184-196 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (Johnston & Co)

One of the manufacturers of furniture for the first Australian Parliament in Melbourne (1901) was Johnston & Co, Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Charles Johnston started the business in about 1880 and was continued by his son George.

The Building

Mr Alfred White (Photo from The Cyclopedia of Victoria, 1903-1905, Vol 1, p.391)

The large building in the photo below was built on the corner of Gertrude and George Streets for Charles Johnston. The five-story building was designed by Mr Alfred White. (The Cyclopedia of Victoria, 1903-1905, Vol 1, p.391). I am still not sure of the date of construction, but it was pre 1905. It is interesting other references refer to the building being four storeys, but this would suggest it was actually five.

“The premises occupied by the business changed over time. In 1909 they extended from 166-188 Gertrude Street. Later they were from 184-196” Gertrude Street. (Source: November 2020 Fitzroy History Society Newsletter and an extract from Jill Robertson’s 2008 Book Gertrude Street Fitzroy).

Rusted ‘Johnstons’ signage – Google image Dec 2020

According to Peter Andrew Barrett, Architectural and Urban Historian, Writer and Curator “On 22 June 1963, the building caught fire on its upper levels. The two lower levels were retained, and now are the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sport & Recreation centre. Further east on Gertrude Street, rusted Johnston’s signage still remains on the facade of other buildings that formed the Charles Johnston & Co furniture complex.

“Johnston’s premises stretching along Gertrude St on either side of George St. From the Collingwood and Fitzroy Illustrated Directory and Handbook, 1905. The top floors of the building were destroyed by a fire in 1963.”

201 Gertrude Street is on the far right of this picture being the buildings with the slightly lower roof line. On the other side of the road is Johnston’s Factory.

Image held by Fitzroy Library. Taken from the Collingwood and Fitzroy illustrated Directory and Handbook, 1905.

One of the pieces made was the very first Speaker’s Chair. This chair was made in 1900 and the blackwood frame carries the maker’s stamp of Charles Johnston & Co of Gertrude Street. There is also a stamp on the underside which reads ‘European Labour Only’. The chair has most recently come up for sale in 2020 as part of Trevor Kennedy’s sale of his Australiana collection.

“Part of MMBW Plan 1209 of 1899”
“The Argus, Sat 22 Oct 1898, p.11”
First speakers chair – auction price guide in 2020 was $300-500k

According to the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2020 “The upholstered chair has seen a bit in its time. It was first used at the opening ceremony for the Parliament of a federated Australia, which took place in the Melbourne Exhibition Building on May 9, 1901. The Duchess of York, who later became Queen Mary, used the chair at the ceremony as her own personal perch. After that, it was used by Australia’s first Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, who claimed the chair was a requirement of office. He presided over the first Federal Parliaments from it until 1909, when he slumped forward in the chair and died at 5am after a marathon sitting of Parliament.”

Johnston’s Furniture Store, Gertrude St, building in the foreground by F M White & Son, 1888-89: view in the 1940s, Fitzroy Photographic Collection
East Melbourne Conservation Study collection 1979 – sourced from Flickr – Graeme Butler

One thought on “184-196 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (Johnston & Co)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: