Showing posts with label Barrie's Furniture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barrie's Furniture. Show all posts

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Romance of Timber

“Timber is the thing,” Frank Standen told his daughter Jan. “It’s all in the taste.”

Years later, her father long gone, Jan Pilcher wishes she had asked him what he meant.

Red cedar furniture, hand crafted, was the specialty of Barrie’s Furniture Shop, situated at 52 Beaumont Street, Hamilton. Founded by Mr Fred Barrie, it operated from the 1930s until the late 1980s.

The distinct aromatic oil in red cedar has long-lasting properties that are much sought after - preventing insect infestations and protecting against mould, mildew and moisture damage. Perhaps there is a signature taste in the oil that experienced woodworkers recognise as characteristic of the very best wood they have ever crafted.

With his boss, Mr Fred Barrie, Frank Standen would travel the Hunter region to source the finest cedar trees from the timber getters for their furniture. Trudi Bean, Fred Barrie’s granddaughter, writes:

‘In 1947 after reading a newspaper article about how Gloucester Timber Mill was going to fell a giant cedar tree, Fred wrote to them offering to film the tree felling and also offering to buy some of the cedar. So in 1948, Fred Barrie, Geoff Barrie and about six men went with the caravans and the bulldozer and trucks to fell the 67 feet (20m) tall tree which was estimated to be 750 years old.’

The tree was to be called the Cedar Monach. It had a girth of 11 metres with a base  equivalent to the size of a small bedroom. Fred purchased about 40% of this massive tree for £900. He didn’t have anywhere to store this huge quantity of timber so put it in the showroom. Confronted daily by this phenomenon, he was spurred on to make cedar furniture in earnest.

Frank Standen was in the timber getting crew and his daughter Jan Pilcher has gifted the shavings and measurements of that tree to the Newcastle Museum, Fred Barrie’s grandson, Warren Mair, is custodian of a home movie Fred made of the felling, transporting and milling of “The Cedar Monarch.” The movie is called “The Romance of Timber.”

Sizing up the Cedar Monarch (1947)
Photograph courtesy of the Newcastle Museum

This story really begins when Fred Barrie (1905 – 1999) came to Newcastle from the Cessnock farm of his parents, James and Jane Barrie, to learn his trade as a cabinet  maker. The year was 1919, and Fred just 16 years of age. Boarding with an aunt and uncle, Fred was apprenticed to Aub Murray (relative of Murray's Funeral Directors)  in his workshop in Cameron Street. So began Fred’s long association with Hamilton.

To help support his family, Fred made rolling pins in his spare time, selling them door to door on his bicycle. After finishing his apprenticeship, he married Alice Harvey in 1926.  They lived in Everton Street, Hamilton. By this time, Fred’s father James had sold the Cessnock farm and bought 52 Beaumont St, Hamilton, setting up a photographic studio above the residence. Fred  began making furniture in his parents’ laundry. As business improved, he built a workshop at the rear of 52 Beaumont Street.


Frank Standen (1907 - 1985) learned his cabinetry trade making coffins for the Fry Brothers Funeral Directors in Maitland. Fry's are still in business there today.

Courtesy Fry Brothers website

Frank’s extra duties included driving the hearse – a horse and cart. All black was the fashion for funerals then. Since Frank was fair, he was expected to wear a black wig so as to blend with the pall bearers and present a uniform, serious appearance.

Like so many, the Barrie family experienced a difficult time in the Great Depression which began with the American stock market crash on 4 September, 1929 and lasted for up to a decade or more. Fred made furniture for the house he and Alice lived in so they could take in boarders. They also rented out their tennis court. Daughter Margaret was born in 1931 and son Geoff at the end of 1932. It was a challenging time for a young family to be venturing into business.

In 1934 things began to improve and Fred employed Frank Standen and Andy Forrester. Andy had been the foreman at Murray’s and had taught Fred his trade.

Frank’s recruitment to Barrie’s in Hamilton began a lifelong friendship between the two men who shared a passion and enthusiasm for fine furniture. Theirs was indeed a romance with timber.

Barrie’s made quality furniture customised to order for farmers and graziers with large homes, and wealthy city dwellers. Orders came from all over Australia. The letterhead reads:

“Specialist in figured maple, sycamore, walnut and inlaid furniture.”

Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Here is an example of the elegant cedar occasional tables made at Barrie’s.

Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Below is a bookcase.

Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Enormous wall length wardrobes – forerunner to “the built-in” – were popular with Italian families.

Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Such pieces were out of the reach of many Novocastrians, though. As Margaret Colditz writes: [1]

“Mr Barrie’s Furniture Shop. How elegant it was! A large piece of red cedar caught one’s attention. Most of us could only look admiringly at the lovely hand crafted furniture. Upstairs, we had our photographs taken sitting in a beautifully carved chair. In a post-Depression era, this elegant shop was inspiring."

Tougher times were ahead. With the declaration of World War II, furniture orders dried up. Staff were laid off. A conscientious objector, Fred Barrie was called up to the Allied Works Authorities, first at Nelson’s Bay building a hospital, then at Bankstown and Mascot as the leading hand with 60 men, making boxes and packing them with nails and bolts to make pre-cut warehouses  for the army.

Frank Standen found himself without a job.

Now, the musical skills Frank had acquired as a boy, travelling each week from Maitland to lessons at Mayfield, would come into their own. He played the violin, saxophone and clarinet. Joining a small band, Frank went “on the road,” travelling up and down the coast playing instrumental accompaniment for the silent movies.

In the mid twentieth century, silent movies were hugely popular. They were one of the few forms of entertainment available.

Charlie Chaplin - legendary star of the silent movies

Live music was a key component of the silent movie experience. Just as for movies we enjoy today, music provided atmosphere, emotional cues, sound effects (like thunder or galloping horses), or danger warnings. The difference was – the musicians were playing live, in the theatre.

It was on one of these trips up the mid north coast that Frank met his wife-to-be, Dorothy, in Kempsey. She was one of 13 children.

Dorothy’s family had a tailoring shop; she did the hand stitching on men’s suits as well as caring for their invalid mother upstairs. In time, Frank and Dorothy were free to marry. He purchased the last available block of land in James Street, Hamilton. No. 21 had been the work yard of the adjacent brick foundry. They had one child, a daughter Jan.

When the war was over, business improved as the men returned home. The factory was enlarged. Fred Barrie varied his product line to include grandfather clocks. He had developed an interest in clocks after a trip to Europe. Frank was recalled to work with his old boss, hand crafting the timber cabinets that housed the clock mechanism and pendulum. Like the furniture, some of the clocks had delicate scroll work and other decorative motifs, for which contractors would be engaged.

Frank was to become head cabinetmaker.

Frank Standen with grandfather clock cabinet 
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Barrie’s still made furniture, but fewer of the heavy pre-war pieces. Occasional tables, writing desks, dining suites and Queen Anne dressing tables were part of the range.

A Fred Barrie sideboard with framed photographs of the Cedar Monarch in the background
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Ladies writing desk
This Fred Barrie piece is treasured by Rhonda White
Photograph from the personal collection of Rhonda White

I recognised several pieces of Fred Barrie furniture when visiting the home of Mrs Ada Bizzari, one of the early owners of the Northern Star Cafe. They looked as perfect as when they had emerged from the Barrie workshop.

Frank continued working at Barrie’s for the rest of his life – almost 60 years, until he died aged 78.

Frank Standen at work 
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Fred Barrie was a Christadelphian. According to Denis Anderson, who worked in the business for several years in the 1980s before setting up on his own [3] - there was no swearing and a strong work ethic in the workshop, although Fred always enjoyed a joke. His role was to run the business, dealing with clients, choosing timbers for each job, and machining the initial lengths. Then the cabinetmakers took over.

Geoff Barrie, Fred Barrie's son (far right), Frank Standen (second from right) and staff at Fred Barrie’s Furniture (n.d.)
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Living so close to his place of work, Frank walked home for lunch, which Dorothy always had waiting for him. On his way back to work, he would stop off at The Kent Hotel for a beer. This was a lifetime routine. The family never owned a car – it wasn’t necessary.

Jan Pilcher (Frank Standen's daughter) outside his former home at 21 James Street (September, 2013)

As the post-war Italian migrants moved into Hamilton[4], Frank often expressed concern about how things were changing. He worried about the impact on jobs, and of course, on his beloved Kent.

