Some interesting ghostsigns can be found on a building at the corner of Swan Street and Byron Street, Richmond. There’s not much to see, at first glance – just a stock-standard two storey row of Victorian shops. These days the two shops on the corner are occupied by a patisserie and a Tattersalls, with a handy ATM in between them.
When you look at the side wall, you can make out some lettering along the top which reads – if you look closely – The Australian Mont De Piete.
The same name appears further down the wall, although it’s been vandalised. The text reads: ‘The Australian Mont De Piete Loan & Deposit Coy Ltd Swan St Branch’.
I’ve also seen the name in Footscray, where I noticed it above a cake shop at the top of a similar row of ordinary Victorian shops on Hopkins Street, just opposite Footscray Market. The Footscray one is accompanied by a date – 1891 – and it is spelt ‘Monte’ not ‘Mont’ for some reason.
So what was the Australian Mont (or Monte) de Piete? A bit of online research tells me that it was a loan and finance company – a pawnbroker and moneylender basically. It would thus not be a surprise to find it on a retail street, especially in a working class part of town where people might resort to pawnbrokers when they were hard up.
In the State Library of Victoria’s online collection I came across this lovely old silver gelatin photo of the Richmond Mont De Piete around the year 1920.
If you compare the photo from 1920 with the present day, the building has undergone some modification – the parapet and other ornamentation have been removed from the top, the awning has gone, and the front of the building has received a coat of white paint. Sadly, the three balls – the traditional sign for a pawnbroker – have gone too.
However, the signage high up on the side wall is just visible in the 1920 photo. The signage high up on the Swan Street wall was added to the photograph, quite neatly, by someone using a pen, in the 1920s version of Photoshop. (At the same time, the unknown hand also greyed out the signage of the shop next door, which is a bit annoying). According to the State Library, there is a handwritten caption on the mount (not visible on the digital file) that reads: “Established October 17th 1885.”
The way the photograph is composed, with that very ordinary family casually browsing (though obviously aware of the camera) makes me wonder if this was an advertising shot of some kind. It’s trying to create the image of the Mont De Piete as a thoroughly respectable place where a family might go to buy some nice English plate. However, the words ‘Money Lent at Lowest Rates’ tell a different story: the place was a payday lender.
Whether coincidentally or not, right next next door to the Mont De Piete in the 1920s photo is a bottle shop. Look closely and you can see in the window signs for Lager, Port, Tonic Wine, and (weirdly) Lifebuoy Soap. It wouldn’t be surprising, perhaps, if a fair bit of the money lent out by the Mont De Piete ended up being spent in the liquor shop next door. But that’s just a guess. A bit like having an ATM beside a Tatts, one might think.
Here’s another photo of a Mont de Piete from the SLV’s collection – this time the Carlton branch. This photo looks quite a bit older than the Richmond one – my guess would be 1880s-90s. Again, you can see the three balls that denote a pawnbroker, but this time as a painted graphic alongside ‘Money Lent’.
There was nothing fancy about these shops. They popped up in very ordinary shopping streets in working-class suburbs – and that was the point. The Mont de Piete relied on hardship to make its money.
I walked around the back of the Swan St building, and discovered that on the rear wall are several layers of ghostsigns. The signs on the right belonged to the Mont De Piete, those on the left to the bottle shop.
And again from a different angle:
The most recent – and the one in best condition – is Penfold’s wine, a popular brand name that appears on painted signage all over the Melbourne suburbs (it’s in Sydney too – Vanessa Berry of Mirror Sydney tracked down a Penfolds sign in Surry Hills.)
At the top of the wall, the name Davis is legible. According to my 1946 Sands & McDougall street directory, in that year 136 Swan St was occupied by A. Davis, licensed grocer (Aha – so that’s why the shop also sold soap!) and 138 Swan Street was still the Mont de Piete. The other words on the left side of the wall are quite hard to decipher, though I can see ‘Wines and Spirits’ below Davis’s name.
Looking more closely at the right hand side of the wall, the words ‘Pawnbrokers’ and ‘Financiers’ are still pretty clear, but when you look at the rest of the wall it’s basically guesswork – my guess is that the words ‘Australian Mont De Piete Loan & Deposit’ are there, having been painted over at some point.
The Australian Mont De Piete was an important part of Melbourne suburban life from the late 19th to the late 20th century – at one time it had branches in, at least, Prahran, North Melbourne, South Melbourne, Collingwood, and the city, as well as the ones I’ve mentioned. (You can see more photos at the SLV website).
Here’s a clipping from The Argus in 1892 (the year after the Footscray branch was built). The early 1890s were a bad time for most, as the Melbourne land bubble had recently burst, triggering a major recession. But there is always someone who benefits from an economic downturn – such as moneylenders and pawnbrokers – and the mood among shareholders of the Australian Mont de Piete was upbeat. The company’s position was described as ‘fairly prosperous considering the prevailing dulness’ and the meeting ended with a round of applause.
Presumably, many of the hard-up customers who passed through the doors of the company’s suburban branches were not quite so elated.
According to Delisted Australia, the Australian Monte De Piete was delisted in 1972, when it was taken over by a company called Merbank, which itself soon disappeared. The name still lingers in signage around the suburbs, though. Is there a branch near you?
For more about the history of this area, including some great old photos, check out the Richmond and Burnley Historical Society.