Ipswich, located roughly 40km south-west of Brisbane, has historically been known as ‘Queensland’s second town’ and is also the oldest regional town in the state. Its white settlement began in 1827 with the arrival of a small group of convicts, who were put to work mining limestone on the banks of the Bremer River. Due to the presence of a valuable resource, Ipswich was at that time called Limestone. Fifteen years later, in 1842, the town was renamed Ipswich and opened to free settlers.
By the time it officially became a city in 1904, Ipswich was a prominent town with significant architectural structures, including grand houses, several churches, schools, hospitals, a Courthouse and a railway line that opened in 1865. Today its population is approximately 180,000 and it is technically a part of the Greater Brisbane metropolitan area. It has been a hub for industries such as mining, agriculture, railway workshops, and wool manufacture.
Places to Shop
Ipswich’s shopping district has largely centred on Brisbane Street and Nicholas Street, an area known as ‘the top of the town.’ A section of Nicholas Street is now the Ipswich Mall, and Brisbane Street remains the major retail area. Ipswich has been home to a large number of department stores, and was also the place where retail empires such as Mathers (a well known shoe store) were established.
Due to its early settlement, Ipswich had many clothing outfitters from the mid-19th century onwards, including independent tailors, boot-makers and drapers. Well-known Queensland merchant Russel Wilkins opened one of his Red Arcade drapery and fancy goods shops in central Ipswich (Wilkins had stores in Brisbane, Townsville and Gladstone) in the late 1800s. Examples of other clothing businesses include Parker and Goertz, ‘Practical Tailors’, who were located on Nicholas Street. Other tailors in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries were C.A Johnson, and S.A Nicoll and Son. Platt and Crossland were drapers located on the corner of Brisbane and Bell Street, a prime shopping hub directly across from Cribb and Foote, one of the largest and most enduring retailers in Ipswich.
Benjamin Cribb established Cribb and Foote department store in 1849 as a general merchant (Benjamin Cribb partnered with J.C Foote, a relative by marriage, in 1854 and the store changed its name). The store quickly grew to become one of Ipswich’s most prominent businesses. With hundreds of staff, large display windows, and departments ranging from furniture and hardware through to shoes and men’s and women’s clothing, Cribb and Foote was central to Ipswich retail for over 120 years. After Benjamin Cribb died in the 1870s, the store continued to be run by surviving generations. Cribb and Foote later became Reid’s after being acquired in 1972. The iconic building was sadly destroyed in a fire in the 1980s, and is now the site of Ipswich City Square. Other Ipswich department stores were Bayards and TC Beirnes (later Waltons), all of which had their main locations in Brisbane. Another major retailer was Penneys, located on Nicholas Street, which was later bought out by Coles.
William Mathers, who got his start working at TC Beirnes, opened his first Mathers shoe store in Ipswich in the 1920s on Nicholas Street. He later opened in Brisbane in what was to become the first of many stores throughout Queensland and Australia. The Mathers empire continues, and was bought out by the now defunct Colorado Group in the 2000s. Mathers still operates with approximately 70 stores across the country. William Mathers’ granddaughter, Tracey, has had her own successful eponymous shoe retail business in Brisbane’s Tattersalls Arcade since the 1990s.
Today, Ipswich’s main retail district retains its original location (now home to a pedestrian mall), but its layout and key stores are much the same as those in other regional Queensland, and Australian, towns. The majority of original department store buildings have been demolished, or lost to natural disasters such as flood and fire.
Design, Manufacture and Production
Wool and cotton have been major industries in Ipswich since the 19th century. The Ipswich Cotton Company was established in 1861 with a plantation in the suburb of Booval. This labour intensive crop struggled with weather conditions and frequently employed children as pickers. The first wool mill in Ipswich was The Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Co., established in 1877. The Ipswich Woollen Co. began in 1911. These industries were buoyed in their early days, despite economic hardships, with the assistance of the railways.
Unlike industries such as mining and the railway workshops, the woollen mills employed many more women than men. The women operated weaving looms and spinning mules, while men were given the ‘rougher’ jobs of sorting the wool, which carried some of the worst conditions in the mill. Girls were also employed to undertake mending jobs. Once the fabric was made it went through a series of finishing processes, including washing and shaving. Shaving took place at the end of production: the wool was put through the shaving machine, which used a large number of razors to give the fabric a smoother and finer finish.
Fabrics produced at the mills included flannel, tweeds and wool for suiting, women’s clothing, and blankets. The Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Co. was also known for creating a line of ‘Tropical Worsteds’ for summer-wear, which were better suited to the climate. In the latter half of the 20th century the mills also produced knits. By the 1990s the mills were no longer in operation.
The House of Jenyns was a corset manufacturer established in the 19th century. Jenyns was bought by Triumph in the late 1960s and operated a large production warehouse in Ipswich in the 1970s, which employed a sizeable staff of mostly women.
As with other towns and regions in Queensland throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, balls, beauty pageants, dances, trips to the theatre and cinema, and local shows, have all provided occasion to dress up and be seen. Ipswich’s proximity to the city of Brisbane also meant that larger venues and events, such as famed ballroom Cloudland and the ‘Ekka’ (Royal Brisbane Show), were on the social calendar.
Ipswich was well served when it came to cinemas and theatres. Edward Carroll, later of the Queensland cinema partnership of Birch, Carroll, and Coyle, grew up in Ipswich. He established his first company, ‘Carroll’s Biograph Pictures’ and by 1908 had secured a number of outdoor venues in Ipswich and Brisbane to show films with musical accompaniments. Later cinema venues such as the Wintergarden, Olympia, and The Ritz provided a variety of experiences for eager audiences. The Ritz, which opened in 1940, was incredibly popular and developed a number of special features to keep patrons happy. It was the first air-conditioned theatre in Ipswich, had a large candy store, and a soundproof ‘crying room’ for parents with small children. The Ritz was also known for its staff of usherettes, who boasted striking uniforms.
Ipswich had a large number of local halls which were used for theatre productions, charity and debutante balls, and dances. The Marburg Show Hall hosted regular dances well into this century. Local theatre company Little Theatre was one of many producing performances in Ipswich, which still retains a vibrant theatre scene. The Ipswich Civic Centre opened in 1975, and was a popular venue for dances, formals and weddings. Its program now includes local, national and international theatre events, including a theatre festival. The Ipswich Show has also remained a very popular social outing in the city.
In recent years the well-attended Ipswich Art Gallery has hosted a number of fashion and craft related exhibitions, including Tinsmith: An Ordinary Romance (2013) and The Antipodean Steampunk Show (2013). The Gallery has also been responsible for promoting the social and personal histories of Ipswich, with exhibitions such as St Mary’s College and St Mary’s Primary School: Celebrating 150 Years of Mercy (2013); Faces of Ipswich (2013) and St Paul’s Anglican Church, Ipswich 1859-2009 (2009).
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- Dawson, C. 2009. Brisbane Beginnings #2: Fairfield. Inside History, Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society, Brisbane.
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- Gardiner, Y. 2009. 'Cribb and Foote created memories.' The Ipswich Advertiser, 3 September, viewed September 30, 2013, http://www.ipswichadvertiser.com.au/news/cribb-foote-workers-reunion/308491/
- Jansen, D, P. Lamb, J. Darrah & M. Cuthill. 2009. Mines, Mills, and Shopping Malls: Celebrating the Identity of Ipswich. The University of Queensland, Brisbane.
- Queensland Places. "Ipswich." http://queenslandplaces.com.au/ipswich
Published in Issue 4, on October 8, 2013.