Queensland Shopfitting History 1950-1960 Part 1

As a new decade came around, society was trying to reduce its memories of WWII and, with the post war economic boom having an impact on daily lives, thoughts of a bright future were everywhere.

Petrol and food rationing, which started during the War, finally ended. The basic wage was 8 pounds 6 shillings for men, with the female rate set at 75% of that. There was a serious shortage of building materials but with 170,000 refugees from war-torn Europe, on top of an ongoing migration rate of 70,000 a year, there was plenty of available labour, causing the federal government to greatly assist with projects. They also halved the training time for apprenticeships, making the available labour certified more quickly.
At this time, the great Australian ‘Wool Boom’ was beginning, so the people in country towns and surrounding properties, at last, looked forward to better income, something which was to last for decades. Around this time, advertisements by shopfitters appeared in the major provincial town newspapers.

Unfortunately, in the mid-1950s, with the start of the Korean War, Australian troops were once again called upon to assist our allies. At this time, all males reaching the age of 19 years were required to undertake compulsory national service; for some this would have happened just as they were finishing their apprenticeships.
After the war, the American influence remained, with shops introducing new consumer products for the home such as steam and dry irons, refrigerators (instead of ice chests), and washing machines.

At the same time, new Italian cafes introduced espresso machines and delicatessen stores to the market.
Greek families were still opening cafes and restaurants throughout the city and Fortitude Valley which, at that stage, was an upmarket shopping hub, as well as country towns throughout the state. The Greek families were also opening picture theatres, fish cafes, inner-city coffee lounges and upmarket restaurants, and they dominated the fish markets until the late 1970s.
Christie & Walker Shopfitters kept receiving a mention in fitout works in the city, and probably a lot of country towns too.

By 1955, the inner city was once again thriving, and many large projects were under way. The renowned Piccadilly Arcade was one such project built at this time. From Queen St to Adelaide St, it housed a range of tenants across its three levels. It was promoted as having a tram stop at each entrance and the arcade’s air-conditioning was worth a key mention, as many of the other well-known arcades did not offer air-conditioning at that time. It traded until 1987 and in that time many well-known Brisbane café/restaurant owners opened their first stores within, as well as many modern fashion boutiques, with it being a source of ongoing projects for shopfitters. There was Peter Hackworth’s Primitif Café and later Prim 2, Brisbane’s first beatnik hotspot.

Peter went on to open many funky cafes, such as The Great American Disaster, then restaurants Scaramouche and Cats Tango to name a few and still has a hand in developing new and interesting projects for Brisbaneites such as Eat Street. His projects have always created interesting fitouts for local shopfitters.
In Queen St, the 1200 seat Majestic Theatre was demolished and rebuilt as the Odeon Theatre, which operated until 1981, when it was again demolished to make way for the Wintergarden Shopping Centre on the combined site.

Unfortunately, many projects were being held up by council health/plumbing departments and fire authorities, until all the approval steps were satisfied. There also continued to be strikes, which upset daily life and work in Brisbane.

In 1952, a young shopfitter – who had a few years earlier completed his apprenticeship – saw an opportunity to start his own business in Brisbane. This young man was Stan Lewis, who went on to become an Icon of the shopfitting industry. He carried out his apprenticeship at DK English Shopfitters at East Brisbane. His first venture, Brisbane Mirror and Joinery Works, where he employed 20 staff, was doing mainly glazing works for Bevlyn Industries. In 1957, Stan supplied and installed many shopfronts to the new Chermside Shopping Centre, which was the first modern ‘drive-in’ shopping centre in Australia. He liked to tell the story, that as it was a drive-in shopping centre and with the usual tight completion timelines on site, he used to work on his shopfront installs into the night under the headlights of his truck. He also supplied and installed shopfronts in the Brisbane Arcade.

Stan then went into a glazing and joinery business with a partner in New Guinea, which was to last four years. With the same partner – in 1972 – he commenced Quality Shopfitters at Strathpine. This eventually became Quality Industries, manufacturing shopfitting, joinery, aluminium windows and traded as glass merchants with a staff of 125. Next came True Image Mirrors in 1977 on the Gold Coast. After selling Quality Industries in 1980, the next venture he commenced with his partner was Budget Shopfitters, which later became known as BSF Group, also at Strathpine. This once again had a glass division known as Costless Glass.
Another business he formed in 1987 was Budget Boardworks, which cut and processed flat panels and post-forming of bench tops. In 1999, BSF Group purchased the shopfitting company Arkell and traded as BSF Arkell for a while.

Unfortunately, in 2013, 60 years of Stan’s extensive experience and devotion to the shopfitting industry was lost, when BSF ceased trading. Stan had Icon status awarded to him by ASOFIA in 2009. He had employed over 100 apprentices during his time in business, many of whom went on to establish their own companies. He was a great stalwart of the National Shopfitting Association (now IFA) and had been involved in the formation of the Shopfitting Training Curriculum and a great supporter of TAFE.

