Historic Toowoomba – the Influence of Ancestry in the Business Sector

A hint about some Toowoomba ancestry

One of the pleasures of travelling to new places is the opportunity to dig into some local history and one of the best sources are the historic buildings that have been preserved and sometimes even repurposed. Historic buildings are not just preserved because they look grand and stately but also because they have some kind of cultural and historical significance. Buildings actually tell a story about a town’s history and the larger influences at work across time. Over the last year I have been highlighting some of Toowoomba’s historic buildings that can be found on the Cultural and Legal Historical Walk. The first on the list was the old Post Office, followed by the…

Museums, galleries and civic institutions are often the first to come to mind when we think of historic buildings, but even commercial buildings can tell us something interesting about the history of a town. From the 1860s onwards Toowoomba went through a period of rapid growth and by the late 1800s had emerged as the largest regional town on the Darling Downs. New buildings were going up left, right and centre. Sometimes they were simply a replacement for a small timber building that had quickly outgrown its purpose, but others were purpose built for a specific commercial business. At first glance they just might look like another old building, but digging a little into the history of the owner and the architectural style can tell us a lot about early immigration patterns and the kind of people who chose to leave their homes and travel to the other side of the world to start a new life.  

Alexandra Building, Toowoomba

The Alexandra Building was constructed in 1902 and was quite unusual for its time because it had a second storey that was used for functions such as weddings, parties and concerts. Its original owner, a Mr T K Lamb, operated a very successful confectionary and pastry business. Apparently his wares were in great demand, being sent by mail order to various parts of Western Queensland. The building was originally named Alexandra House in honour of Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII. We have to remember that this is just one year after federation and Australia saw itself very much as part of the British Empire.

After Lamb died in 1913, a number of tenants used the building, including 4GR – Toowoomba’s own radio station. It was the first commercial radio station to broadcast in Queensland, starting in 1925. 4GR operated out of the Alexandra Building from 1938 until sometime in the 1970s. It is now known as Triple M, although I believe the name change was not well received by local residents.

Buildings can go through a lot of changes over the years as architectural fashions and owners come and go, and new regulations come into effect. Originally the Alexandra Building had a front verandah but this was removed sometime between 1937 and 1943. Apparently verandahs were deemed a road safety issue by the local authorities. I think that one of the most interesting features of the building is the triple gabled parapet at the top, which is quite detailed when you take a closer look. However, I don’t know what the current owners were thinking when they had the building painted in that awful green colour. I guess that’s renovation fashion for you.   

Harrison’s Printing is another building that was purpose designed and built in 1912. The business was established in 1909 and operated from this building for many years. The design of the building was influenced by the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. You may be familiar with the name William Morris, a British designer, printer and writer who was influential in the British Arts and Crafts movement, which in turn gave birth to the Scottish movement. Based at the Glasgow School of Arts, the Scottish style was noted for its use of Celtic and ghostly ghoulish imagery. As you can imagine, it wasn’t to everybody’s tastes, however one of the interesting things about the Scottish movement was the prominent role played by women. 

Harrison Printing, Toowoomba

At first glance Harrison’s Printing just looks like a simple but elegant building and we might wonder about the Scottish influence. However on a closer look I noticed the crosses under the windows and underneath the top edge. I wondered if they might have been modelled on the Celtic cross. Of course we don’t know what modifications might have been made to the building over the years, although I find it hard to believe that ghostly ghouls would be considered appropriate for a commercial business, but then you never know. 

 The first Scots arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. Many of them were convicts, including some political prisoners known as the Scottish Martyrs. In a similar story to many Irish immigrants, poverty, famine and a wave of epidemics during the 1820s and 1830s forced many Scots to consider relocation. Initially Victoria was the first destination for the Scots, but New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania also welcomed many Scottish migrants. By 1830 Scots made up 15% of Australia’s total recorded population, swelling to 20-25% by the 1850s. The Gold Rush was a major drawcard. In Queensland many Scots, along with other British migrants were lured to the state by a parliament keen to encourage settlement. By 1861 8% of the Queensland population was Scottish born. We do need to remember though, that during this time only the white population was counted. It is certainly one of the most shameful chapters of our history that our Indigenous people were not counted as citizens of their own country for a very long time. However, given that the Darling Downs was one of the first areas of Queensland to be settled by white immigrants, it’s not at all surprising to see that some Scots found their way to Toowoomba.

