Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Waiter's Club Siege

Mark 'Chopper' Read is one of Melbourne's most notorious identities. In a city with many true crime figures, his infamy as a stand over man and success as an author has made him well known to nearly everyone. Not universally liked, but almost universally known.

Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read: criminal, writer, celebrity.

On Australia Day 1978, one of Chopper's most well known exploits would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to a police stand off at a popular Melbourne restaurant.

Released from prison the year before, Chopper had returned to society with a promise to one of his still imprisoned mates foremost in his mind. He had sworn to long time friend Jimmy Loughnane, who still had six years to serve, that after his release he would find a way to get him out of jail as well.

To this end, Chopper had come up with a far fetched scheme to take a local magistrate hostage and trade his life for Loughnane's freedom. On Australia Day, Chopper put a sawn off shotgun under his jacket and went to the old County Court buildings in the city. In 1978, Australia Day was not yet a public holiday so the courts were in session, although it was a quiet day, without many cases scheduled.

Taking advantage of the lax atmosphere, Chopper slipped into the first court that was in session and  marched boldly to the judge's bench. Judge Bill Martin was presiding. In an interview with the The Age sometime later, Chopper recalled the moment:

Momentarily stunned, the judge's chief clerk, a former military officer named Ernie Trotter, recovered himself, tackled Read and grabbed the gun. They wrestled until several police officer's arrived. Judge Martin, according to some accounts, kicked the would be hostage taker 'in the balls.'

Judge Bill Martin

Read was overwhelmed by a dozen policeman. Due to his bulk they lay him face first on the court room floor and sat on him, tying his arms with their belts as none of the officer's present was carrying handcuffs. He would eventually receive 13 years for his efforts.

This exploit of Chopper's is well known. Less well known is what happened next.

While Chopper had been incarcerated previously, he had founded a gang of inmates known as 'The Overcoat Gang.' This group quickly became the vicious scourge of its enemies in Pentridge Prison. Chopper himself became friend and mentor to a number of younger offenders that he initiated into the group and took under his wing.

One of these was Amos Atkinson.

Pentridge Prison

Amos Atkinson was only 18 when he was incarcerated at Pentridge for armed robbery. Quick tempered, violent and unpredictable, he was just the sort Read attracted to him and Atkinson was soon ushered into the Overcoats. Young and impressionable, Atkinson clearly looked up to the older man.

Atkinson had been released from jail by the time Read pulled his stunt with the judge, and was quickly determined to get his friend back out of prison again. Incredibly, he would try something just as daft as Read's failed plan had been.

The Italian Waiter's Club (now the Waiter's Restaurant) is a well known restaurant on Meyer's Place in Melbourne's CBD. Founded in 1947 as an actual hangout for off duty waiter's - who would unwind there after work with a glass of vino, in a contravention of this era's stricter liquor laws - by the 1970's it had become an established eating venue, open to all comers.

The Waiter's Restaurant, 20  Meyer's Place, today.

On the evening of March 31, 1978, Atkinson and his friend Robert Williams stormed the restaurant armed with shotguns. They had just had a run in with police and had fled with the cops in pursuit. Panicked, they had taken refuge in the restaurant while they figured out what to do.

Meanwhile, police blocked both ends of Meyer's Place and laid siege to the restaurant.

Roger Meyers, then manager of the Princes Theatre, was dining with friends in the Waiter's Club when Atkinson and Williams burst in:

Atkinson soon came up with a plan. He enlisted a doctor from among his hostages to talk to police and issued a demand; Chopper Read had to be released within 24 hours or he would start killing hostages.

Unwilling to comply with this, the police stalled. Nervous as time passed and nothing happened, Atkinson then sent another hostage, Wendy McNamara, out with his second demand. Now he asked for his mother.

The police were happy to acquiesce to this. Mrs Atkinson was sent for and duly arrived in her dressing gown in the early hours of the morning. Entering the restaurant on her own, the elderly lady hit Atkinson over the head with her handbag  before instructing him to let his hostages go and give himself up.

This Atkinson did, although he released people only in groups of four or five, spread over several hours. Meyers was in the third group of people released and, after an interview at the old police headquarters on Russell Street, eventually got home at 5am. He was at work on time the next day.

The Age reports the story.

Once all the hostages were released, Atkinson gave himself up quietly. He received five years for the crime, joining Chopper back in Pentridge. Shortly after his re-incarceration  Atkinson would have his ears cut off, as a final effort to emulate his hero.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Bourke Street Honey Locust Tree

Standing on the corner of King and Bourke St in the CBD, dwarfed by the monolithic tower behind it, is a living piece of Melbourne's history. A Honey Locust tree that has been growing in the same spot for about 160 years. It is such a fixture in the city that the tower block it stands in front of was designed around it.

The Heritage listed Honey Locust; 607 Bourke Street

It is the only specimen of the Honey Locust, a common tree across south east Asia, in Victoria

But while it is known that the tree has been growing in this same spot since shortly after the city was founded, its specific history is elusive. Exactly how it got to be where it is, who planted it and when, is something of a mystery.

The corner where the tree now stands has an interesting history itself.

The first building on the site was erected in 1840. Made of wood, it served primarily as the office for the Crown Lands Department, while also being used occasionally as a courthouse and immigration office.

In 1841, the Lands Office was moved and the building reassigned to serve as Melbourne's first Supreme Court. British born Judge John Walpole Willis was sent to Melbourne from Sydney to hear the first cases. The judge's chambers were in a small brick building at the rear of the court.