At the start of researching information for the History of Shopfitting in Queensland, I had been trying to arrange a meeting with Stan Lewis as we had become friends as members of ASOFIA over the years, and in having to fly around the country together to attend National Council meetings. We also both had an ongoing goal that apprentices should receive relevant training. Karen, Stan’s daughter, arranged a date to meet and discuss the history at the family home. Also at the meeting was Les Wilson who had commenced Les Wilson Detailed Cabinetmakers many years earlier and both had a world of knowledge about the industry. Les was unable to drive, so Mick McLoughlin (now the owner of Les’ former company) drove him to Stan’s to attend the discussion/lunch. Both Stan and Les reminisced about their days in the industry and were forthcoming with their knowledge of the history.

I received a sad call early the next morning from Karen letting me know that Stan had passed away suddenly during the night but had made the comment prior to bedtime that he had a ‘very happy day’ in that we had all met and been able to discuss the industry that he loved so much. Another long-lasting company servicing the shopfitting industry, which commenced trading in the early 1950’s was Bevlyn Industries. Their first factory was in Merivale Street, South Brisbane until they moved to larger premises at Wacol in 1967. They manufactured wire fittings as well as stripping and brackets. The business was taken over in about 1970 and became Bevlyn SES, as the new owners had a business known as Storage Equipment Systems. In 1980, they took on a Dexion sales engineer David Kemp, hiring him as Sales Manager for Bevlyn SES.

They took on a wide variety of work and included a customer base of retailers such as Myer, David Jones and McDonell and East, who all required top quality work. Bevlyn SES also had the cool-room storage range of ‘Marlboro’ shelving, a trade name they had purchased. They were also agents for Tegometal, a German based shelving system manufacturer. In 1988, Dexion purchased Bevlyn SES, and rebranded as Dexion Retail and retained David Kemp as General Manager.

A short time later, David Kemp left Dexion and with partner Sam Chotai, established a manufacturing company known as Brisbane Display and Shopfitting, with the knowledge that the shopfitting industry required ‘just in time’ production and supply methods. The company went on to be known as BDS, employing more than 100 staff and with branches in all States. They did powder-coating and chrome plating to all custom-made shopfittings made locally and were a large part of the Shopfitting sector for many years. With the decline in Australian manufacturing and pressure from cheaper, imported product, BDS ceased trading around 2020.

Another business to start at these times was Ingrams Joinery Works situated at Bundamba. They specialised in built-in furniture and church and school fittings. In the 1980s they moved into a factory at Beenleigh, where they became involved in the shopfitting sector and today are known as Ingrams Fine Joinery & Cabinetmaking, specialising in shopfitting and commercial joinery carrying out projects Australia wide and have now traded successfully for over 70 years.

There was a daily newspaper story on 22nd November 1954 about Robb & Brown Shopfitters’ holding company, Robbs Industries. The story was headed ‘No Dividend from Robbs’ and went on to say: “Robbs Industries, Builders and Shopfitters, will not pay a dividend for the year to September 30. Dividend for each of the two preceding years was 4%. Last May, directors forecast substantially reduced profits for the year.” This followed serious floods in the Lismore district, their head office location. Nothing seems to change, with many floods inundating the town before and since, and with Brisbane shopfitters having to refit many of the Lismore Central Shopping Centre stores after suffering three floods to the town in the three months following Christmas 2021.

The UBD Business Directories from the time includes some information on shopfitting businesses of the 1950s. They advertised as ‘Shopfitters’, not Cabinetmakers from Brisbane to Central Queensland and through the decade more companies seemed to evolve:
1950 Brisbane 14 companies
1950 Toowoomba 2 companies
1955 Maryborough I company
1955 Mackay 2 companies
1955 Ipswich 4 companies
1958 Maryborough 5 companies
1958 Toowoomba 4 companies
1958 Gympie 2 companies
1958 Murgon 1 company
1958 Dalby 1 company
1958 Bundaberg 4 companies
1958 Redcliffe 1 company
Brisbane approx. 20 companies

There were probably a couple of companies in both Townsville and Cairns at the time and as previously mentioned there were shopfitting and cabinetmaking companies who advertised independently that they also carried out shopfitting works. So, a conservative estimate of companies carrying out shopfitting work in Queensland in 1959 would be 75.
Architect firms of the time who would tender out projects to the shopfitters were:
Conrad Gargett
Robin Gibson
Curro Nutter Charlton
Powell Dods and Thorpe
Peddle Thorp

In 1956, DH Gibson opened a Brisbane office of U-Rect-It (URI) supplying shopfitters with their own developed stripping and bracket fittings and steel shelving systems. They were able to offer to shopfitters, having their own company name stamped on brackets, a great marketing sales ploy at the time. In about 2004, the stand-alone URI outlet, held a large part of the market until 2004 when they were merged back into the DH Gibson fold.

Probably the biggest new thing to hit the shopfitting industry in Brisbane and possibly Australia at the time was the construction of the Allan & Stark Drive-in Shopping Centre at Chermside, the first in Australia. It was designed to suit the 100,000 people living within 4.8 km of the 28-acre swampy site that was subject to flooding.

