30 August 2011

Geelong: world class wool industry buildings

Geelong was proclaimed a town in 1838. At the time Geelong was developing as a Victorian port, Australia was still a series of separate colonies which levied customs duties on goods coming from overseas and goods passing between the colonies. For some years, all customs clearances had to be made through Williamstown, forcing ships trading with Geelong to travel north for customs before offloading their products back in Geelong.

Customs House, 1856

Merino sheep across Victoria produced wool that was soft, plentiful and appealing to Britain's mills. And so in the 1840s, wool became Geelong's most important industry. The raw product was transported into Geelong, processed there and exported from Geelong. Wool heading for the Australian colonies was taken to the port in loosely packed bales. Wool to be shipped to Britain was packed in solid bins, at the behest of specialist sorters, consignment agents and shippers.

Pioneer merchant James Ford Strachan constructed his first bonded store in 1840, the first stone building in newly colonised Geelong.

Only when Geelong was declared a free port in 1848 was a proper Customs House needed near the Geelong wharves. The officers made sure that duty was fully collected, on both colonial and overseas trade. The Geelong Customs House was built in Corio Terrace/now Brougham St, in 1856 as a three storey ashlar sandstone and basalt structure, and a slate roof. Architect WG Cornish’s distinctive colonial Georgian style clearly reflected the influence of earlier NSW colonial public building traditions.

In 1857 Charles Dennys conducted the first wool auction in Geelong. I don’t suppose many bales were sold, but the idea of a regional market soon caught the attention of local growers and buyers, so more auctions were held in a central Geelong pub.

Dennys Lascelles bluestone wool store

Wool stores became necessary, and they needed to be as close to the foreshore as possible. In the very early days, the difference between a wool store and one for general merchandise was largely the existence of a wool press. Few Geelong merchants handled nothing but wool.

So it was not until 1872, with the arrival of Dennys Lascelles bluestone wool store, that a specific design of building was evolved for wool. A row of very impressive wool stores stretched down the street in a unified manner, designed by architects Jacob Pitman (basement) and Jonathan Coulson (the other floors). Wagons entered from the street via an archway, discharged their load and moved out into a right of way on the other side of the building.

Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co. in Brougham St was the proud owner of one of the most important early modern structures in Australia. This concrete woolstore, designed by Edward G Stone, was largely free of architectural decoration, and was in a style that anticipated European and Australian architectural trends of the inter-war years. Dennys buildings had used solid bluestone in 1872, cement render in 1880 and the mansard tower of 1889. It is not surprising, then, that when expansion was planned in 1900, the firm elected to use the most modern material – reinforced concrete.

Strachan, Murray, Shannon and Co. wool stores

The remarkable bowstring roof trusses of reinforced concrete spanned, when completed in 1912, apparently the largest column free space in the world. Dennys Lascelles and Co. was one of the oldest wool broking firms in Victoria and the concrete woolstore still forms part of an historic woolstore precinct. Today it hosts the National Wool Museum.

"National Wool Museum is Australia's only comprehensive museum of wool, showcasing wool's enduring impact on Australia social and economic life. With a brief to explore the past, present and future of the Australian wool industry, the Museum acquires, documents, preserves, stores and exhibits objects and materials directly related to the Australian wool industry". And it kept two of my grandchildren mesmerised for 1.5 hours (no mean feat).

The Strachan, Murray, Shannon and Co. wool stores were built at the corner of Moorabool and Brougham Sts Geelong. Systematically developed as the wool industry expanded, this four storey brick complex was stylistically unified from the 1889 section onwards, to present an impressive austere Classical Revival structure of great note. Remember that the Strachan Company premises had been associated with the wool industry since 1840.

The Wool Exchange

The Wool Exchange in Corio St was constructed in 1927-28, designed by local architects Laird and Buchan. The two storey brick Wool Exchange was and is one of Geelong’s major public buildings from the inter war period and as a late example of the renaissance revival, the facade reflected the generally conservative character of the wool industry. Roofed with a barrel vault, the main sales room had a striking interior decorated with Neo-Greco detail. Sales of wool, sheepskins, hides, tallow and other products were conducted weekly at this site.