Judge John Willis

Son of the physician who had treated King George III for mental illness, Judge Willis was a short tempered, eccentric man. He refused to hear any case where the participants sported facial hair, and would often threaten the unsuspecting beard-wearer with a contempt of court charge. His sentences were nortoriously severe. Unpopular with the local press, Judge Willis had several petitions filed against him, citing him as unfit to hold office, and was recalled to England in 1843.

The Supreme Court was moved shortly thereafter, to a more permanent building on Russell Street. The former courthouse was again used by a variety of government offices subsequent.

In 1850, the office of the Colonial Storekeeper took over the property. The Storekeeper was an important department in Melbourne at the time, as it was charged with supplying all other Government agencies with their requirements. Rations, tools, uniforms, weapons and a thousand other items were all sourced by the Storekeepers.

In 1857, the busy office had their run down wooden shack replaced with a sturdy, bluestone building:

This garden outside the Storekeeper's office probably included the Honey Locust tree. Although who originally planted the garden, and when, is unknown. But it is thought that the seeds for the tree were probably brought to Melbourne by Chinese workers, who started arriving in large numbers after the discovery of gold in 1851.

One of them may have planted the tree outside the Government offices on the site, after transacting some business there, or it may have been planted by a civil servant assigned to one of the Government agencies based there, to add an exotic touch to the garden. Author Annear, in her book about Melbourne's urban development, concluded that the Honey Locust was 'surely a remnant' of this time.

An early map of Melbourne, circa 1860, showing the
Colonial Store and Public Works office on the corner.

An enlarged version of the above map.

After the bluestone buildings were constructed, subsequent Governments continued to use them for a variety of purposes. The Colonial Store was replaced by the Industrial \and Reformatory Schools Department, then the Labour Bureau, then the State Relief Committee, all of them working from the same buildings erected in 1857.

The old Colonial Store in the 1960s.

In 1970, the state Public Works Department ordered the buildings demolished, to make way for a larger, modern building that could house more Government offices. Due to the age of the buildings, and their connection to early Melbourne's history, the National Trust declared them an important site worthy of preservation. But in 1970, the National Trust was a toothless organisation, without any legislation to support their determinations. The Government of the day was free to ignore its advice, which it did.

Melbourne University architecture students picketed the site, and a private citizen's group attempted to get a court injunction, but the Government proceeded with their plan. The demolition took only one week. Site foreman Mark Zita, of Whelan's Wreckers, said it was the oldest building he had seen in Melbourne, and 'sound enough to last another hundred years.'

The Government's haste in removing the old bluestone structures seems odd in hindsight, as the leveled land would then sit vacant for more than fifteen years. Finally, in 1987, a developer was found for the land and a new project commenced. The State Government had made one small concession to the calls for preservation of the site; they had ordered that the Honey Locust Tree be preserved:

Note the company involved.

The Honey Locust now has an entry on the National Trust's Register of Significant Trees, which will hopefully afford it better protection than the building it used to stand in front of received.

In the small garden where the Honey Locust stands, a little clump of greenery surrounded by a high metal fence, a small historical plaque has been erected. It commemorates only the State Relief office that used to stand on the site. Largely hidden by shrubbery, it seems an inadequate marker for a site with such a rich history.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The First 'Dirty Three' Gigs

The Dirty Three are a Melbourne music institution. Their vibrant, raucous, free form compositions are as visceral as they are hard to categorise. To see them live is to witness something special.

But like many well known artists, their performing roots are humble.

The members of the band - Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White - were all veterans of the local Melbourne music scene and were well known to each other. Prior to the the Dirty Three's formation, Ellis and White had been in a band together, Busload of Faith, and Turner and White had played together previously in several local groups.

In an interview recorded in 1994, Turner recounts what happened next:

The line up would be Ellis on violin (he had once had classical training), Turner on bass and lead guitar and White on drums. The new band played their first gig in front of a handful of punters at the Baker's Arms Hotel on Anzac Day, 1992:

The music was experimental and wild. Ellis attached a guitar pick up to his violin with a rubber band, giving it a unique, high pitched squawk. The music was, and has largely remained, entirely instrumental, with mumblings or anecdotes between tracks the only vocals. Each track took the form of an extended jam with a loose structure, and was much longer than the usual rock or punk song. From the same interview noted above, Ellis explains:

The proprietor was obviously happy with what the band had produced, as the first gig lead to a Friday night residency that lasted several months:

Currently, I live in Abbotsford, only about fifty metres from the Bakers Arms Hotel. Sadly, live music is no longer performed there, replaced by a mass of pokie machines, and it's the sort of joint where you can buy a six pack over the counter at 8am if you feel so inclined. It's as hard to imagine The Dirty Three playing there now, as it is to imagine the same band playing in front of a small crowd for free.

But while the pub may have seen better days, The Dirty Three quickly found success.

Their first recordings, a tape of a rehearsal at Turner's house, were given away (!) at gigs the following year and generated considerable excitement. And their live shows, spreading out from The Bakers Arms to more prestigious venues around Melbourne, became word of mouth successes due to their unpredictable energy.

The Dirty Three play the Evelyn, January 1993. Note Mick Turner's art
in the gig poster, which would become a feature of their album covers.

In 1994, the still fledgling band gained prominent support slots for Australian tours by American bands Pavement and The Beastie Boys. National and international success would soon follow.