Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was a place of prestige for theatre goers - and a reliable source of income for the notorious ‘Bourke Street Rats' gang.
By Michael Shelford © 2018
The new Theatre Royal, 234 Bourke St, was built by actor, entrepreneur and politician George Coppin, after the last one had burnt down in 1872. It was a place of prestige, the venue for many of Melbourne’s most popular theatre productions - and also contained a number of ornately furnished and ‘well attended’ drinking bars.
These bars were frequented by wealthy visitors to Melbourne, persons with money to splurge and plenty of spare time to do so. The toilet closets were out on the eastern side, in an area which was open to Latrobe Place, a right of way which still connects Bourke and Little Bourke Streets today. Latrobe Place was not a place you wanted to be 120 years ago. It was the favourite haunt of a gang of pickpockets and garrotters known as the 'Bourke Street Rats' or ‘Rats Push’. Their sobriquet included the words ‘Bourke Street’ because of their predilection for robbing people around the theatre district of Bourke Street and ‘Rats’ because they disappeared like rats into the nearby alleys and laneways after the deed was done. The toilets of the Theatre Royal were, to the Bourke Street Rats, a gift that kept on giving.
In 1899, a man by the name of Ullett, who had taken on the task of a lengthy bender with great application and resolve, got arrested for drunkenness, and then complained that the police must have robbed him of his wallet containing £30 at the lockup. The police retraced his booze-affected steps with the assistance of bar tenders, drinking companions and other witnesses - and then reported that there was no doubt his wallet had gone missing "due to the fact of his leaving the Bar so frequently to go to the back premises where it is well known to us that several of the Rats Push are in the habit of frequenting, also spielers and doubtful characters who are always on the watch for drunken persons and no doubt he must have fallen into the hands of this trap."
The famous criminal, Leslie ‘Squizzy’ Taylor, would later join the same ‘Rats Push’ gang of thieves. Squizzy was charged with robbing a man in the back toilets of the Oxford Hotel on Lonsdale Street in 1907. He had been seen by the hotel publican in the toilets at the time that a drunken man was garrotted and robbed. Squizzy was found not guilty but police were of no doubt that he’d been one of those who had choked the victim into a state of insensibility before relieving him of his funds.
The Theatre Royal was demolished in 1933 and replaced by Manton’s Department Store, then Coles and then Target. The Target Centre still occupies the same space.
Latrobe Place will be a feature on the upcoming Chinatown night tours. Dates to be announced shortly.
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.