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Hard Times in Port

Bay Street Shops  1875: Charles Nettleton: PMHPS Collection
Bay Street Shops 1875: Charles Nettleton: PMHPS Collection

Some of the early items added to the PMHPS collection were three very large pawnbroker’s pledge books. They were found in a chimney in Bay Street, from the Johnny Allsorts Pawnbrokers. They contain thousands of poignant transactions involving most Port families during Australia’s severe Depression 1891 to 1898.

The shop pictured here in 1875 at 239 Bay with pawnbroker Davenport out the front was later taken over by Robert and Elizabeth Powell. The Powell family ran Johnny Allsorts through the depths of the 1890s depression, and on into the 1920s — almost until the next Great Depression.

Pawnbrokers, always big in port towns, were essential to Port Melbourne life. Times were tougher here than in many other places, and the opportunity to gain a few pennies by parting with a kettle or a petticoat had saved many a family from starvation.

It was usually the wife who in her desperation pawned the items, often entering from Lalor Street along a narrow walkway between the shops to avoid being seen entering in Bay Street. Many were never redeemed.

Particulars of pledges
Particulars of pledges

Over 7,000 documents, photographs, maps, books, old council records, oral histories and historical items have been preserved for posterity by PMHPS in just over 20 years.  They are available to anyone researching Port Melbourne’s history.


  • Catherine May
    Posted September 19, 2015 11.16 pm 0Likes

    Very interesting to read about the great Melbourne Depression, but difficult to find material like this on the social effects. A lot of Melbournites became economic refugees to Perth, including my family. And I suspect there were often tragic background stories. My great grandmother pawned a hired bicycle to try and feed six children. She went to gaol and the children were removed to relatives who had left for the West Australian goldrush. She never saw my grandmother and her other five children again and died a wreck in 1903. Not just hard times but brutal times as well.

    • Janet Bolitho
      Posted September 27, 2015 3.20 pm 0Likes

      Thank you Catherine, you are so right to remind us of the dreadful impact of the depression. When you know the impact on one family, such as yours, it opens greater understanding.

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We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.