Under the Rainbow: the life and times of E W Cole by Richard Broinowski

‘Like the rainbows he used as trademarks, Edward William Cole lit up Victorian Melbourne with his Book Arcade and the ways he promoted it.’

In the 1960s I was fortunate enough to discover ‘Cole’s Funny Picture Book’.  I loved it: the wonderful absurd illustrations, the fantastic machines, the rhymes, and the cautionary tales.

In this book, Mr Broinowski tells us about the creator of that book, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918).  As I read the book, I found myself wishing that I had been able to visit Cole’s Book Arcade.  I know that I would have loved it.

But back to the beginning.  Edward William Cole was born in rural Kent, UK, in poverty in 1832.   We do not have a lot of detail about his early life: his real father is unknown; his stand-in father was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for the theft of a handkerchief.  What brought Mr Cole to Melbourne?  Like so many others, the lure of gold.

Once in Melbourne, he tried several different jobs.  But it was not until a woman sold him a job lot of books (which he sold alongside the pies he then sold from a barrow) that he started on the path that made him famous.  From a small collection of books to a mini book arcade: Mr Cole sought and made the most of opportunities.  Mr Cole’s insatiable curiosity and marketing genius served him well.  He advertised for a wife (and found an ideal match), established his wonderful book arcade with its live music, menagerie, tearooms, and curios.  He encouraged visitors to browse.

The narrative is accompanied by photographs, a reminder of what was once quite probably the most famous store in Australia.  Mr Broinowski writes of the challenges Mr Cole faced, of how he saw (and created) opportunities.  He was a strong advocate for education, a strong opponent of the White Australia Policy and showed far more religious tolerance than many of his era.

This is a delightful book.  The story of a man who started with very little and achieved so much.  We may not know all the facts about his early life, but we don’t need to in order to recognise his genius. 

And now, I want to try to locate a copy of the ‘Cole’s Funny Picture Book’ I remember.


Jennifer Cameron-Smith