Tin hut catering near Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral

The legend of the Parer’s in a tin hut near St Paul’s in Melbourne on a typically wet and miserable night has captured the imagination of the family for generations. Contemplating how the family business empire was built from such poor, humble and desperate beginnings has inspired and astounded in equal measures.

The Parer’s arrival to Australia came in 1855 when Joseph and Francis Parer arrived on ship by way of Montevideo, Uruguay where there was a gold boom. Joseph had spent seven and Francis six years in the Americas respectively and were searching for a way back to their hometown in Alella, Catalonia, Spain working the ship Telemarcho for passage. They got out in Sydney because they wanted to find a quicker way home.

They started a poultry business in Petersham, Sydney occupied them for several years and they found some likely buyers for their wares in Melbourne. After several years they were hit by disease in their animals and ended up destitute in Melbourne someone having to pay their fare on arrival. So they had arrived with not much to their names, on the other side of the world, having tried their luck and not succeeded. How dark the future must have looked?

Bernard Parer tells the legend that :

“They were camped in a tin hut near St. Paul’s Cathedral with ideas of commencing a produce business.

It was a wet cold Melbourne night and there was a knock on the door –It was a Frenchman who asked for shelter. He had no food and no clothes. The Frenchman prepared breakfast next morning while they were out. He had cooked some buns, cakes and biscuits, which were very good. Joseph said to Francis –”Let these be our goldmine”. The Frenchman agreed to do the cooking while they supplied the materials and went around selling them. He said he was a chef.

They would come home at night their pockets full of coins and they banked them with the Colonial Bank which had just opened on the Yarra River Bank

Upon their brother Steven’s arrival in 1858, he immediately pooled their resources and bought the Duke de la Victoria and they were away.

I have often tried to work out where that tin hut was situated and I’m still none the wiser. What we can see clearly from the 1962 lithograph below and the oil painting at the top by Ludwig Becker in 1857 is the virginal nature of the city. I have long suspected this was quite a romantic point of view. The small structure to the right in front of St Paul’s where Federation Square now stands is the city’s first morgue and Births, Deaths and Marriage Registration Office. The fact that St Paul’s is an Anglican church and the Parer’s are such devout Roman Catholics has amused me as a form of ecumenical nose thumbing.

1962 Melbourne-looking north from Princes Bridge-The small square building in front of the original St Paul's church is the city's first morgue and Births, Deaths and Marriage Registrati
St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 1862 looking north up Swanston Street from Princes Bridge.
1853-Princes Bridge (from South Side of Yarra)-Princes Bridge, built across the Yarra in 1850 and replaced with the current bridge in 1888.jpg
St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 1853 from the South side of the Yarra River.

You can see also that St Paul’s Cathedral while new, is much different from the grand affair that is visible today. The Melbourne: Book Now & Then says:

St James in the west could no longer accommodate all the worshippers so a new church was required. Charles & Webb designed the new church that was consecrated in 1852. This was replaced between 1880 and 1891 by a much grander sandstone building designed by William Butterfield.

St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne-postcard.jpg
St Paul’s Cathedral c1900

Melbourne was still a very raw city and Eel creek still meandered down Elizabeth Street into the Yarra at the thousand year old aboriginal fish trap. It cannot have been much fun or hygienic for a restaurant when the Yarra River flooded which it did with regular frequency.

Bernard Parer describes, “There was a creek running down Elizabeth Street into the Yarra and a bridge across it at this point. Mr Greenlaw saw they were honest and energetic and he told them to go ahead. When this became too small they bought another situated off Little Collins Street (for a very long time what was at rear of McEwans store where Equitable Place is now off Little Collins Street). This was later the John Bull Hotel and owned by Martin Arenas from 1895-1902.

1863 – Flinders Street and the Yarra River become one, during a flood.jpg
1863 – Flinders Street and the Yarra River become one, during a flood.

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