essendon. Approximately 100 people.’
- Alick Jackomos, local resident
‘Snapshots of Aboriginal Fitzroy’
This trickle of Indigenous arrivals increased during World War II.
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.
As the Indigenous population of the inner city grew, two focal points for their community emerged. The first was the Gore Street Church.
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.
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.
He also played Aussie 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.
Nicholls was also a religious man, and after his football career he trained as a priest. He was ordained by the Churches of Christ in 1945, and given control of a church on Gore Street, Fitzroy, which quickly became the centre of the local Indigenous community.
‘The Church of Christ, Gore Street was the place people would gather to hear the gospel preached by Pastor Doug Nicholas [sic.] on Sundays. Young and old would gather on a Sunday night. Visitors that came from elsewhere would go on Sunday nights to sing hymns and talk to people they hadn’t seen for a some while.’
- Lovett Gardiner, local resident
‘Auntie Iris’ Story’, Koorie Heritage Trust
A charismatic and passionate man, Nicholls would dedicate his free time to the cause of Indigenous rights. The Gore Street Church 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 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 spot for these marginalised groups.
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
‘Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb’
‘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 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.
Lead 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.
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 pub, Gertrude Street, and Fitzroy itself are all quite different now, decades on.
An upmarket Hong Kong street food joint is based out of The Builder’s Arms these days, and its patrons are mostly hip young inner-city millennials.
But the local council has installed a plaque out the front, just to the side of the entrance to the main bar, recalling its significant place in the history of the city, and its old nickname, 'The Black Pub of Melbourne':
If you want to learn a bit more about the rich Indigenous history of Melbourne, and Fitzroy in particular, the following two resources are first rate:
- Take a self guided walking tour along Gertrude Street.
- Read about life in Fitzroy in the 30's and 40's, from an Indigenous perspective.