You may not have heard of Josie de Bray, but this French-born dynamo was once one of Perth’s most successful female entrepreneurs.
Josie, aka Madam Monnier, ran most of Perth’s brothel scene in Roe Street, from World War One up until the 1940s. She later returned to Europe, where she became a prisoner-of-war. Once freed, she returned to Perth and went back to the business she knew best, running Roe Street’s brothels, until her death in 1953.
Historian Leigh Straw‘s new book The Petticoat Parade has lifted the lid on Josie and some of the other colourful characters who frequented this fascinating and hidden world at the heart of our city.
Leigh chats to The Starfish.
Leigh, congrats on The Petticoat Parade What does the title refer to?
The title uses references to the women who worked in the brothels and the ‘petticoat parade’ they performed when trying to get clients to come into the establishments. They would parade out the front of the brothels in their petticoats.
What was Perth’s brothel scene like in the early 1900s – and is it very different to the way it all is today?
Perth’s brothel scene became increasingly contained along Roe Street and the precinct there. The brothels were run out of pretty ordinary looking bungalows but red cloth was put up in the windows, or front doors were painted green to indicate that the house was a brothel. The sex business had to diversify when the brothels were closed down from the late 1960s so there was then the establishment of massage parlours, for example.
Tell us a little about Josie de Bray, and how did you first hear about her?
I first came across Josie while researching the lives of criminal women in Perth and Fremantle a few years ago. Marie Monnier, aka Josie de Bray, was the most famous of the Roe Street personalities. She arrived in WA from France in 1905 and by the 1920s had established herself as a leading brothel madam with plenty of real estate in the red light district and later, further out in Mount Lawley. She was a larger-than-life identity, noted for her European fashions, peroxide blonde hair and expensive jewellery. Josie had a fine entrepreneurial mind and was a successful businesswoman at a time when there were few opportunities for women to run businesses.
When did you decide there was a book in Josie and her contemporaries along Roe St?
I think I’ve always had a particular interest in bringing hidden women’s stories to life. Other historians have included Josie and Roe Street in wider books on prostitution but there was no one book devoted just to Josie and the women of Roe Street.
What fascinates you most about Josie?
Her ability to set up such successful businesses and create a name for herself as a professional woman, albeit in a business that was stigmatised by society at the time.
You must know more about the history of Perth brothels than almost anyone. How did you end up becoming such a specialist?
It came by way of living in Sydney a few years ago, becoming interested in the history of sex work there, then wanting to know more about my home town. When we historians become interested in something, we research it deeply so we really can develop expertise in key areas of interest.
Where did you get to do most of your research?
Most of it was conducted at the State Records Office of Western Australia and also through online digitised archives available through the National Archives of Australia. Digitised newspapers available through Trove were also really useful.
Were there a few unexpected gems you stumbled on?
One of the best ones was being able to listen to former brothel madam, Joan St. Louis, talking about her career in an oral history record kept at the State Library of Western Australia and made available online. She really brought the work to life and humanised her story and those of other women.
How did the WA cops and clients treat the ladies of the night 100 years ago?
There was a generally good relationship between the worker, police and clients. There were sometimes problems – and Josie was shot! But the biggest problem was complaints from the public wanting the brothels closed down.
After reading your book, many West Australians are never going to see Roe Street quite the same way, are they?
No they won’t, but sadly the Roe Street of old was largely knocked down so we can’t see now exactly what it would have looked like.
Who would the book appeal to?
It will appeal to people wanting to know more about Perth history, particularly women’s history. It also has appeal to those interested in social history and crime. I hope the book would appeal to anyone wanting to know more about the stories that often get silenced in history amidst the stigma attached to certain work and those who work in the business. The women of Roe Street deserve to have their stories told as they and their work were an important part of the social fabric of Perth and Western Australia in the first half of the 20th century.
About Leigh Straw
Leigh Straw is an academic, historian and writer. She is the author of true crime biographies of Australian crime figures Kate Leigh and Dulcie Markham, and Australia’s first female detective, Lillian Armfield. Leigh was the joint winner of the 2018 Margaret Medcalf Award for her book After the War: Returned Soldiers and the Mental and Physical Scars of World War I. Leigh Straw is Senior Lecturer in History at The University of Notre Dame Australia.
The Petticoat Parade (Fremantle Press) is available in bookstores and online.