Crime historian and writer, Leigh Straw, takes a walk back along Roe Street of old and finds some interesting characters there
I’ve spent the last few years enmeshed in writing about crime in Sydney in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s so good to now bring to life a hometown story with Fremantle Press.
The newspapers called it the ‘Rue de la Roe’ and it was an infamous part of the city. It was a dusty and dirty street, with corrugated cladding on its walls, windows and fences. Dust from the railway lines and from the steam trains that were still in service settled along the footpaths and road. Against the grime of the street, red cloth in front windows was a sign of the scarlet reputation of the precinct. The brothels were mixed in with factories, markets and small grocery shops. The police restricted motor traffic along the one-way street, partially so they could regulate it more easily but also so that fewer people would wander along past the brothels.
Roe Street was the main thoroughfare for the brothels, but the precinct also included brothels on James Street, Melbourne Road (later renamed Milligan Street) and Lake Street. It was generally quiet during the day but really came alive at night with business and some parties.
Marie Monnier was the most famous of the Roe Street personalities. She arrived in WA from France in 1905 and by the 1920s had established herself as a leading brothel madam with plenty of real estate in the red-light district and later, further out in Mount Lawley. She was a larger-than-life identity who was noted for her European fashions, peroxide-blonde hair and expensive jewellery.
Joan St Louis was another of the brothel madams and in the 1980s she sat down to tell her story. Because of Joan we have a lot of key details about the brothel business, the women working there and the motivations behind them taking up the work.
Jessie Wilson was one of the regular workers. She used to sit outside the brothel at 218 Roe Street and pleasantly call out ‘Hullo, Dearie’ to passing men. If they looked the slightest bit interested, she would smile, wink and ask, ‘Are you coming in?’ This was the regular aspect of the business.
The Petticoat Parade: Madame Monnier and the Roe Street Brothels is a social history of Perth’s red-light district which uses the main story of Marie Monnier (aka Josie de Bray) as a way of also lifting the lid on the stories of other women who worked along Roe Street and the wider precinct from the early 1900s to the 1950s. It is also a story which includes some of the police who patrolled and investigated the businesses, and the private detectives sent in by frustrated wives to catch out erring husbands.
The police had a very interesting relationship with the brothel madams. While they conducted a number of raids on the properties in response to public complaints and women were prosecuted for soliciting when things got out of hand, the police were more intent on containing prostitution in the brothels, so they worked with the brothel madams to ensure this happened. It didn’t stop Marie Monnier and other madams being prosecuted at various times in their careers, but it meant there was a growing respect between the madams and the police. This later changed with the closure of the brothels and police corruption coming into play from the 1960s.
I hope readers will see these women and their stories as an important part of Perth’s history.
The Petticoat Parade: Madame Monnier and the Roe Street Brothels is available in all good bookstores and online.