Niddrie House, Toowoomba

I don’t have a construction date for Niddrie House or for whom it was built and for what purpose but it is another example of the Scottish influence in Australia. It was named after Niddrie Marischal House which was located just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, so clearly there must be some kind of Scottish connection with the original owner or architect.

The original Niddrie Estate in Scotland has a most interesting and somewhat violent history. Supposedly it had been in the hands of the Wauchope family since before 1400. I don’t know a lot about Scottish history but it seems there was a lot of political turmoil which led to much violent conflict. By 1600 the Wauchope family had lost their lands, probably a punishment for backing the wrong side and their castle was burnt down by their neighbours. I guess you can’t always choose your neighbours. Eventually they managed to get their lands back by marrying the right girl but I don’t think it was a very happy marriage.  Construction then began on their new castle, Niddrie Marischal. The estate remained in the Wauchope family until 1943 when the widow of the last laird passed away. The land was then sold and used for public housing, I think. Sadly the castle no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in 1959. Not sure whether it was the neighbours this time or not. 

For whoever had Niddrie House constructed in Toowoomba, I can only assume they must have had a positive or close connection to Niddrie Marischal. Looking at some of the old photos and sketches of the original Niddrie Marischal House shows there is more than just a connection with the name. There are definitely some similarities with the architectural features, such as the parapet at the top and the shaping of some of the decorative plaster work.  Of course, you wouldn’t know this unless you were quite familiar with the old castle and since it no longer exists, well… The building has been used for a number of businesses and organisations over the years, including a milk bar, YWCA rest rooms and dry cleaners. Currently it is occupied by a dentist, a linen boutique and a building contractor. 

Old Bank of NSW, Toowoomba

This last building is the old Bank of New South Wales. Now you might be feeling a little confused by this, after all, Toowoomba is in Queensland not New South Wales, but the Bank of New South Wales was Australia’s first bank. It opened its first branch in Sydney in 1817 and soon spread across Australia and New Zealand, with the Toowoomba branch opening in 1860. While it’s quite a stately building, it’s not as old as it looks. It was only built during 1940-1941, when the Bank of NSW embarked on a massive building program throughout Australia. Obviously the bank must have been doing quite well at the time. It was built from sandstone found in Helidon, just down the range a bit, and in a style called Victorian Free Classic Revival. Bit of a mouthful, that one, but that is why it has that older heritage look. Revival is the key word here. 

The Victorian era must have been a profitable time for architects as there are so many different types of Victorian architecture – Georgian, Regency, Academic Classical, Mannerist and even Egyptian, just to name a few!  The Victorian Free Classic style was quite popular from the mid nineteenth century to about the 1890s,  especially for civic buildings like post offices and courthouses. Some of the main features include asymmetrical faces, Romanesque windows and ornamental pediments. The style evokes a sense of wealth, respectability and tradition, so you can see why it would be popular for banks. While each of the Victorian architectural styles have their original period, they are often revived in new ways in a later era. In the midst of a world war, reviving a classic Victorian style would have been a conscious attempt by the bank to instil confidence in anxious consumers.

By 1982 The Bank of NSW had merged with a number of other financial institutions to form the bank we now know as Westpac. Some of the old Banks of NSW buildings still survive, but very few are still used as banks. With the push for self-serve and online services, I expect that in the future banks will be nothing more than an ATM in a wall. It does make me wonder sometimes whether our historic buildings will continue to be preserved or whether will we come to a time when they are no longer of cultural or historical significance. Will the cost of preservation be too much.

6 thoughts on “Historic Toowoomba – the Influence of Ancestry in the Business Sector

  1. Your series on the history of Toowoomba’s buildings is fascinating. I’m looking forward to my next visit to look more closely. Last trip we dined at The Royal Hotel in Ruthven Street – no street charm but inside it was delightful.An old Railways Worker’s drinking hole apparently ( and great food)


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