E.W. Cole as was born on 4 January 1832 at Tenterden, Kent, England, son of Amos Cole, labourer, and his wife Harriett. At the age of 18 he migrated to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, where he spent two years farming with some success before being drawn to Victoria by the gold rushes. He sailed for Melbourne on the Sebim, arriving on 12 November 1852 and made straight for the goldfields. He remained in central Victorian for about ten years. He is said to have erected a marquee at Maryborough with a frying pan hanging outside as a sign. An enterprising man, he considered manufacturing moleskin trousers for the miners. Some time later he and a companion spent five months rowing down the Murray River, collecting seeds and specimens and taking photographs. Baron von Mueller selected many of these seeds, and some were planted in the gardens around Government House, Melbourne.
In 1865 Cole established a book stall at the Eastern Market (Paddy's Market) in Melbourne. He sold both new and second hand books. By 1873 he was ready to expand, and opened a Book Arcade in Bourke Street, between Russell Street and the Eastern Market. In the early 1870s the Melbourne City Council decided to clean up the market site. Redevelopment cost about £100,000 pounds, but it was not successful and it became known as 'Melbourne's White Elephant'. Cole saw an opportunity, and leased out the whole premises, covering nearly three acres of land. He invited small holders including several hundred butchers to erect stalls rent free for the first six months. In 1882, when the City Council did not meet his request for a three-year lease, Cole instead negotiated a lease on 40-42 Bourke Street East. His new Arcade opened in 1883, and soon expanded from Bourke Street to Collins Street.
Cole's Arcade had the atmosphere of a circus, including mechanical monkeys and hens, but Cole's employees genuinly loved books and had a strong knowledge of literature. He had an enormous stock of new and second hand books, and took large numbers of remainders. He sold many books cheaply, and often bought up stocks of English publications which he re-bound with Cole's title pages and, in the case of children's books, with the characteristic rainbow cover and new titles such as Cole's Rainbow Story Book. Coles' best known title was the self-produced publication Cole's Funny Picture Book, perhaps the most popular children's book published in Australia in the period 1890-1940. Around 630,000 copies were sold. Cole was self-educated, but he had an eye for collecting snippets, pithy sayings and appealing drawings. His Funny Picture Books crowded riddles, rhymes, amusing anecdotes and drawings together.
Cole appears to have issued at least 80 types of medals, which one author (Moss) remembers were valued at 3d in the Arcade, where they were often given as change and could be 'spent' on other Arcade purchases. By 1890 Cole claimed to have issued 200,000 medals. Medal number 16 is held in the Museum Victoria collection (NU 20006).
The Arcade's proprietor, Edward William Cole, was optimist and idealist, believing passionately in the power of education and envisaged a world without borders, expounding his views in pamphlets and books.
The business continued to operate after Cole's death in circa 1918, finally closing in 1929. Cole's daughter, Linda, continued to publish the Funny Picture Books, and her son, Cole Turnley, maintained promotions and sales of successive editions.
Moss, H.P. (1952). 'The Medals of E.W. Cole'. The Numismatic Association of Victoria. Vol. 7. No. 3. September, Vol. 7. & No.4. October 1952.
Museum Victoria History and Technology Department Supplementary File NU 20006.
Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, entry for E.W. Cole: http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A030410b.htm.
Cole Turnley, 1974, Cole of the Book Arcade : a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Hawthorn, Vic., Cole Publications