THE FIRST DENNYS WOOL STORE

In 1853 Dennys dissolved the company and made a trip to England. During his trip he was fascinated by the industrial buildings, warehouses, textile mills, factories and other engineering works which characterised the new manufacturing spirit of Victorian Britain. His ambitious scheme for a new wool store at Geelong was clearly based on the latest developments in industrial architecture.

old DL building.jpg

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

Dennys revived the business as a specialist wool broking firm after his return. The new establishment of CJ Dennys and Company was located in a new premise of sufficient size to facilitate both the storage and sellingof wool, and then arranging to ship the wool to distant shores on behalf of the purchasers. At this time auctions of wool were held at Mack's Hotel on Corio Terrace. Central to Denny's plan for his new wool warehouse was the provision of a show floor or sample room on the top level, to be lit by a south oriented saw-tooth roof, with all floors further lit and ventilated by perimeter wall windows. The structural column grid and fenestration patterns were also determined to suit the wool bale module, allowing for wide aisles between paired rows of bales.

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. [i] The Ballarat contractor­cum-architect Jonathon Coulson took over the Dennys and Co. project and completed the stone structure by August 1872. 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 1861-6511 and in his design for the Oriental Spinning and Weaving Company cotton mill at Bombay. This factory was erected prior to 1863.

One of the earliest known, if not the first example of saw-tooth roof construction in Australia is to be found in the Edmund Blacket design of the Mort and Company wool store on Circular Quay in Sydney. Blacket's sketches of 1864 clearly reflect the raked form of 'shed roofing' [ii] as earlier employed by Fairbairn. C. J. Dennys no doubt appreciated the benefits of the 'shed principle' and adapted the roof form to facilitate the lighting of the show floor of his new wool store. The Geelong Advertiser, in a lengthy and congratulatory article of 18 July 1872, remarked that the show or sample room was 'lighted like the woollen factories, by southern lights of ribbed glass in the roof, and ventilated by windows on every side'. With the completion of his innovative wool store at Geelong, Dennys set the precedent for future specialist buildings around Corio Terrace.

The saw-tooth roof system proved successful, and was further employed in woollen mills at Geelong, Ballarat and Melbourne in the 1870s. Wool broking establishments which did not boast a show floor were at a distinct disadvantage. George Hague extended his prefabricated iron premises (formerly occupied by Dennys and Co.) on Victoria Terrace in 1884 to include a show floor and in 1889-1891 Strahan and Co. built new brick wool stores with a timber framed saw-tooth roof onto their Moora­ bool Street frontage opposite Dennys and Co. 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 wool broking industry was transformed in the early 1890s with many new buildings being constructed to handle the burgeoning Australian wool clip. Rival firms in the principal wool ports of Sydney and Melbourne seized upon the latest construction techniques as espoused in Australian building journals and promoted by leading architects and engineers such as John Sulman and James Nangle. Fireproof construction was foremost on the agenda. It did not find ready application in Geelong where the wool warehouses erected on Corio Bay in the 1890s, including the Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co. additions and the Strahan Murray Shannon and Co. complex, were constructed with a solid brick carcass and structural timber innards. However, the sophisticated mechanical hoists and hydraulic lifts developed by firms such as Peter Johns and Co. in the 1880s to replace the steam or gas-powered screw hoists or manually operated winches of the earliest wool warehouses, were installed by Dennys, Lascelles, Austin and Co.  in Geelong to maintain their competitive edge. Edward Harewood Lascelles (1847-1917), the celebrated 'father of the Mallee', assumed effective control of the company after the death of his uncle in 1898. With the assistance of strong business partners in Austin, Young and Conran, Lascelles proceeded to expand the Dennys empire.

References:

[i] It was not the first time that Pitman had suffered this fate.  In 1865 he had been engaged by the directors of the Victorian Woollen and Cloth Manufacturing Company to design a factory building on the Barwon River at Geelong. When the looms and other machinery arrived from England, it was soon discovered that Pitman had allowed insufficient space to accommodate the equipment, and he was dismissed amidst much public rancour.  For details of the history of this particular incident see Arthur S. Y.  Loh, 'The First Woollen Mill in Victoria', University of Melbourne 1968.

[ii] William Fairbairn, Treatise on Mills and Mil/works, London 1861- 65.