Love Story on Rathdowne Street

School on the corner of Bourke and King Sts. Vera second row from the front third from the left

It is one of Melbourne’s crisp sunny winter days. There is a story that I need to re-trace; this is a story that Vera, my mother, told me. I have many details and an important clue.

When she was a little girl my mother lived in the family’s King Street café, near the corner of Bourke Street, Melbourne city. Vera Martin went to school at St Augustine’s in Bourke Street; in her school photo she is third from the left in the second row from the front, just behind the seated boys. A small red-headed girl.

King Street could get ‘a bit rough’ on the weekends so she and her brother and sister, Leo and Rita, would often be sent to stay with Uncle Harry in Rathdowne Street Carlton. Vera was emphatic when she told the story. ‘Everyone loved Uncle Harry’. She also claimed that she was his favourite, and as the story continues you will see that this might well have been so.

Harry Stahl was a craftsman; he made shoes and repaired shoes. He was good at his trade and had been invited to sit in the shop window in an upmarket emporium in Melbourne Central to demonstrate the art of shoemaking.

My mother told me that Uncle Harry was in love with a Jewish tailoress across the road. The Lady, they called her. In 1913 or thereabouts little Vera would carry notes to and fro across Rathdowne Street. Possibly there was a boiled lolly now and then for this little carrier of love letters.

All is bright with winter sun as I revisit the place where this happened. I want to see Harry’s shop and the shop on the opposite side of the road. Because of my cousin Norma’s research, I have Harry Stahl’s address … 354 Rathdowne Street.

This east side of Rathdowne is a mixture of shops and dwellings; Uncle Harry’s is solid, double-story, and would certainly date to early twentieth century, or before. I can see that this is a shop converted later to a dwelling with a bricked-up front wall and 1920s windows.

I cross the road. Here is a boutique establishment with elegant gold lettering across its front window. ‘MADE IN MELBOURNE, LORENA LAING’. I enter and am amazed. There are unique garments either woven or handknitted. I love the colours. I look upwards and towards the back of the store and here is a workspace with its cones of yarn and its timber ceiling. The manageress attends to me while the only other customer is the changeroom. I tell the story; they both want to know how it ends. 

This is how it ends. Neither family can agree. Harry’s mother, Annie Stahl, is adamant. The marriage of a Catholic and a Jew would end in unhappiness.

Would it, I wonder.

In 1914, at the start of WW1, it was the German name Stahl that became the problem to the family. Though Annie was a widow now, though it was more than forty years since Franz her late husband became an Australian citizen, the Stahls were in real and present danger. What would this have meant for a Jewish woman married into a German name?

The Stahls changed their name to Stawell.

Franz died aged 51: jovial, much loved and loving, but never married.