Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cole, Edward William (1832–1918)

by E. Cole Turnley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Edward William Cole (1832-1918), bookseller, was born on 4 January 1832 at Tenterden, Kent, England, son of Amos Cole, labourer, and his wife Harriett. With £20 and very little education Cole migrated in 1850 to the Cape of Good Hope and after some success at farming sailed for Melbourne in the Sebim. He arrived on 12 November 1852 and went to the Forest Creek diggings, but soon decided that he had neither the physical stamina nor the gambling instinct for mining. He sold lemonade and saved enough money to buy five blocks at an early land sale in Castlemaine, then saw land values plummet in the slump of 1854. He sold four blocks and on the fifth built a shop which he let to a butcher who never paid rent and years later claimed ownership by right of tenure, a claim Cole never disputed.

In 1861 with the photographer, George Burnell, Cole rowed 1500 miles (2414 km) down the River Murray from Echuca, taking photos and collecting seeds of native flora. He sold some of the photos in Melbourne and took the seeds to Ferdinand Mueller for the Botanical Gardens. Cole then ran a pie stall in Russell Street by night, and by day researched at the Public Library, two years later completing 'The Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul'; it represented the first volume of a work which was to demonstrate the desirability of a world religion compounded of the good teachings commonly held by all the great faiths while dismissing as quarrel-provoking myth the accounts of the divine origin and miraculous powers of each religion's founder. No one in the Melbourne or Sydney book trade would consider publishing it, so with the intention of eventually printing and selling it himself he gave up his pie stall and opened his own second-hand bookstall in the Eastern Market, 30 September 1865. Under the nom de plume, 'Edwic', he published the work cheaply early in 1867. Recognized booksellers would not stock it or newspapers advertise it. Copies sent gratuitously to leading churchmen, politicians and newspapers resulted in some scornful pulpit comment and a scathing report in Melbourne Church News, 17 June 1867. In 1868 he published a two-part pamphlet, Religious Sects of all Nations and Sacred Scriptures of all Nations, as well as an essay stemming from his publishing frustrations, Discourse in Defence of Mental Freedom. He then produced a limited edition of a cloth-bound volume, The Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul, containing all the above works as well as a page headed 'Note to the Reader' outlining the material he proposed to elaborate in a second volume. But no such full-length volume was ever completed. An attempt to resume work on it some forty years later, in his semi-retirement, was frustrated when he was unable to find his notes, which he had reason to suspect had been taken and destroyed by a senior employee who strongly opposed his ideas in this field.

As a bookseller Cole prospered. In 1873, aware that the Eastern Market was to be demolished and rebuilt, he moved into a shop in Bourke Street East. He turned it into what he advertised as 'the prettiest sight in Melbourne', glittering with mirrors, shining with brass, and with two little mechanical men at the entrance turning over a series of advertising boards which fell against each other with a tinny clash, thus catching the ear as well as the eye. From across the road the eye was caught by a giant rainbow over his façade and his new trade name of Cole's Book Arcade. He dressed his staff in brilliant scarlet jackets and after midday a pianist played popular tunes. In this happy atmosphere customers were encouraged to read the books as long as they liked without being pressed to buy. Enormous public goodwill was thus created and the sale of books, music and stationery was maintained at a boom level. At 43 Cole was becoming rich and decided to marry and raise a family. He was a shy man, so he boldly advertised in a full column of the Herald, 5 July 1875, setting out the qualities he hoped to find in a wife. A month later he married the only serious 'applicant', Eliza Frances, youngest daughter of C. J. Jorden, of Lauderdale, New Town, Tasmania; they had two sons and four daughters.

His most successful publication, Cole's Funny Picture Book, appeared with great publicity on Christmas Eve 1879 at the catch-price of 1s. In later editions, as in all his works, he included pars, verses and slogans on his theme of the inevitability of a federated world with one religion. His slogans were embossed on a series of 'medals' which he sold for 3d. as admission tokens to the arcade when the crowds became unmanageable.

When the rebuilt Eastern Market proved a white elephant, Cole leased the whole interior in 1879 and turned it into a bazaar, with a band and innumerable side-shows to heighten the popularity of 'his' end of Bourke Street. The City Council was dismayed by such frivolity and for four years raised obstacles to each renewal of his lease. These tactics made Cole think of a bigger arcade where his flair for earning the goodwill of thronging customers would be unrestricted. In 1882 he negotiated the freehold of Augustine Barbete's Spanish Restaurant in Bourke Street; it had a 40 foot (12 m) frontage and a depth of 120 feet (36 m). He virtually gutted it. The two upper floors became circumambulatory balconies so that daylight from an arched glass roof reached the ground floor. To the shine and glitter of his original mirrors and brass pillars he added new and bigger ones. Police had to control the crowds when he opened on Cup Day 1883.

To expand his premises Cole acquired leases and freeholds of several properties, and by 1896 his arcade extended from Bourke Street to Little Collins Street. The City Council allowed him to appropriate the right-of-way that ran past the original back door; Cole bridged it and turned it into a fernery with rustic benches and cages of talking birds. His next target was Howey Place, the drab lane at the back entrance of the arcade in Little Collins Street. By further expansion in the next decade Cole converted this lane into Cole's Walk, a section of his arcade, roofing it with glass, lining its grubby brick walls with bright showcases, and dominating its length with another big rainbow over the back entrance of premises he had acquired at 246 Collins Street. This expansion 'right through to Collins Street' was completed by 1900 and by 1904 he owned or leased several properties flanking Cole's Walk and in them had his wholesale and toy departments and a printing shop.

In 1898 Cole had bought out the insolvent bookselling business of Edward Augustus Petherick with branches in Sydney and Adelaide. They were converted into branches of Cole's Book Arcade but left largely in the hands of their managers to be conducted as orthodox bookshops while Cole expended all his enthusiasm and imagination on his personal creation in Melbourne. In his years of enlarging the arcade he was constantly introducing new attractions: a 'Smiling Gallery' of funny mirrors; a 'Wonderland' of multiple-reflection optical illusions; a 'Black Man Who Turned White'; a penny-in-the-slot 'Hen that Laid the Golden Eggs'; and a cage full of live monkeys. But above all this razzle-dazzle he created an atmosphere of goodwill which evoked in many Melbournians an emotional response which few, if any, other business concerns in the world ever rivalled. Much of the feeling stemmed from Cole's public sense and deep sincerity. The arcade was his personal joy and fulfilment, and its profits were a delightful bonus, although profit was probably never the primary object of his novelties and altruistic policies.

In his later years Cole published several pamphlets on public questions; one, A White Australia Impossible (1898), created such interest in Japan that he received very special attention when he visited that country with his wife and two daughters for six months in 1903. The other pamphlets made little general impression, and most of them were distributed gratuitously. His commercially successful works were compilations and most achieved sales of more than 100,000. They included Cole's Funny Picture Book (1879), which was kept continuously in print, its 1966 reprint bringing total sales up to 885,000; Cole's Fun Doctor (1886); Cole's Intellect Sharpener (1900); and The Thousand Best Poems in the World.

After his wife died on 15 March 1911 he lived in semi-retirement in Essendon and compiled a series of books of selected passages from his lifetime reading; the volumes bore such titles as Truth, Home and War, the series being labelled The Cream of Human Thought Library. Many thousands were distributed gratuitously, but sales were disappointing. Cole died at his home, Earlsbrae Hall, Essendon, on 16 December 1918, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

The arcade was left to managing trustees, but dissension developed and the first losses were shown since its inception. The Sydney branch was sold and under its new management was wound up in 1924. The Adelaide branch was sold to its manager, Benjamin Beck, and eventually became the Beck Book Co. The Melbourne Cole's Book Arcade was wound up in 1929 and the freeholds were sold at auction; the major portion, Bourke Street to Little Collins Street, was bought by G. J. Coles & Co.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Williams, The Life of E. W. Cole (Melb, c1910)
  • F. Lincoln, The Burnell Family (Adel, 1948)
  • Table Talk, 20 June 1890
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Nov 1902, 31 Dec 1932
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 14 Sept 1929
  • Market Committee, Minutes, 1881-85 (Melbourne City Council)
  • E. W., E. F. Cole and Cole's Book Arcade, letters and papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. Cole Turnley, 'Cole, Edward William (1832–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cole-edward-william-3243/text4897, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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