Nowadays St. Kilda is a highly sought after area and has attracted the trendy market of home-buyers. In the Fifties and Sixties it was a whole different story. Growing up in St. Kilda taught you to be tough, alert and street wise. Sometimes your life depended on it.
Fawkner Street St.Kilda was a notorious and sometimes dangerous shortcut to Luna Park. It was a street I was brought home to as a baby in my proud mother’s arms. At that time it was also home to some dangerous criminals such as the Shannons, Norm Bradshaw and Pretty Dulcie.
Growing up in that street gave you a few interesting options in life, You could either learn to be a gangster yourself, or else, if you were of a more sensitive nature, you could observe the human condition in all its most glorious and contradictory terms. As a budding actor or writer you were truly blessed by the abundance of original characters that performed every day in the street theatre outside your window. They could ignite the curious spark in the fertile creative brain of a lonely child.
Norm Bradshaw was associated with Freddie “The Frog” Harrison and they were eventually charged with the attempted murder of a gangland rival, George Newman. Normie and Freddie attached a Tommy Gun mounted on an open window of a taxi. They drove past Newman’s Vauxhall Sedan and sprayed it with bullets. Nifty Newman survived but the court case fell over when a key witness failed to attend to give evidence. He later re-emerged to tell police that his failure to do so was a result of being informed his house would be bombed if he showed up. Bradshaw and Harrison were found not guilty by a nervous jury.
Normie was known as “The Beast” – and for good reason. One night he threw lighter fluid over his girlfriend and set fire to her. And that was someone he loved! She obviously loved him too and remained with him after the incident. Why? It’s hard to fathom. But it highlights something about the walking contradiction of these dangerous and hard men – they could either be your worst nightmare or disarmingly charming depending on what the situation required. Sometimes zig-zagging between both within hours, minutes – even seconds.
As a small child I remember my parents holding a fundraiser in our small modest living room for my eldest sister who was an entrant in a beauty pageant. The evening was teetering with the group of friends and acquaintances who’d come to party and donate to the young girl’s dream of becoming Miss Victoria. Halfway through the festivities a knock came to the front door. My mum answered it only to find Norm Bradshaw standing there with one of his henchmen.
“I don’t want any trouble, Normie!” said my fearless mum.
Normie smiled and answered, “No trouble, Mrs. Howson. I’m here to help the little girl. How’s the fund-raising going?”
My mum stated the truth, “Slowly”. To which Normie relied, “Well, we’ll see about that. Give me the hat.”
He then went around to everyone at the party, gave them the killer stare and asked how much they were contributing to the cause. Of course everyone emptied their pockets making the evening a roaring success.
So many times, with these characters, kindness walked hand in hand with brutality. Normie was known to many as a killer, a stand-over man, a psychopath, and other unsavoury things. But in our little home that night, he’d been Robin Hood.
Some months later, my dad and mum were awakened from their sleep by raised voices in the street outside our window.
Dad got up and peeked through the venetian blinds. Outside, Norm Bradshaw and an associate were involved in a verbal argument with a third man. This resulted in Normie bringing the debate to an abrupt end by punching the agitator to the ground. He and his henchman then began to walk away but were stopped in their tracks by something the fallen man said. Normie, slowly, turned around, walked a few paces closer to the third man, produced a revolver from his inside coat pocket, and shot the man dead. He then continued back home with his friend.
My dad, being a quick thinker, instructed my mum to help him move the bed to the back of the house. He then moved the living room furniture up to the front room. When the police knocked on our door and questioned my father as to whether he’d seen or heard anything during the night, he replied in the negative, stating that, as the bedroom was at the back of the house, he hadn’t heard a thing. The police checked this out for themselves and then went on their way.
A short time later there was another knock at the door. This time it was Norm Bradshaw.
“Hello Jacky” beamed Norm, although his eyes were as cold as ice.
“Good morning, Norm” replied dad.
“Just wondering how you’ve been sleeping lately, Jacky?”
To which my dad answered, “Like a baby, Norm.”
Norm gave another smile – this smile was far more relaxed, “That’s all I wanted to know, Jacky. Have a good day.” And off he went.
My mum and dad continued to sleep at the back of the house for some time.