Then Fred Barrie took on a couple of Italians as apprentices. They proved to be excellent tradesmen as well as personable young men. Frank’s fears dissipated as he got to know not only the boys, but also their fathers.

Fred Barrie grandfather clocks became much sought after. Frank’s daughter Jan had always longed for one but the budget had never been able to stretch quite that far.

On her 60th birthday, her long-held wish was granted. Jan’s family tracked down a Fred Barrie grandfather clock for her over the internet. Its authenticity was confirmed by the small plaque hidden inside the cabinet. The family managed to convince its owner that it was going to a good home – the wife of the man who crafted it. What better home than this?

Barrie's Grandfather and Grandmother Clocks
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher

Could the elegance of which Margaret Colditz wrote have had something to do with Fred Barrie’s wife, Alice? A reluctant grandmother at 47, she preferred to be called Jan by her grand children. When she died in 2012 aged 106, her obituary in the Newcastle Herald reported her granddaughter Trudi Bean saying:

“When we were little, Jan seemed like the most glamorous woman we knew. She had a walk in wardrobe, with lots of shoes and hats, and the girls were allowed to try on her shoes, hats and beads, passing on her clip-on earrings because they hurt too much.”

Her grandson Warren Mair described her like this:

“If other grandmothers were like classical music, then Alice was like rock and roll.”

Her long life, she said, could be attributed to two sherries a day - not to mention chocolate ginger! [5]

There was a bit more to the story. Warren Mair explained to me that in their 50s, due to Fred’s gout, his grandparents embraced healthier living with a passion. Fresh, raw foods, nuts and seeds, and juices became part of their diet.

Perhaps this stylish woman, whose favourite colours were red and purple, wore Estee Lauder Youth Dew perfume, and referred to husband Fred as “the boyfriend,” influenced the designs coming out of the shop. We can’t be sure, but we do know she was a great asset to the business, entertaining their clients at their showroom home in Adamstown.

Mrs Alice Barrie (2007)
Photograph courtesy of Hunter Lifestyle Magazine

In her generous hospitality, she followed in the footsteps of her own grandfather, Alfred Harvey. A “leading citizen of the day,” Alfred Harvey  was the owner of the Royal Coffee Palace, Scott Street, Newcastle. This unique “coffee palace” had 40 rooms and a dining room that could accommodate 100 guests, supplying 2000 meals a day.[6]

Denis Anderson says that his decision to make furniture the traditional way is a legacy from Fred Barrie and Frank Standen – men who at the time of his apprenticeship, were old enough to be his grandfather.

“I love the process of designing and creating for a customer and using excellent timbers to produce a piece that will stay in a family for generations,”  Denis says.

Fred Barrie at his home amidst his own hand crafted furniture
Photograph from the personal collection of Jan Pilcher 

Neither Denis Anderson nor Warren Mair could help me unlock the secrets of the taste of the best cedar timber. Perhaps that was something Frank wanted to keep to himself – like a great cook, never divulging a special ingredient that makes all the difference to a dish.

One thing I can be sure of – although Barrie’s Furniture Shop can no longer be found at the northern end of Beaumont Street, the enthusiasm and passion of Fred Barrie and Frank Standen for fine furniture lives on in the work of at least one of their protégés.

The Laneway today, which provided back access to the factory section of Barrie's Furniture (2013)


Thank you to Mrs Jan Pilcher, Warren Mair, Trudi Bean, Rhonda White and Denis Anderson for their generous contributions.

This post was updated on 1 May, 2014.

[1] Colditz, Margaret: My Beloved Beaumont Street. M/S (1990).
[2] Years later, the photography studio was moved to the Barrie’s home. Fred Barrie was one of 8 official photographers for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Newcastle in 1954.

[4] In 1947, Lettesi (a settler group made up of nearly 150 families from the village of Lettopalena in the Abruzzo Region of Italy) initially settled in Islington but they soon expanded into the nearby suburbs of Hamilton and Mayfield. This was primarily due to Islington's proximity to the BHP steel works. Before long Hamilton (especially Beaumont Street) was to become a strong community and commercial centre for Newcastle’s Italians. More at,_New_South_Wales.

[5] Obituary for Alice Barrie, Newcastle Herald, 23 January, 2012.
[6] Hunter Lifestyle Magazine Edition 26 (2007). “Amazing Alice” by Marilyn Collins.