Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

History revisited - legacy still stands strong

In December 1904, the still new century was marked by the opening of one of Armidale’s iconic buildings, the new emporium of J R Richardson & Co. Richardson's Building

Older Armidale residents will remember the old Richardson’s. It was indeed an emporium. There was that machine in the men’s shoe department, now banned with greater knowledge of X rays, where you could stick your foot and see the bones. It was meant to help measure shoe fit, but I was more fascinated by the bones!

Then there was the subscription library. Subscription libraries? What on earth are they? Well, before the extension of the public library, many country department stores had small lending libraries where you could borrow popular books in return for a small fee.

At the time I am talking about, the Richardson’s library must have been on its last legs, but it was still there.

As kids, we didn’t buy a lot at Richardson’s ourselves. Other stores were more to our style with the limited pocket money we had. There were Penny’s and Coles with their cheaper displays including toys and sweets, or the various Greek cafes with their drinks. But we were marched into Richardson’s for things like shoes or school clothes.

A native of Fifeshire in Scotland, John Richardson was born in 1810, son of Presbyterian minister John Richardson and his wife Grace. At 16, he was apprenticed to a linen draper in Kirkcaldy and then worked in London before setting sail for Sydney, arriving in April 1837.

In 1842, John Richardson established an importing and ships chandlery business in Brisbane. If you look at the front of the Richardson’s Building you will see this date. He was obviously a shrewd businessman, because he quickly built a considerable business empire. He also became a member of the NSW parliament.

As a parliamentarian he was something of a radical, opposing William Charles Wentworth’s bunyip constitution, while supporting John Dunmore Lang’s campaign for the separation of what is now Queensland from NSW.

Lang had a vision of Australia as a great federated nation made up of many states. After working for self-government for Victoria and then Queensland, Lang campaigned for the separation of Northern NSW, beginning a new state tradition that continues to this day.

After suffering heavy business losses, John Richardson decided to relocate to Armidale, buying John Moore’s Armidale Store in 1872. This stood on the present site of the Richardson’s building, the first of three Richardson buildings on the site.

Richardson had expected Moore to withdraw from retailing. In 1879, Moore re-entered retailing, opening a new store just across the road from Richardson’s. John Richardson was not pleased. Later, the family firm would buy the building, making it their furniture department.

John Richardson died in December 1888, leaving an estate valued at almost £30,000. His firm survived. Five generations of the Richardson family would work in the store before its final sale.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 June 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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