Most of these criminals were involved in sly grog shops and illegal gambling dens, and as such many disputes resulted from rivals wanting to move in on the action for a cut of the fast money.
Pretty Dulcie was known as “The Angel of Death.” She ran a sly grog trade out of her St. Kilda home and had also been charged with soliciting on many occasions. She was our next door neighbour. One night a wild party she was hosting was interrupted by some uninvited gangsters kicking in her front door and walking down the passage way unloading their guns at the moving targets of party-guests. Dulcie was shot in the hip and her boyfriend Gavin Walsh was killed. Several stray bullets ended up going through the wall into the Howson residence, where we were having a nice dinner in front of our radiogram. If the bullet had’ve been a little lower and to the right you would not be reading this now.
Another resident of Fawkner Street, St. Kilda was the notorious abortionist Dr. Bertram Wainer. In 1967 a woman had come to Dr. Wainer’s surgery seeking emergency treatment after a backyard abortion gone wrong. Dr. Weiner helped the woman and thus began a quest by him to have the abortion laws abolished. At the time abortion was punishable by an up to fifteen year jail sentence. Weiner placed an ad in the Sun News Pictorial, under the heading “Abortion Abortion Abortion” and called on women to “not be intimidated by bullying tactics (of the police)”. Wainer went on to flag police corruption in protecting the backyard abortionists. After that he became a marked man but went down in history as a crusader for the acceptance of abortion.
No doubt the experience of living in this area had a profound influence on me. As did my father’s stories about courage, gladiators, cowboys and warriors. He instilled in me the importance of doing the right thing, no matter what the cost. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t learned the lesson as well as I did. It has cost me a lot of money over the years but I sleep well.
I was also blessed by the influence of another great human being, my mum. A beautiful soul who, if she hadn’t been my mother, would still have been my best friend. Without her positive influence in my corner perhaps I too would’ve run off the rails. In St.Kilda it was an all too easy option to get caught up with the wrong crowd.
The early to mid-Seventies was the “Glam” rock era in music and brought to fame such androgynous performers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Gary Glitter, Roxy Music, Elton John and saw the rise, probably as a backlash to the times, of skinhead gangs in Melbourne. They were not quite the “national front” type of skinheads, the far right racist extremists that were later to emerge in Britain and Australia. In fact, I don’t think our local skinheads and sharpies had any particular ideology, but they liked to think of themselves as “tough.” They wore their hair closely shaved with rat tails at the back, and drop cross earrings.(in the left ear – the right one signaled you were gay and that brought its own problems), tight striped cardigans, flair trousers and platform soled shoes called “hoppers”.
Being a Beatles tragic I was definitely a devoted and loyal Mod. This meant of course that I sometimes took my life in my hands just going to the movies. But another valuable lesson learned from my Dad was about pack mentality, which would prove useful in life. Always take on the big guy first. If he falls all his underlings soon lose their false bravado. Oh, and it helps if they think you’re a bit crazy. Even the most hardened criminal will avoid dealing with a mad man. They are too unpredictable. Chopper Read later confessed to me that he’d spent a good deal of his life establishing that persona as his protection shield.
In the early Sixties I got my first job, in that now extinct profession – selling newspapers on street corners. My designated location was on Fitzroy Street. A very rough and tough place in those days. It taught me responsibility, the pride in working hard to earn money, and how to deal with the public. You meet ’em all – the kind people and the arseholes. It was good grounding in understanding the psychology of the public. What I soon discovered was that even the most cynical, horrible, difficult person, at the heart of it, just wanted to be loved and treated with some respect. Instead of antagonising them, I would continue to smile, send out a positive vibe, and usually that was enough to turn a lot of these people around. Sometimes someone who’d initially been arrogant or mean, would melt into a nice person once their guard slipped. Some of them became my best customers. Arrogance is usually a cover for low self-esteem and high insecurity. Another lesson – politeness and respect go a long way.
My father worked a second job most nights at a sideshow alley near Luna Park. Again, this was invaluable experience for me observing how my dad and other spruikers dealt with the public. I was learning the art of selling…”step right up, step right up, folks!” And to this day, the show goes on.
(c) Frank Howson 2014.