Queensland History 1860-1900 Part 1

A distinguishing feature of Queensland is distance.
Sydney to Bathurst is 200km, Melbourne to Ballarat a mere 115. By contrast, Brisbane to Townsville is 1,335km. The tyranny of distance meant that towns developed at a different pace and with different requirements. Because of that we have looked at separate history lines.

In about 2007, at an ASOFIA (now IFA) National Council Meeting, I suggested that we should attempt to collate some of the history regarding the shopfitting industry in Australia. At the time I made the comment, I was looking at my good friend Fred Ryder, of Ryder Shop & Office Fitting, who graciously put up his hand and offered to make a start on the project.
It soon dawned on us what a huge project this would be and that we may have to break the research down to a State-by-State collection of our industry’s history. I started the Queensland sector of the project in 2017 and soon realised the amount of research that would be necessary. Compounding the workload was my decision to begin in 1860.

It seemed fitting to begin the history of fitouts in the Capital city with a population at the time of 13,000. A desire to separate from New South Wales began to emerge, as Queensland’s economic significance increased, its productivity and population expanded and the people of Queensland began to realise the importance of Brisbane as a port and urban centre. Queen Victoria finally granted the new Colony of Queensland its independence from New South Wales on the 6th June 1859.

Although it may have been a good thing for the creation of employment/workloads of the operating shop and office fitters of the time, it was unfortunate for the shopkeepers as the early settlement of Brisbane Town suffered flooding in the town area in 1867, 1870, 1873, 1887, and then the Great Flood of 1893. This was all after the earlier Great Fire of Brisbane in 1864 when most of the earlier timber-constructed two-storey buildings with shops/offices were lost. So much for ‘nature’ creating healthy workloads for the shop and office fitters, as they were known even back in those early days.

The location of shopping has not changed since the early settlement days, with most of the nearby settlements’ population in those days having to carry out family grocery and other shopping/business requirements in and around Queen St. Brisbane Central, and nearby Fortitude Valley.

With the centralised location of the town, the development took place with all the major roads leading into the town, a problem that has existed until recent times.
The Queen St. of 1859 consisted of a dirt road with some two-storey timber buildings, perhaps with family living above their stores and a lot of single weatherboard cottages. The first Brisbane City Council was elected in 1859 and the city began to grow at a fast pace, which continued for the next 20 years or so and then a boom in growth from 1890 to 1900 which saw the construction of brick and stone. Magnificent buildings, some of which still stand today, housing well known retailers, banks etc.

A bumpy horse and cart ride was the main mode of transport, with the Brisbane river a busy source of supplies and shipping of products to other regional areas from the wharves along it. Horse-drawn trams began about 1870 running on the ground, then in rails about 1875 and, finally, electric trams in 1897.

Queen St. Brisbane was the first recorded town in Australia to demonstrate the use of electricity for street and shop lighting in 1882. As Brisbane grew, so did the number of shopfitting companies, as more permanent, modern, above two-storey buildings filled Queen St. and they required the latest shopfronts and shopfittings. There was grocery, drapery, ironmonger/hardware stores, hotels, banks, as well as government offices (some of which still stand today).

Also constructed were such iconic buildings as All Hallows School in 1866, Brisbane Grammar School in 1868, Brisbane General Hospital in1875, Brisbane Girls Grammar School in 1875 and Tara House (The Irish Club). Stores such as Finney Isles Department Store (now Queens Plaza Shopping Centre) commenced in 1864, McWhirter’s in 1898, Allan & Stark (later Myer) in 1896, Trittons in 1889. All these stores – and many more – were fitted out in the latest fittings, providing work for many shop and office fitting companies and valuable training grounds for apprentices over the past 140 years.

Finney Isles had a few store relocations from 1864 onwards but, eventually in 1910, moved into a five-storey building between Adelaide and Queen Streets, which was custom-built. The building featured innovative display windows on Queen Street, silky oak staircases, lifts decorated in lattice ironwork and silky oak, pneumatic tubes for exchanging cash, a roof-top water tower and a large generator providing electricity to the lights, lifts and pneumatic system. The building also had workrooms where it had 400 sewing machines, making their own clothing, as well as a manufacturing section, making furniture and their own shopfittings. This business lasted until the 1960s when it was taken over and became David Jones.

Another popular, early department store was Allan & Stark at 110 Queen Street. The original owners were James Allan and Robert Stark. It opened in 1899 after commencing trading in 1881 as a drapery store. The buildings and business were sold to Myer in 1961, continuing to trade under the Allan & Stark name until 1970.

