I've written before in these pages about some of Brisbane's entrepreneurial businessmen. I've also indicated that the boom days of Brisbane provided lots of opportunity for individuals who were prepared to take a calculated risk and work hard. The hero of today's story had lots of luck - mostly bad - but with sheer perseverance, he was able to prevail.
For many reasons, we have very little manufacturing industry today - at least compared with the early days of Queensland. Would you believe me if I told you that, in the early twentieth century, there were more than twenty boot manufacturers in Brisbane? It sounds a lot, I know, but providing boots for the Australian working man and shoes for his family was quite an industry back then. One of those manufacturers was Thomas Dixon, who in 1873, at the ripe old age of 26, established a tannery at Hill End south of Brisbane Town. Shortly thereafter, he started making boots.
Then came a couple of events that would test the mettle of young Dixon. Fortunately, he was not found wanting. In 1885, a fire completely destroyed his operations. He decided to restart his business, and actually expanded it in doing so. Then, as is often the perverse way of misfortune, Brisbane was inundated with its worst flood ever in 1893. The flooding was particularly bad on the south side of the river, and Dixon lost around £1500 - a small fortune by the standards of the day. In a wonderful example of persistence, he knew that he could recommence his manufacturing business, and keen to build a presence that might protect it from fire and flood, he engaged the redoubtable Richard Gailey to design a brick premises for him on the corner of Montague Rd and Drake St at South Brisbane. The factory was completed in 1908, and here is an undated photo showing some of the staff gathered outside the Drake St entrance.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #165835)
Dixon was rightly proud of his new building, and understood the importance of his ability to stick to a task. Here is a verbatim excerpt from his correspondence that illustrates his feelings:
(Reproduced from "From boots to ballet shoes" - Queensland History Group)
Below is a recent photo showing the same frontage of the building. It is a testament to Gailey's design that the building loses nothing in comparison to today's constructions. If you look closely (just click for a larger image) you can see the sandstone block above the door that Dixon describes. It has the inscription "Established 1873" - the year Dixon started his tanning business. It is also visible in the earlier photo, but unreadable.
(Photo: © 2010 the foto fanatic)
The size of the factory can be gauged by the next image, probably showing the Montague Rd side of the structure. Once again, a significant work force is pictured outside the building. Reports indicate that Dixon was a fair employer who provided his staff with good working conditions, and as a result many of them stayed with the company for a considerable time.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #165836)
I recently took a photograph of the Montague Rd aspect of the building, and here it is. It is now known as the Thomas Dixon Centre, and the name of the current tenant can be read on the brick fence at the front.
(Photo: © 2010 the foto fanatic)
In 1973, the Thomas Dixon building was sold, and the shoe manufacturer moved out to a larger building at Wacol, south-west of Brisbane. In 1975, the building was purchased by the state government for use as a store, but then, in 1991, the building was refurbished to enable it to become home to the Queensland Ballet. Recently the building celebrated its centenary, and a booklet "From boots to ballet shoes" was produced by the Brisbane History Group - much of the above information was obtained from that source.
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