Rise of the Wool Industry

 
in Geelong

The rise of wool industry and the development of the port town of Geelong could be dated back as early as 1836, when the first lot of sheeps were offloaded in Point Henry along the Corio bay.

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1894 Sketch of the harbour

The first European settlers to the area arrived in mid 1830s, with both John Cowie and David Stread arriving from Tasmania to farm sheep in 1836. Geelong was first proclaimed as town in 1838 and by 1839 the number of settlers in the area led to the conduct of a town survey, with the first land sales taking place in February of that year. However, there was no wool stores in the town at that time and wool was merely carted down the beach for shipment. With 1840’s economic recovery the wool industry had been gradually shifted from the hand of general merchants to specialised wool broking houses. Van Diemonian James Ford Strahan had erected the first bonded on the corner of Moorabool Street and Corio Terrace (now Brougham Street) in 1839. He was the pioneer in establishing Geelong’s wool broking industry. Strahan had a wool press on their premises and were prepared to store wool for shipment.

 

Architecture of the First Wool Stores

in Geelong

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Since wool became booming industry for Geelong, the space for wool store became premium and hence in the next decade, an ad hoc collection of wool stores and warehouses assembled on and near the Geelong waterfront. The declaration of Geelong as a free port in 1848 gave a long-awaited boost to commerce in Western Victoria and by 1850 British imports of the Australasian product exceeded those of all other wools combined. In terms of architecture the early wool stores in Geelong were non-descript warehouses except with wool press. The purpose-built wool store was yet to come. A great variety of construction materials were used. Wilson,  Buchanan and Co. built brick offices and a woolshed off Corio Street in the early 1850s; Dalgety, Ibbotson and Co. occupied stone premises in Moorabool Street as offices, with four large stone stores adjacent; Willis and Stephen occupied three stone stores in Little Malop Street with further iron stores on Brougham Place; Alfred Douglass relocated to a conglomeration of iron, stone and brick buildings on Victoria Terrace; and C.J. Dennys occupied a rented two-storey imported iron building on the same industrial boulevard from 1857 for his Western Wool Warehouse.

New jetties were built on the foreshore to facilitate direct loading from the stores and the wool stores precinct was effectively established. Competition for the wool clip business was apparently fierce and in 1854 the Geelong Commercial Directory and Almanac listed no less than 16 firms under the trade category of “wool broker.”

 
The Rise of

C.J. Dennys and E.H. Lascelles Wool Business

In 1858, an aspiring wool broker and local merchant Charles John Dennys (1817-1898) planned to establish a local wool mart. In 1864, Dennys took into partnership his nephew Martin Lascelles Dennys and four years later another nephew, Edward Harewood Lascelles (1847-1917). When M.L. Dennys retired in 1875, the firm took the title of Dennys, Lascelles and Co. C.J. Dennys and Co. had more local auction trade than their limited, leased warehouse accommodation on Victoria Terrace could handle. In December 1870, Dennys and Co. purchased an old coal yard on Moorabool Street and Brougham Place for redevelopment.

Edward Harewood Lascelles
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Edward Harewood Lascelles

Charles Dennys

Lack of a central auctioning system at that time in Australia - which was later formed in 1890s - gave Dennys the opportunity to organise an auction in Geelong at one of the clubs at Central Geelong. Auctioning acted as a pivotal event in the history of wool industry in Geelong as this for the very first time brought the brokers of Geelong together and aroused a sense of collective identity. At nearly the same time, the Old Customs House was also shifted to a location in Geelong giving traders an easy access to functions related to customs. He identified the existing local strength and brought the producers and brokers together for this production space to work united as a whole to cater the international demands and become a key production area. Earlier the units were working individually and would depend largely on Melbourne’s market for auctioning and storing of products. Later on, by constructing the biggest wool-house which would cater all the functions from ‘start to dispatch’ including storing of products, he further strengthened Geelong’s position into the wool market. Other wool houses soon followed and the area saw an agglomeration of similar activity.

 

The FIRST Wool Store

Dennys first engaged local architect Jacob Pitman to prepare plans for his new wool store early in 1871, but dismissed him sometime soon after August 1871, when his call for tenders for excavation of the basement of Dennys' wool house was first advertised. The Ballarat contractor­cum-architect Jonathon Coulson took over the Dennys and Co. project and completed the stone structure by August 1872.

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C. J. Dennys and Co. Wool store Moorabool Street, Geelong after 1880. Courtesy of the Geelong Historical Records Centre

Despite Dennys's public acknowledgement of the leading role of Coulson in the wool store design, it appears from an analysis of the surviving drawings that it was built largely in accordance with Pitman's original design. Pitman most probably introduced the concept of the saw-tooth roof to Geelong and Victoria with his ill-fated design for the Victorian Woollen and Cloth Manufacturing Company mill in late 1865. Saw-tooth roof construction was developed in Britain in the late 1850s, with the English ship and iron building manufacturer William Fairbairn being one of the first to promote the “shed principle” of single storey factory and mill construction in his treatise of 1861 and in his design for the Oriental Spinning and Weaving Company cotton mill at Bombay. This factory was erected prior to 1863. Business at the Dennys establishment was brisk and the company was forced to extend the premises in 1880 by construction of a single storey rendered brick and stone store in Brougham Place, and in 1889, both by the addition of two further storeys to the 1880 structure and an additional French Second Empire style two-storey office and auction room in Moorabool Street.

 

The New Wool Store

Bow Truss Building
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Interior view showing the saw-tooth roof in place taken before the diagonal tension members and the bottom chord were cast in concrete. E. H. Lascelles (left) standing with an unknown party (possibly E. G. Stone).

By the end of 1905 the firm of Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co. had become one of the largest wool industry in Geelong in terms of the size of the building as well as the annual wool trade. A contemporary description referred to their buildings standing close to the wharves and connected to the railways by a private siding, as constituting “one of the finest and most complete warehouses in Australia.” An aggregate floor space totalling 4.25 acres gave storage for 20 000 wool bales or 100 000 bags of grain and show floors to display all the samples required for a sale of 6000 to 8000 bales. Productivity and the long stagnant economy improved in the seasons after 1905, and the combined storage facilities of their integrated wool and grain warehouses soon

proved inadequate. Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co. determined to expand and instead engaged the Sydney-based engineer Edward Giles Stone (1873-1947). Although he did not have any formal architectural qualification, it is apparent from his early work that Stone was interested in contemporary aesthetic theory and design. His reinforced concrete silos built at Kensington in Melbourne for James Minifie and Co. in 1910-11, show aesthetic sensitivity in the clearly expressed patent precast segments “and its almost futuristic cantilevered head house.” The Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co. wool store extension was apparently designed by Stone in 1909, with the essential feature being the superb show floor accommodation.

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Construction

Of The New Wool Store

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Early in 1910, the ad hoc collection of timber and corrugated iron buildings to the west of the main wool stores and fronting Corio and Clare Streets were removed to allow to commence the project. By July the concrete casting had reached above second floor  level.  To ensure that the building was completed in time for the next wool season, the work often continued into the night under portable electric lights. The Geelong press was keen in the project, publishing regular bulletins on the race against time. By August it was clear that “while the building will not be ship shape by the opening of the season, it will be sufficiently advanced for working purposes.”

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Construction recommenced in March 1912 with the fabrication of the six giant reinforced concrete bow string trusses. They were arranged in pairs and connected to the existing concrete saw-tooth roof system at regular intervals. Stone used imported yet scarce British cement in preference to the presumably inferior local Geelong product. Two different strength mixes of concrete were used for the bowstring trusses and the main structural components respectively.  A series of photographs taken during the course of the work shows how ingeniously Stone had arranged to build over this 55.2 x 51.1 metre space, as well as the method adopted for reinforcement fabrication. Upon removal of the timber props in September, the Company not only “set a new standard in wool enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere,” but also had “the unique satisfaction of learning that their very fine reinforced concrete wool store had outstripped the ideas of the insurance companies.” The underwriters subsequently formulated new schedules for insuring a structure in “which not a splinter of wood had been used.”

 

The Landmark

in the Urban Landscape of Geelong

At an urban scale, the New Wool Store building forms a dominant presence - due to its sheer size - being the second largest wool-store in the region. In addition to it, the lack of any other building of this scale adds to its dominance into the area too. The dominant scale of Dennys Lascelles Building in the skyline of Geelong at a prominent location in Geelong close to the port manifests how it has acted as a significant landmark for the urban landscapes of Geelong. Investigating the building through a lens that investigates its spatio-urban integration, one of the most interesting aspects that emerges is how this building acted as a key anchor for the socio-economic functions in the spatial agglomeration of activities related to wool industry. As

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1938

we explore the urban space around the building, the form and function is a clear reflection of “agglomeration economies” focused on wool industry that existed in Geelong. This can be seen in the coming together of 27 major wool-stores and related functions such as custom house, port, railway station and clubs. As per the principle of agglomeration economies, each of the functions that happened within the geographical proximity fuelled and lubricated production and functioning happening at each location.

 

The Life and Demise

of the New Wool Store

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Dennys, Lascelles Ltd successfully operated from their Geelong wool store complex until 1977 when the firm was absorbed into the Elders IXL fold. Although the 1910-1912 wool store was at the time of construction considered fireproof and virtually unassailable, the salty coastal environment and the increasingly noxious industrial atmosphere on Corio Bay gradually took its toll. Problems with spalling concrete and corrosion of the hooped steelwork reinforcement were evident by the mid-1920s. Regular maintenance was consequently mandatory. Along with the idea of the “City by the Bay” in August 1980, the National Trust declared the wool stores precinct a Conservation Area. In 1983 the 1880 Dennys Lascelles and Co. annexe was demolished on the pretext that its suspect facade was beyond salvation. This was despite the statutory powers inherent in the Historic Buildings Act (1981). Demolition followed an order issued by the Geelong City Council under the superior provisions of the Uniform Building Regulations and the Building Control Act (1981) that both the Annexe and the Bow Truss building were in a ruinous condition and a danger to the public. Whilst the Bow Truss building survived this order it was a warning of things to come. Unfortunately, the rapid rejuvenation of the city of Geelong Geelong’s forced most of the industrial building to be relocated from the city centre. The heritage overlay of the city has been gradually wiped out due to the economic pressure. In May of 1990 the building was destroyed after the State Government of Victoria intervened to override the state’s heritage body on its significance. The site was left as car park for twenty years till the TAC building was constructed.