Myer operated in the Heritage listed buildings from 1970 until 1988 when they moved across Queen Street to the Myer Centre.
Allan & Stark had the foresight to realise that the motor car was already a common sight and people were using it for their weekly shopping trips. They saw the need for inner city retail firms to rethink their future planning. They designed the first drive-in shopping centre in Australia, at suburban Chermside, which was opened in 1957. It was air-conditioned and surrounded by space to park 700 cars. ‘An island of retailing in a lake of parking’.

Also at that time were a couple of large timber/hardware companies that provided all timber/hardware requirements in Brisbane to shopfitters of the day, one being Finlaysons, a company that still remains trading to this day, and Campbells Timber & Hardware that was absorbed by BBC Hardware in 1995. Campbells also traded in provincial towns for tradespeople to purchase supplies from.

The early Brisbane shopfitting companies were based mainly around inner Brisbane Town, Fortitude Valley and South Brisbane to service the nearby stores and because of the availability of electricity being supplied by small private generating companies. Another reason was the availability of train services and trams to the town area (buses came later), so tradespeople could easily access their workplaces. The tradespeople would generally be dressed in bib overalls, with a dress coat over the top, a hat and, of course, a Gladstone bag. Some of the department stores had in-house shopfitting workshop facilities in their basement, manufacturing the required shopfittings and to carry out maintenance works as necessary. This method of major stores using local shopfitters to service town businesses continued until the 1950s.

Advertisements in the 1860-1900 period in the daily newspapers of the time offered the services of shopfitters or shop and office fitters. Perhaps this was the British influence, as even to this day in the UK and Europe, the Trade is well identified as such. I have seen advertisements of the time, for the auction of shopfittings, showcases, counters and shop and window fittings.
Employers in the 1890s looking for staff in Brisbane would advertise in both the morning and evening newspapers, except in provincial towns where there would only be a morning newspaper. The ads for tradespeople would appear under Professions, Trades etc. or in another column headed Situations Wanted. In 1886, the wage for a shopfitter for an 8-hour day, 6 days a week, was 8 shillings.

I have seen many advertisements for cabinetmakers, cabinetmaker apprentices and joiners, all normally in the central business area factories at that stage. Also, tradespeople arriving from overseas would advertise in these columns seeking employment and advertising their availability. The provincial town shopfitters and cabinetmakers would advertise their company’s services in the local morning newspaper weekly.

There were sawmills adjacent to most railway stations on the north side of the town that would service the shopfitters and cabinetmakers, as the logged specialty timbers came down from Mt. Glorious, Mt. Nebo and Mt. Mee. Other specialty timbers would be brought down from the North Queensland rainforests, or the now Gold Coast hinterland rainforests and Noosa River forests. Also, hardwood/softwoods/pine and cedar were supplied from the Brookfield area, where logs were carted to Rafting Ground and floated down Moggill Creek to the Brisbane River to sawmills at North Quay. There were also plywood mills attached to some sawmills, providing plywood sheets as well as timber, used to construct cabinets and counters in methods adopted until the introduction of particleboard in the 1960s. As well as the shopfitting factories in the inner-city areas, there were hardware suppliers, glass and metal fabricators and finishers with their factories supplying the local industries.

From the early days, architectural firms traditionally would assist the storekeepers with the design and layout of their stores as well as control the fitouts on-site, be they restaurants, cafés, banks, medical rooms, museums, schools, hotels, theatres etc. The architects’ supply line and control continued until the advent of designers with design practices in the 1960s. Some would say the professionalism of the relationship was lost at that time.

Some original hotels built and lovingly refitted over the years show the skill level of our tradespeople in the past and up to the present day:
The Victory Hotel – 1855
The Waterloo – 1880
The Post Office – 1876
The Alliance – 1888
The Embassy – 1864
The Wickham – 1885
The Norman – 1889
The Regatta – 1886
The Treasury – 1887
The Transcontinental – 1883
The Normanby – 1890
Prince Consort – 1887
The Breakfast Creek – 1889
The Orient – 1875
The Stock Exchange – 1863
The Jubilee – 1887
The Story Bridge – 1886
The Mansions – 1889
The Fox – 1874
The Osborne – 1864
Royal Exchange – 1876
The Newmarket – 1879

In the early 1890s, Greek migrants introduced oyster saloons to Brisbane City and some regional towns, as oysters were plentiful in Moreton Bay. As well as oysters, the menu often included lobster, fish and crab. The oyster bars were close to hotels and frequented mainly by men. Apparently, they often turned into ‘Wild West Saloons’, with some fiery times, and even murders. After the turn of the century, the oyster saloons were the start of what became a flood of Greek cafés in the early 1900s

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *