There was a time when industrial buildings were seen as ugly, void of beauty, unsightly, uncharming. In many circles that may still be the current held point of view. I myself have stumbled over enough examples to contradict this, many of which are disappearing from our cities’ urban landscapes, as entire swathes of post-industrial precincts are rezoned quickly and easily in exchange for the current boom crop of large scale high density apartment building.
Not much ends up remaining of these monuments to our past…these warehouses, these workshops and factories, these theatres of industry where generations of workers plied their trade amongst the grit and the grime, many laboring for minimum wage, forging the products of our times, the wealth of this great nation, in a proud and honest period before we decided it was all much easier to just get things made in foreign countries and shipped over by the container load.
Indeed it appears that the bundy clock of change has swung on our entire manufacturing culture, no signs more poignant than the impending shut down of our automotive manufacturing industry, and hot on its heels the dire state of the local steel making industry. Or the textile industry, the paper milling industry, or the print industry, where even our Yellow Pages as from next year will be printed in China and shipped all the way to our shores individually shrinkwrapped to be delivered to our doorstep where most of us will faithfully pick them up and place them directly into the bin. The recycling bin at least.
I diverge, but it has become almost farcical, the whole notion of an Australian manufacturing industry. The penny will have to drop at some point, surely, when our current fortunes fade, the builders put down their tools and we realise, all of a sudden, that there really aren’t enough jobs in this country for the endless swarms of people we seem to be importing.
But all that will come… I want to talk more of what has been. To focus, perhaps, on an example of what we are trading in. A sample of building style that to our children may not be easily recognisable, as it is not, and never was, deemed important enough to keep. Both in structure and in spirit.
There is a shop, on Bourke Road, among the old warehouses, and modern residential blocks that every day seem to be mushrooming around and elbowing any lowrise competitors out of the light. In an era of mass-produced flatpack Ikea plantation particle board this place is a dinosaur, and the time has come when it has closed its doors for the last time.
The shop, a family business known as Doug up on Bourke, has traded for the last 13 years, and modeled itself as a veritable treasure trove of industrial antiques, housing anything and everything from the 1800s through the 1900s, from cast iron postal boxes to Department of Education furniture. From beaten up tin railway signs to army medical stretchers. From naval matériel to WWII navigational equipment, and from advertising articles to golden age of motoring paraphernalia. It’s all here, in spades.
Walking through the shop you get the sense of one man’s need to collect, and how it devours the soul of the needy. You can imagine the display growing from one or two ubiquitous objects on a mantelpiece into the intricate museum of what we see today. Yes, Doug was a busy boy…
And the building itself, this old brick warehouse, is a fitting tribute to the enduring purpose of industrial relics. An ideal stage for the show to unfold. With saw-tooth corrugated iron roof propped up by thick cedar beams, exposed brickwork flaking decades of hard worn paint, reinforced window slats that let in some of the light and some of the rain, as a galvanised bucket readily welcomes leaks from the ceiling.
The upper floor with its solid timber floorboards winds around and leads to a back room and stairwell down to a lower cavernous workshop. An antiquated hydraulic service lift still operates between the two levels, bringing up carpenters’ workbenches or helping to despatch metal pigeon holed filing cabinets marked SRA.
Wandering round the piles of relics, it quickly dawned on me that it is a sad indictment on our city and its people, not only to be losing a such a wonderful old world shop such as this, but also to be eliminating buildings like this from our social fabric altogether. It’s disturbing, that future generations won’t be able to walk in off the street and see places like this, in all their full post-industrial glory.
These buildings are becoming, like our manufacturing industry itself, a thing of the past. Many more like it are being torn down in a flurry, like the Porter’s Paints building next door. In fact the entire block including the massive Lawrence Dry Cleaners is earmarked for destruction. The surrounding suburbs of Waterloo and Zetland and areas like it are completely removed from what they were just a short time ago. And in order to imagine the future one need not look further than the nearby AGM Glassworks site. What is actually left of the once sprawling industrial complex? Just one chimney, a few rotten turbines and a couple of admin buildings… Or the former CSR sugar refinery at Ultimo, which had its own power station, of which nothing remains. Highrise has erased most traces of our industrial past.
These vestiges are all being torn down and wiped out one by one, in the space of a few years, denying any clues that Australia even had a manufacturing trade at all. But when the kiddies decide they want to look back in several years time and picture the kind of city their parents grew up in, they should know this: We did have a manufacturing industry once, that boomed over a series of decades, and was of world class standard. And of that we should be proud, and deem it an integral part of our heritage and social inheritance, not something that as politicians believe should be swept under the carpet, something that simply gets in the way of our current portfolio of economic retardation, that of importing people, and rushing to build canyons of concrete to file them in. What comes after that seems to be of no consequence to the current trend of government, but this also comes at the expense of the heritage of all of us; of the heritage of this great working city and great working country.
Doug Up on Bourke closed its doors on 2nd October 2015. What remained of the collection was sold off over the course of three days of gruelling auction. Doug, his daughter Sophie and son-in-law Craig have moved out and on to other ventures. Thanks for running what I consider Sydney’s most interesting shop, and goodbye.
All images Inheritance 2015.