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.
“This site at No.184 Gertrude Street was well established as a wine merchants and grocers shop by the 1860s. It was successfully run by Scott and Wilson (later Scott and Kennedy) from 1858 to 1863. In 1864 William Ross and John Smith moved here from their premises at No.150 Gertrude Street (No.120 in the 1850s) to continue their business at No.184 (No. 144 in the 1860s). The building was demolished and by 1880 there was an enormous four story furniture warehouse on the site” (Gertrude Street, Jill Robertson, Fitzroy History Society, p.6)
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 1896. 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).
In 1896, the interior was described as as “immense warehouse” that “might be described as a series of brilliant panoramic pictures. The countless and superb articles artistically arranged in rich profusion include drawing, dining and bed room suits suitable for every class of habitation, from a cottage to a mansion.” ( The Leader, 8 Feb 1896)
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.“
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.
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.
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.”
Photos and Article from 18 December 1909 (The Leader, 18 Dec 1909)
“Remarkable progress has been made by this firm since its inception in 1875. When started by the father of Mr G. J. Johnston only one assistant was employed; today, over 200 skilled workmen are constantly employed in their fine warehouses and factories, apart from the direct and indirect representatives throughout the several States of the Commonwealth. A vital principle of this organisation is that it is only white workmen are employed.” This position is reiterated later in the article “Referring to the policy of the firm to have its goods made by white craftsmen, he observed that the original purpose was not simply to make appeal to patriotic feeling. “Patriotic we decidedly are”, he continued, “but the policy is really a standard and guarantee of quality in the construction of every article and which is regarded by all the craft as being the best and cheapest in the end. Gold is the universal standard of value and likewise the articles turned out by our educated, skilled white craftsmen are the standard of furniture value”. The policy while preposterous and racist in today’s standards was a statement made to promote quality over what they saw as inferior produce by Chinese workers.
“The factories are divided into departments each in charge of an expert foreman, and work is carried on under pleasant conditions…. Messrs. Chas. Johnston and Co, are Government contractors and have supplied most of the furniture and furnishings required for the Federal and State Parliaments and offices. The showrooms total over 150,000 square feet space, and furniture with beauty of design and finish is here obtainable.”
The article also talks of their carpets, curtains, crockery, knive boxes and ironmongery.
The article also confirms that Johnston & Co are also responsible for making the pews and fittings for Holy Trinity Church, in Port Melbourne after their church is severely damaged by a storm in late 1908.
In 1914, the Company made a writing table for Lady Denman. “Mr Tudor, in proposing the health of the Governor-General and Lady Denman, said that the table would serve to keep in their memories the time they had spent in Australia. He could conceive of no better use to which Australian wood could be put than that it should adorn the house of a retired Governor-General in England.” (Weekly Times, 16 May 1914)