Robyn Annear is author of eight books of history, including Bearbrass, A City Lost & Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, Adrift in Melbourne and, most recently, Corners of Melbourne: The great orange-peel panic & other stories from the streets. She appeared in the award-winning 2022 documentary, The Lost City of Melbourne. In her podcast, Nothing on TV, Robyn presents stories from Trove historical newspapers.

…. And recently the PMI Victorian History Library had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn with some insightful (and quirky) questions. Read them below:

  1. What made you write about Melbourne’s corners?

What I like best is to attach history (and story) to an exact spot. Corners are perfect for that.

  1. Of all the stories you uncovered was there a person who stood out amongst the rest?

I have a soft spot for Kate Breakwell, whom I first encountered running naked along Swan Street, Richmond, at seven one morning, hurling herself into every horse trough she came to. Drying out after an intense bout of drinking, she felt (she told police) as if she were ‘on fire’. Kate made regular appearances before the local magistrates during the 1890s, often for smashing windows or bottles – or windows with bottles. In her dotage, she lived in Glass Street, Richmond.

  1. And did you have a favourite story?

Call me heartless, but I’m tickled by the story of Annie McAdam, felled by a wheel of Gippsland cheese at a city corner in 1882. Outside a ham-and-beef shop at the corner of Queen and Bourke, a delivery driver was tossing goods from his cart to a shopman in the doorway. Mrs McAdam was walking on Queen Street when she was struck in the temple by a 4-kg cheese, knocking her to the ground. Luckily, her bonnet cushioned the blow.

  1. Of all your books, Bearbrass is our most loaned. How in the nearly 30 years since it was written, has your knowledge and understanding of Melbourne’s past and its stories evolved?

It’s complicated. There are times when Melbourne’s past feels as familiar as my own. But that’s an illusion, I know. There’s no ‘understanding’ the past. The reality of it was stranger than I can imagine. In writing about Melbourne’s past, I like to unsettle the feeling of familiarity, letting hints of strangeness come to the surface.

  1. What part of Melbourne history do you connect with the most?

The CBD – the grid – for sure. Like any city worth the name, it’s a palimpsest that can be endlessly re-written.

  1. What is the best part about being an author?

It’s a toss-up between the bliss of research and the absorption of writing.

  1. Do you have any odd (writing) habits?

I write in a lead-lined bunker that no wifi signal can penetrate. The internet corrodes (my) concentration.

  1. What is your opinion on Trove as a resource for authors? 

Trove is well named: it’s a treasure trove. Trove Newspapers brings the past closer, yet also highlights the weirdness of other times. Being written for people who were there, newspapers don’t explain themselves. As well as a being lively historical resource, they’re a tremendous spur to the imagination.

  1. Do you have a book idea you’d love to explore but you aren’t sure if it would sell?

Yes, I do.

  1. What are you reading now?

The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson (first published 1972; reissued by New York Review Books, 2020); and The Pocket: A hidden history of women’s lives, 1660-1900 by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux (Yale University Press, 2020).