Rowe Street: Sydney’s Bohemian heartland

Sydney 1926


Flappers tapping along on stilt heels: message boys carrying their parcels as blithely as they wear their rakish caps; men of affairs walking by with the sobriety befitting their niche in life; women sauntering idly past….

A primrose path of dalliance, where people loiter by the way to brood over wares which, fascinating as those of an Eastern pettah, beckon from behind shop windows…. The milky sheen of ivory gleaming among the disorder of an art shop, the exquisite example of the dressmaker’s art, lying supinely across a gilded chair, which arouses the worst possible instinct in feminine breasts, the fragrance of massed flowers, the allure of rare books wooing with voiceless magic from behind plate glass—these are some of the temptations lying in wait for the unwary.

— Jessie Urquhart, 1931.

Do you want a messenger boy or a racing tip? An exquisite bibelot, or jazz garters or a jewelled lipstick case? Discreet companionship or entertainment? An elegant chapeaux perhaps, or a brass nymph, or a new play, or purchase of a book in defiance of the Censor’s ban? You should journey to Rowe Street.

Rowe Street is hardly a street at all, but rather a quaint ruelle, a narrow laneway running between Pitt and Castlereagh Streets parallel to Martin Place and proximate to the Hotel Australia. It is a shaded and secluded slice of Bohemia, a world apart, the Beau Brummell of the city, Sydney’s answer to Montmartre.

For fifty years now, Rowe Street has been the centre of Sydney’s bohemian life. Called ‘the most picturesque street in Australia’, its narrow footpaths offer respite from the noise and bustle of the surrounding city. Rowe Street is a place of poets, painters, actors, bohemians and dreamers. It is an arts quarter. It is a gay ghetto. The precinct’s cosmopolitan speciality shops, garret studios and tea rooms offer a brief respite from urban madness.

Down this laneway you will find mix of tiny refreshment rooms, restaurants, tea shops, coffee houses, hairdressers, florists, boutiques, and small art studios and galleries. There are several bookshops and lending libraries (including Sir Owen Aherne’s Wedgetail Press), ballet and tap dancing schools, tailors, bootmakers, a detective agency, the offices of several printers and publishers, antique dealers, importers of fine goods, shoe box theatres and shops selling Parisian hats.

Several bookstores carry discrete stocks of banned Australian and European books in defiance of the Censor. With discretion and a little effort, you might obtain modernist novels, political tracts, erotic fiction or advice on family planning and contraception.

Here too you will find the Fleet Fliers Messenger Service, and Jim de Lac, an SP bookie who operates from the back room of a barber’s shop. Artist Lionel Lindsay keeps a difficult-to-find garret studio.

In from the crowded, noisy streets,
To this thread of thoroughfares.
You feast on windows, fairie-sweet,
New frocks, old, priceless wares….
An Indian scarf, some priceless jade.
Gifts from the ports of Han:
An English Doulton milk-maid pair
A faded print of Pan!
—Mary Roach.

Intriguing stairways lead upward into mystery: a secret society perhaps, or a theatre group’s rehearsal rooms, or the elegant salon of a male milliner.

The great Theatre Royal on Castlereagh and Rowe offers diverse entertainments including dramas, comedy, and musical, and ensures a constant presence of actors, musicians, dancers and those who follow them. Rowe Street also houses the tiny Playbox Theatre, a sparkling-new venue for avant-garde plays.

On the corner of Pitt and Rowe sits Millions House, home to the exclusive Millions Club, a luxurious meeting place for politicians and businessmen. The Club is political in nature, and lobbies on immigration, development and municipal issues. (Its title derives not from its millionaire members but from its original purpose in promoting migration to New South Wales).

Ah, Rowe Street. It might seem that with a few steps you have left this enchanted quarter to fall back into the noise and rush of the inner city. Behind lie those few moments snatched from mundane reality, which offered moments of temptation and wonder.

Rowe-street lives within itself
In an old tale-laden dream.
—J. K. Phillips.

John Hughes

Pan[ic] game background and character drafts

Bohemian Sydney, 1926: the pubs, wine-bars, coffee shops, scandal, gossip and sensuality of the street. Starving artists, poor musicians, writers scratching for a living, bit actors, and people with all sorts of strange jobs. The men seek the verities of beer, women and mammon. Mostly the beer. The women seek something a little more complex and indefinable. Led by Jack Lindsay, the Vision group seeks to defend True Art against the barbarities of modern life.

But something has entered this antipodean arcadia, something beautiful and terrible. Something deadly.

A Machenesque horror game for Phenomenon Silver. Check out the game background and characters!


The Sorceress

A DAZ Studio/Photoshop study of J.W. Waterhouse’s ‘The Sorceress‘. in which Circe looks a little like another woman with an identically-sounding name.

The Ravens

Cecilia Winterbloom was courageous, sharp as a pin, and unwavering in her passion for the truth. We all knew it would end badly.

DAZ Studio and Photoshop. Adapted image is Ahasuerus at the End of the World (1888) by the pre-Symbolist Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl.

Circe Invidiosa


Circe (Κίρκη) is an immortal sorceress in Greek mythology, daughter of a titan and a nymph. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Circe is invidiosa (Latin for jealous) of the nymph Scylla, a rival in love, and so poisons the waters in which Scylla bathes, causing her to be transformed into a devouring sea monster. My render is inspired by seeing John William Waterhouse’s canvas of this scene at the National Gallery of Australia.

Rendered in DAZ Studio, minimal Photoshop.