Queensland Shopfitting History 1938-1950 Part 4

In 1938, as Queensland remained in the grip of world-wide depression, the Queensland government had to continue to generate employment by creating projects for the community. At that time, it was large projects like the new Story Bridge and the Somerset Dam, with the Brisbane City Council soaking up 50% of relief work.
The drums of war were becoming louder in Europe, leading to a sense of unease in the Brisbane population of 335,000 at that time.
Limited workloads were continuing for shopfitters, with a few new stores being fitted out in the city and Fortitude Valley, and advertisements appeared in the local papers noting the shopfitter who was involved with the contract.

A state directory of the day shows that there were 16 shopfitters in Brisbane at that time (obviously there were others not in the directory), and three in country towns (although more than three were featured in advertisements of the time). There were 19 cabinetmakers in Brisbane and 57 in regional towns, with 21 joiners in Brisbane and 19 in the country towns, with the majority having capabilities to carry out shopfitting requirements. Unfortunately, one of these shopfitting companies, Eldridge and Williams, situated at the corner of Hope and Peel streets, South Brisbane, had their factory totally destroyed by fire on the morning of 17th May 1938. No doubt, all these tradespeople were learning how to use a new product on the market known as ‘Laminex’. It was a life- changer for the finishing of benchtops to counters, cupboards, tables etc. At the time, the cutting, gluing and holding down with clamps of the Laminex as the glue dried overnight, then the trimming by hand in preparation of either an aluminium or stainless-steel edging, was very labour intensive.

Another item of significance for the time for our industry, was the introduction of the ‘fluorescent light’. This new, wonderful method of lighting fitouts of all sorts, would give a far better presentation of a store, as well as the products on display.

As the economy was slowing down with the fear of war, an entrepreneur took a gamble and opened another drawcard, Milk Bar, this time in Wickham St Fortitude Valley. Mr Ken Meekin, with overseas experience and success in California and Sydney, was now going to enhance his reputation by opening ‘The Brown Derby’ Milk Bar, along similar lines to his previous store in Queen St. The fitout was carried out by Taylor Christie Walker Shopfitters of Newstead (later to be known as Christie & Walker).

On the 3rd September 1939, Prime Minister Menzies gave a national broadcast to the Australian population announcing that Australia was at war with Germany, and this, of course, continued until the cease fire in August 1945. On the same day as Menzies’ announcement, the shopfitters had completed the fitout for the opening of the Wallace Bishop Arcade in King George Square. This iconic jewellery store and arcade was a meeting place for generations of Brisbanites.

Not long after, on the 26th October, a special café and ballroom named Princes, was opened in Queen St. The fitout was carried out by E J Grigg & Son Pty Ltd, a shopfitting company that was established in Brisbane in 1889.
Despite the announcement of war, a large landmark project was completed and opened in 1940 at Bowen Hills near Fortitude Valley. It was named Luna Park Ballroom, which soon after became Cloudland Ballroom, as the supposed mimic of Sydney and Melbourne’s Luna Parks didn’t quite work out. With a beautiful fitout for its time, the building went on to have an illustrious role in Brisbane’s social history until 1982.

In the early 1940s, it seems that cafes, restaurants, and night clubs in the city thrived during the war years. This created jobs for newcomers after having suffered devastating losses during the Great Depression, and would have filtered down and included many members of our industry. Such works would have been a little more productive and welcome, as they were also making and having to fit thousands of blackout timber security shutters, required to be fitted to thousands of shopfronts.
An interesting newspaper article on 23rd Sept 1943 headed ‘Shop Fronts Ruling’ read as follows:

“The Manpower Deputy Director (Mr F E Walsh) said yesterday that labour would not be made available for restoring shopfronts to their pre-war condition. Following the modification of ‘blackout’ restrictions, representations had been made by building and shopfitting firms for permission to carry out this work, he said. The matter had been discussed at the recent Melbourne conference of Manpower Deputy Directors, which had unanimously decided that no labour should be supplied for the work.”
One of the well-known shopfitting companies at the time, D K English, with their factory (and adjacent home) based at East Brisbane, succumbed to fire, a common occurence in those days. The fire was caused when the shopfitter, Mr English, was melting down resin with a candle, which rolled off a shelf into the back of his truck. The flame made contact with the petrol tank, of which he had previously taken the cap off to check the petrol. His home suffered major damage, however, the adjoining factory was saved.

In 1940 an old well-established family building company, E Chapman & Sons, which had started in 1869 in Brisbane, decided to separate their building and joinery businesses. Both operations continued to remain successful and, in 2005, the joinery section became an independent business from Chapman Builders Pty Ltd. The joinery business now trades as Chapman Joiners and is a well-respected cabinetry and joinery business which produces bespoke joinery solutions for residential and commercial building projects and on heritage joinery projects.
In 1940, Australia declared war on Italy. Thousands of families were interned until the end of WWII, particularly in Queensland, especially in the north, where they relied heavily on their hard-working labour.

Once America was forced into WWII, President Eisenhower decided to fight the war in the Pacific from a base in Australia. Brisbane became the headquarters, with up to 150,000 American servicemen arriving in 1941. Over the war period, up to 1.5 million U.S. servicemen were stationed in Brisbane at various camps on the Northside, Southside, Sunshine Coast and on the Moreton Bay Islands and some country towns.

To support all the servicemen during their out-of-hours recreation, many new cafes, bars, restaurants, and dance halls were opened, naturally fitted out by our trade. As a result, the city thrived with all the extra patronage and requirements (African-American troops were forbidden to cross the river into the city to attend exclusively white troops’ clubs). Even in these dangerous times, stars were brought into the country from overseas to perform for the troops. The American servicemen were on much higher wages than the locals, and had access to more luxuries. They also flaunted a carefree and flamboyant type of entertainment, including Jazz and Jitterbug, making it hard for the Aussie servicemen to compete. The basic wage at the time for Australians was around four pounds per week, with the American soldiers reported to be receiving three times this amount.

