ST. KILDA: THE PLEASURE SEEKER’S MECCA (ON THE BLUE WATERS OF PORT PHILLIP)

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Words by Robert Chuter | Art by Robert Scholten 

When the headlines broke about the murder of a bohemian socialite and heir to the powerful sporting goods empire, the whispers were unstoppable. Almost overnight St. Kilda went from a pleasure seeker’s mecca (where luxury was the city’s heart and hedonism was the lifeblood) to a den of fear – with the gossip spreading from the sea baths to Luna Park to the classical dance hall of the Palais de Danse, the lurid details were devoured by a ravenous public. 

“Did you hear?  Did you hear about?”

A holiday guest staying at the Victoria Hotel on Beaconsfield Parade, Francis Glossop had soon become the subject of admiration and envy almost from the moment she appeared. She was very pretty, petite, had disconcerting violet coloured eyes, porcelain doll-like skin and wore blood red bee sting lipstick. Meandering through the crowds she sported a Louise Brooke’s inspired brown bob and dressed ‘bohemian’. She wore no undergarments and didn’t hide the fact. 

Francis stood out in a neighbourhood of manicured tails and gowns. She was no saint during her lifetime, known for publicly wearing risqué bathing suits and “entertaining” many men in her hotel rooms. Many would argue she courted disaster along with her suitors. But everyone adored Francis anyway. Cocaine was sold in paper twists. Known as ‘Two-Bob’ or ‘Joe Blow’, so Francis and her entourage indulged with much abandonment.

“What was she doing?”  “How could she?”

St. Kilda had seen its share of peaks and valleys up to 1929. Once the beachside getaway for the aristocracy, the town had since been in steady decline, as indicated by the unfinished City Hall on what is now Carlisle street. Although it didn’t display the same level of wealth as it’s Gold Rush years, it was still a fashionable pleasure seeker’s mecca, as well as being a densely populated suburb. St. Kilda offered everything to the joy-maker and the arrival of J.M. Williams and his building of the Luna Park amusement park, helped the region adopt the name of the “Coney Island” of Australia.

The addition of the sea baths ushered in a new influx of the health-conscious as well as a natural breakwater that allowed for boating activities along the vast stretch of tourist-covered beach. But for the super chic, it was the Palais de Danse that quickly became the biggest temptation. With its classical, Parisian style architecture and decor, revellers would descend upon its doors, eager to indulge in music by Ern Pettifer’s Rhythm Orchestra, dancing and a devil-may-care love of life.

Along with providing a magical experience, the Palais was a catalyst for the shift in attitudes especially when it came to public decency. Although the sea baths were seeing big business, open-sea bathing was becoming more popular, posing a threat to the thriving but still young institution. To cater for the demand, St. Kilda Council erected three open-sea changing pavilions along its foreshore. “Mixed bathing”, which allowed men and women to bathe together was legalised in 1927 and soon the following year, men and women were enjoying each other’s company on the beach as well as the foreshore, a practice that was previously considered obscene. The Palais’ spirit had spilt over into the daylight hours and the sea baths were forced to expand their services into providing gymnasium and other services. Standards of “decency” and dress at the beach were the subject of vigorous debate. Francis’ view was put into actions rather than words. She frequented the beach in curvaceous vivid red or blue bathing suits, a huge affront to conventional attitudes of the day.

Naturally, the sight of a “scantily” clad twenty-something didn’t go unnoticed. Nor did her sexuality. Along with the generous view she gave onlookers, she was also known as a dazzling flirt. No one was immune to her charms. Married, unmarried, engaged, single, men (and women) of all kinds were the target of Francis’ eye.   Even partners of those she seduced were forgiving of the pretty charmer, even at her most reckless. So when she made the headlines, the initial reaction was rather muted. 

“What’s she done now?”  “Did she go too far?”

It wasn’t until the details of the newspapers finally sunk into the local conscious. 

The corpse of a young woman was discovered on the morning of 28 January 1928 washed up face down on the sand next to the St. Kilda pier.   The victim was found completely naked and had been badly beaten with some type of heavy object and her every orifice overly stuffed with seaweed. The deceased was believed to be that of Francis Elizabeth Glossop. She was prettier in death as she was in life. Strong suspicion fell on one of her many lover’s artist Archie Kerrison. He was another flamboyant type, but sadly the case against him was never proved. Archie was known for his strange dried seaweed and sand sculptures.  Unfortunately, Francis’ murder remains unresolved and a close to a vibrant chapter in St. Kilda’s cultural history. 

“Silly girl, she was always courting trouble,” remarked a former lover. 

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