This Wool Exchange was the last important element of the wool industry. Alongside Western District properties, railways, gorgeous wool stores, woollen mills, scouring works and port facilities, it illustrated the economic and social history of late 19th and early 20th century Geelong.

The National Trust of Australia (Victorian branch) created a valuable history in the book called Woolstores: Conservation Area, 1980. I recommend it to you. The description of the original architecture in these buildings came from the wonderful blog OnMyDoorstep.

Inside the National Wool Museum


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
It is endlessly fascinating, or so we think, to discover the architecture associated with various industries and how design changes and is adapted as technology develops. Many of the buildings connected with the wool industry are not at all dissimilar to those to be found, now mostly converted into apartments, in Shad Thames, close to Tower Bridge, which was, of course, the very hub in the nineteenth century of the Port of London.

Hels said...

Hi Jane and Lance.

Couldn't agree more. That C19th industrial buildings in the Port of London would look like industrial buildings in the Port of Geelong is not a surprise.

If the businesses were processing wool, sugar, tea or any other product, they needed to
1. be architecturally solid and largely maintenance-free for ever
2. be close to the port where raw goods were imported and finished goods were exported
3. be close to substantial customs buildings and
4. have tons of internal space for the product, but also for growers, sorters, buyers, consignment agents and shippers.

The beauty of the bluestone or basalt structures, and the slate roofs, was an added bonus.

Intelliblog said...

Hi Hels! I love visiting Geelong as there is much of interest there, the historic buildings which you describe being one the things to see. I also like the botanic gardens, the Art Gallery and several of the beautiful old mansions, some of which have been extensively renovated and restored. the harbourside area is also delightful to visit.

Come to think of it, we haven;t been there for some months, well overdue for a visit now!

artlover15 said...

My children went to the school holiday program at the National Wool Museum. Staff engaged their minds in cooking for shearers, shearing live sheep and running around a Legoland version of Geelong looking for particular buildings.

Great half day.

Hels said...

you never know what tourist sites in Geelong the family is going to love.

The children loved HM Prison Geelong, a very miserable and scary place that I just wanted to get out of. They also loved the The Ford Discovery Centre.

I, on the other hand, loved the courthouse, Geelong Art Gallery and the town hall. And the waterfront looks fantastic *nod*.

Hels said...

artlover, I hear you.

BoxWorld is a built up version of a major city, made from discarded domestic rubbish. I presume it highlights the importance of recycling useful materials. But for my grandchildren, it was a chance to run around like dingbats, with pencils in hand, working down a list of significant buildings from Geelong’s landscape.

The staff and volunteers were terrific.

Hermes said...

Fascinating - espeacially how products are so important and how much comes from their needs - like that beautiful building. It must have taken quite some construction.

Hels said...


*nod* in young economies in particular. It was still said after WW2 that Australia rode on the sheep's back. And nowhere more so than in Victoria's second biggest city.

Geelong started diversifying in the 1920s - to the car making industry. But even that giant industry is looking a bit ill, these days.

Unknown said...

Interesting post Hels. These buildings jogged some memories of buildings I used to see often as a kid in the Western suburbs of Melbourne - one which comes to mind is the building on Sunshine Road in Footscray - now shared by Uncle Toby's and an auction group.

Looking at a modern image of it it has lost much of its earlier character. I also recall a similar structure visible from the Westgate bridge as you cross it going from West to East.


Hels said...


agreed. There is something special about C19th industrial buildings, near ports, wherever they are. I love the massiveness of both the material and the architectural design.

The only difference I can think of is that Melbourne is an enormous city - we drive past C19th industrial buildings without ever "seeing" them. In Geelong, in the main street opposite the port area, they dominate the cityscape.

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Hels said...


I am back in Geelong and found some great books in the Wool Museum. For example you might like to investigate the history of Charles Dennys who bought the original businesses in Geelong in the 1840s.