A revolutionary idea for its time, it was described as ‘an island of retailing in a lake of parking’. Allan & Stark was an established Brisbane City Department Store (est. 1885) and after the War the owners could see that people wanted to drive to town to do their shopping. However, parking was a problem in Brisbane City, hence the idea that everyone could drive into the centre or catch a tram or bus, whichever suited.

The opening day on May 30, 1957, changed retailing in Australia, with 15,000 shoppers arriving to shop at the new centre. There were 700 car parks and the air-conditioned centre had the Allan & Stark Department Store, Brisbane Cash and Carry Supermarket and 25 specialty shops in an arcade and mall.

There were not that many shopfitting companies in Brisbane at the time, so it would have been a busy time for them all. The land was subject to flooding, and the centre suffered three major floods in 1985, 1994 and 1997, which eventually was overcome with upgrades to the centre and by the local council as they upgraded nearby creeks and drainage. Allan & Stark sold out to Myer in September 1959 and, in December 1996, Westfield purchased the centre from Myer. In 1966, Woolworths had purchased the 32 Brisbane Cash and Carry Stores throughout Queensland to give them entry to grocery stores and opened their large Woolworths grocery outlet at the centre. Unfortunately for Woolworths, their Chermside store was totally destroyed by fire in 1972, the first of three major fires to the complex that followed in 1978, 1993, and 2006.

The centre has had six major expansions in 1966-67, 1974-78, 1985-87, 1998-2000, 2005-2006. The last major upgrade/expansion was completed in 2017, opening as ‘The New Westfield Chermside’, which included a handful of international brand stores. After the constant expansions, the centre now has an offering of 515 stores over 38 acres. It’s the second largest regional shopping centre in Australia by number of stores behind Chadstone Shopping Centre and is said to be Australia’s second busiest Westfield Shopping Centre. With adjoining facilities, the centre is now a community hub for North Brisbane and has created ongoing prosperity for our industry since its 1957 opening day, as well as introducing our industry to all the latest trends, materials and methods of construction necessary with each quality upgrade.

In 1959, a young 21-year-old Alec Hartley commenced JA Hartley Shopfitters at 161 Knapp St Fortitude Valley. He had completed his 5-year apprenticeship at Penny’s (a department store in Brisbane with its own workshop). Coles bought out Penny’s chain of stores during his apprenticeship.

Alec soon made a good name for his business by providing quality workmanship for the architects involved in shopfitting at the time. This gave him a varied client base that put him in good stead for the future as he grew both the name and the business. In the early days, he carried out café/restaurant/clothing stores, bank works and many fitout projects at the old ‘igloo’ Brisbane Domestic Airport terminal. By the time he moved on from his first factory to the larger 51 Longland St Fortitude Valley premises in 1967, he had created his own design department as well as a paint shop and metalwork section. This was good timing as there were large shopping centres being proposed throughout Queensland and the Northern Territory.

At the opening of Toombul Shoppingtown in 1967, Hartley’s fitted out six stores. At the opening of Indooroopilly Shoppingtown in 1970 Hartley’s fitted out 12 stores. In 1970, they fitted out Brisbane’s first Beer Hall in Queen St City named Peppers, which was fitted out in authentic timber claddings, fittings, tables and chairs and a working entry drawbridge. As well as the new shopping centre works, Alec was fitting out high end menswear and female clothing stores, jewellery stores, pharmacies and newsagencies in Brisbane and throughout the state.
In 1973, Hartley’s fitted out approximately 10 stores at the new Casuarina Shopping Centre in Darwin, only for it to be totally devastated by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas eve 1974. They also carried out pharmacy works at Gove, all of which had to be transported by ship from Brisbane. They also completed bedroom joinery works to a new muti-storey building on Hayman Island, which had to be shipped from Mackay.

In 1977 Hartley’s were involved in the fitting out to many stores at the new Pacific Fair Shopping Centre on the Gold Coast, where most stores were in outdoor locations at that stage. Many more stores were fitted out in the following years, with all the various extensions to the centre.
In 1987, Hartley’s finally moved to a building that they owned, at 154 Arthur St Fortitude Valley where they remained until approximately 2006. It was here that they suffered a large factory fire, however they were able to overcome this hurdle and remain trading at this address.

In 1988, Hartley’s fitted out concession stores at the new Brisbane Domestic Airport building and won an award for the development and use of Corian product heat bent on counters and bulkheads.
In 1989, Hartley Shopfitters designed and fitted out the first Coffee Club outlet, at the Eagle St Pier Brisbane. The association with Coffee Club lasted many years as the group expanded from Queensland across Australia then to 14 countries.

At this time Alec was also constructing Irish Bars in full and exporting them to Japan where they would be fully assembled. In 2006, Hartley’s made their final factory move to a new building at 250 Abbotsford Rd Bowen Hills. Alec Hartley believed in employing and training apprentices; although a hard taskmaster he produced many quality apprentices over the years, some of whom have gone on to produce their own successful businesses (yours truly being one of them). In 2011, ASOFIA bestowed on Alec Hartley an Icon of the Industry Award, in recognition of outstanding service to the Shopfitting Industry. Alec Hartley retired soon after having been in the industry for over 60 years.

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