Over a couple of weeks of serious build-up, friction built between the American and Aussie soldiers, including a gun battle leaving two dead, in Townsville. On the night of 26 November 1942, an all-out riot ensued between the two groups in the Brisbane city centre, with a total of 5,000 involved in the night long fighting. This also led to one death and many serious injuries, and became known as the ‘Battle of Brisbane’. The overwhelming presence of service personnel made Brisbane a city at war. Uniforms were everywhere and residents lived their daily lives among them and the tangible evidence of “Fortress Brisbane”. For shopfitters of the time, the incident created work repairing shopfronts and damaged interiors, and there are photos of the shopfitters called in to repair the damage along Adelaide St after the battle.

Townsville, also with a large contingent of servicemen, was bombed three times by the Japanese in air raids. With the fear of invasion from the Japanese, a plan was developed to form the ‘Brisbane Line’, whereby the northern portion of Queensland above the Brisbane Line could be conceded. Due to this, a mass evacuation was undertaken, and women and children were moved South.

The 1942 state directory shows the first mention of Robb & Brown Qld Pty Ltd, with an address at 324 Queen St Brisbane. Robb & Brown went on to become probably the largest shopfitting company in Queensland for about 3 decades. They traded until 1974 at various locations, until finally having a large factory at Kangaroo Point adjacent to Evans Deakin ship building yards.
In 1953, their head company, Robbs Industries Ltd, based in Lismore, acquired the glass business formerly carried on by Taubmans (Qld) Pty Ltd in Brisbane. This factory gave them space for their building company, R & B Constructions, as well as the glazing division. At that stage, they had the shopfitting division, the glass division, joinery, fitouts to boats and ships, and Brandons Hardware. In the late 1950s to early 1960s, they purchased the well-known shopfitting company, Christie & Walker. They had a good name in shopfitting throughout the state and were quite involved also in office fitouts. It’s believed that the 1974 flood of the Brisbane River decimated their shopfitting factory and, in fact, the large tanker, the Robert Miller, that famously tore loose in the 1974 Brisbane floods and had authorities on a knife edge, was the last ship they fitted out. The business was soon after purchased by Dear & Flannagan, another shopfitting company in Brisbane, and moved to Albion premises for a time. In the years following, many of the shopfitters who had undertaken their apprenticeships with Robb & Brown or Christie & Walker started their own shopfitting companies.

The end of World War II for Australia was declared on the 15th August 1945. There was an expectation that once the troops were home, prosperity would return, but unfortunately, due to the Depression years and the war effort, there was an immediate shortage of materials and, more so, a large problem with a chronic housing shortage. This was so bad, that families had to live in makeshift housing camps, and even in tents. This lasted into 1950 even though the state government had imported prefabricated houses from France, Sweden, Holland and Italy.
A newspaper article from March 1947 recalls that, because of the shortage of timber coming from northern Queensland, there were delays in getting the materials needed for the manufacturing industries, for such items as ply/3ply, which also meant that up to 70,000 men could be stood down from their jobs.

It seems that the federal government at the time, after the end of the World War II, was proactive in many ways to help with gaining employment for returning servicemen, to help businesses, and at the same time the economy. They created the Commonwealth Employment Service which brought about many advertisements for engineers, architects, carpenters, electricians, cabinetmakers (at 12 pounds a week, if prepared to travel), and many other trades. The job descriptions requested previous experience and to note war service.

A company that started small at Pomona on the Sunshine Coast in 1919, underwent expansion and mechanisation in 1945, and has since kept up with modern trends, is HW Page. The successful company which, to this day, remains under the same family ownership, credits the key to their success to diversification efforts beginning in the 1950s. Over the years, the company has completed million-dollar contracts throughout and outside of Australia and, at one stage, employed 75 staff. They have always carried out their own steel fabrication and powder coating, as well as traditional wood working and panel manufacturing and design, and believed in the employment of local labour, whilst always maintaining several apprentices. They cater for specialty work in areas such as health, education for state and federal government departments, as well as resort hotels, law courts, casinos and recreational clubs.
In April 1948, there was a report in the daily newspaper of a huge fire in a shopfitting factory at Brunswick St Fortitude Valley, that had drawn a crowd of two thousand people. It was the factory of J Ellis & Sons and, unfortunately, they suffered thousands of pounds worth of damage, and two firemen were injured and taken to hospital.

With all the hardship following the end of WWII, in 1948 it became harder for all, with an amount of union agitation in Brisbane and throughout Queensland. Because of the left wing and communist union leaders – which were legal at the time – the community had to suffer many strikes, the longest one lasting 61 days. In 1948, the first local mass-produced car, the Holden, was launched. However, with the cost at the time, it’s doubtful that most apprentices – compared to today’s – would have been driving around in the latest ute. The male basic wage in 1948 in Brisbane was 5 pounds 14 shillings. For females, it was 3 pounds 8 shillings. As expected, there did not seem to be many stories of new shop openings in daily newspapers during these times, but there were advertisements calling for staff at Leutchford Shopfitters and by E J Grigg & Son Shopfitters.

In 1949, to help kick-start the local economy, the Queensland Chamber of Manufacturers staged the first Queensland Industries Fair at the RNA Exhibition Grounds. The aim was to provide manufacturers with a showcase for their products, and the event attracted more than 250,000 people during the 19-day event. On display, was locally-made heavy machinery and all sorts of equipment, with demonstrations by apprentices and ex-service trainees punctuating the trade displays. Even at that time, there were some local success stories of local companies exporting interstate and overseas. The fair was so successful that it continued until 1968.

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