Friday, March 15, 2013

Watson Bros Building, Margaret St

If I had to have a city office, I'd want one that looked like this. Designed by the famous architect Richard Gailey, the Watson Bros building in Margaret St is a 19th century marvel. Gailey was certainly prolific, but there is no doubt that he was also very talented. He designed fabulous houses, spectacular hotels and brilliant warehouses in Brisbane, and we are fortunate that some such as the Watson Bros building are still standing.

George Watson Senior arrived in Brisbane in 1862 aboard the ship Ocean Chief. He established a plumbing business in Albert St which thrived in growing Brisbane. Sons George Junior, Thomas, James and John joined their father in the plumbing business and when George Senior retired in 1880 they took over the business and expanded it. That expansion called for new premises which they had constructed in the area known as Frogs Hollow (see previous post), gradually being cleaned of its squalid buildings and unsavoury reputation. Here is a drawing of their 1887 building that appeared in The Queensland Figaro in both January and February 1888. The sign above the top floor of the building says "Watson Brothers Late George Watson".
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(Photo: trove.com.au)

I'm not sure when the "late" George Watson died. According to Queensland Figaro, he attended the "house-warming" for the new building on Tuesday 8 November 1887, so he must have passed away between that date and January 1888. I have never been involved in the construction industry, but from what I read in today's press the relationship between the executives and the workers is a far cry from how they appeared in those days. Have a read of the report on this house-warming party and see what you think.

Present at that function was John Balls, whose firm Smith and Balls were the contractors who completed the project. John Balls was the husband of Mrs Sarah Balls who continued the running of their businesses (they were also hoteliers) after John's death. She was to be involved in the construction of the next-door building some years later.

Below is a photograph of the building from around the year 1900, and some alterations are evident. An awning over the footpath has been added, and the signage is different (assuming the sign in the drawing above was accurate and not the artist's representation). 
State Library of Queensland; Image No 89333
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #89333)

When the building opened there were some tenants, but gradually the Watson Bros business expanded to inhabit all three levels. Brothers Thomas, James and John left the business in 1902, leaving George Junior to run it. He, in turn, brought his sons George III and Norman Mayor aboard, together with his four daughters and his foreman prior to the formation of a limited company.

George Watson Jr was a respected businessman in the mould of his equally admired father. He became a council alderman in 1891 and mayor in 1892, and remained on the council until 1896. Son Norman Mayor (click here to read about him) was killed in WWI and George Junior died on 21 June 1923. The business of Watson Bros was heavily involved in WWI, having fitted out plumbing alterations to 90% of all vessels that were converted to troopships.

Watson Bros continued as a viable business until 1961 when it was forced into liquidation. Since that time ownership of the building has changed a few times and tenants have included Queensland Ballet Company, a car park operator and an artists' co-operative. Here is a recent photograph of the building and below that a close-up of the central pediment.
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(Photos: © 2009 the foto fanatic)

Finally, an advertisement from 1955, proudly articulating the company's 100 year history in Brisbane.
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(Photo: the kingsman magazine)

Click here for a Google Map.

tff

5 comments:

  1. Fascinating story and lots of research. Such a shame to see the building now a car park facade. The plumbing trade is so vastly different now isn't it. After also following the link about Norman Mayor I think a story about George's house on Bonney Ave is a natural segue for the next post!

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  2. I probably won't be preparing a post about it, but here is a link to the listing at the Brisbane City Council's Heritage Register:

    http://heritage.brisbane.qld.gov.au/heritage_register/placeDetail.do?action=read&placeId=458&fullDetail=true&navParam=startBasic

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  3. Mostly councils won't allow messing around with the facade of a heritage building. Yet in the 1900 photo of the building, the added awning looks perfect. I wonder why it wasn't obviously to all architects when the original plans were drawn up that Brisbane buildings needed to provide shade to customers and pedestrians.

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  4. I agree - the awning really is attractive and would have been a boon to visitors to the business.

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  5. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I used to take classes with Mary Heath, at the Queensland Ballet School when they were in that building. It was such a joy to go to classes there.

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