Showing posts with label Gow's Drapery Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gow's Drapery Hamilton. Show all posts

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Knowing the Gow family of Fettercairn, Hamilton

There was no celebratory clinking of glasses of Scotch whisky when Fanny Gow, aged 42, gave birth to a boy in 1886, after 10 girls in succession. Temperance was the watchword of this prominent Hamilton family. Ramsay Gow, Fanny’s husband, was a foundation member of the Sons of Temperance, a member-only organization devoted to a life of abstinence from alcohol. Fanny herself was a great worker for the temperance cause, though her father was a publican.

It has always intrigued me that Ramsay Gow is celebrated for his contribution to Hamilton, but it is his wife’s story that really fascinates.

Ramsay married Frances (‘Fanny’) Birkby in 1860. Her father Thomas Birkby was by then the owner of the White Horse Inn at Maitland, but he had had a varied career, including as an overseer of convicts, and a police constable.

Ramsay and Fanny’s much awaited first son was named Walter Ramsay Stuart. Two years later, another boy William Allen Hodge, was born.

Walter’s daughter Vera Carter (nee Gow), spoke at a large Gow family reunion in 1996.[1] Her speech filled in many of the details that were missing when I wrote the original blog post on Fettercairn.

‘I imagine there was often an enormous sigh of relief that (my grandmother’s ) biological clock had run down,’ said Vera. She continued:

‘After all the years of ceaseless childbearing, one would expect Fanny to retire gracefully and put her feet up.’

Of their 13 children, nine had survived. Fanny still had a large family to take care of, but in time, this energetic woman wanted something more. Not just for herself and her family, but for the women of Hamilton who sewed and knitted clothes for large families. She knew exactly what was needed.

In the mid 1890s, around a decade after bearing her 13th child, Fanny Gow embarked on a new career. As Vera explained:

‘Newcastle was expanding towards Hamilton and beyond, and Gow and Co., Drapers and Milliners, Montrose House, Beaumont Street, Hamilton came into being, due to her enterprise, energy and initiative – supported of course by Ramsay. ‘

An asset to Beaumont Street, the department store prospered, rivalling Scott’s and Winn’s in Newcastle.

Gow’s Drapery (Montrose House), corner of Beaumont and Cleary Street, Hamilton, 15 August 1898
A discount chemist now occupies this site
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

In 1903, building began on the Gow’s new home, to be called Fettercairn after Ramsay’s Scottish origins. Of a grand scale even today, the Victorian style mansion would have been seriously impressive then. At last, after 14 years’ hard work consolidating the business, the Gow family would have a substantial home that stood as a testament to their success.

Ramsay Gow experienced great losses in his childhood, learning early to be independent. He was born to John and Jean Gow, a year after his parents arrived in Australia from Fettercairn, Scotland. Together John and Jean had eight children, but their father John died when he was just 44. Ramsay was 4 years old. His mother Jean died when he was 10, and he went to live, not altogether happily, with his older brother David and wife Margaretta. After leaving school, Ramsay first worked for David, but soon left to join the Department of Navigation.

Ramsay never visited David and Margaretta again, remaining in the Department of Navigation for 28 years.

When Ramsay Gow retired from the Department of Navigation in 1901, he would have only six years of productive life ahead of him. Apparently a quiet and dignified man, he was a JP, a member of the Agricultural Society, the Hamilton Bowling Club and of course, the Sons of Temperance. Ramsay devoted himself to acquiring and managing real estate, and died in 1907 of a cerebral thrombosis. He was 67.

The Gow family residence, Fettercairn, at Lindsay Street, Hamilton, 22 April 1904
Photograph courtesy Newcastle Region Library

How sad it was that Ramsay and Fanny had so little time together to enjoy what they had worked so hard to create.

Fanny gifted a set of gates at the entrance of Gregson Park to the Hamilton Municipal Council, to honour her husband.

Vera Carter tells how her father Walter began working in the store at the age of 14. He took over from Fanny around 1906, a year before Ramsay’s death.

When I interviewed the four remaining ‘Gow girls ‘ – former employees who as as young women had worked behind the counters at Gow’s in the early 1940s and 1950s - they told me that Walter Gow was by then the owner. Their interactions were mainly with the manager, Ray Hitchcock, but they recall Mr Gow coming in at 10 am every morning to do his rounds of the counters. More fascinating details about the inner workings of the store are  here.

The store closed sometime in the 1960s. The world of retail was changing, as were customer shopping patterns and expectations. It appears Gow’s may not have kept pace with the times

Of Fanny, Vera writes:

Fanny wasn’t a cuddly grandma, she seems to have been respected rather than loved. Her grandchildren were in awe of her, and she would not allow them to use the front staircase, insisting they use the back stairs. She was religious, strong minded and energetic, and it is obvious she ruled her family and the staff of Gow and Co. with a very firm hand..’

Fanny Gow died at Fettercairn in 1923, having lived in the grand house for 16 years as a widow.

What then for Fettercairn?

The history of Fettercairn is told in the blog post ‘Survival of a stately home’ including its time as a private hospital and a boarding house for students from the country.

The future of the historic house came to public notice after the 1989 earthquake, when the then owner, Newcastle surgeon Dr James Holley, applied to Newcastle City Council for permission to demolish it. He had bought the property in 1978, and devoted almost a decade to its restoration.

After heated community debate, permission was refused, because of its local environmental heritage. Three or more years in limbo followed, until in 1994, Fettercairn found a new owner – Newcastle printmaker and photographer Philip Gordon. After 18 months of meticulous restoration work, Philip was able to open the Lindsay Street Gallery. Upwards of 75 exhibitions would be staged there.

Notes of ideas for exhibitions to be held at the Lindsay Street Gallery, Hamilton
Philip Gordon, mid 1990s

Meanwhile, the Gow descendants had scattered far and wide, but the threat to their ancestral home had spurred some of them to arrange a family reunion. Through  a collection of letters left by Philip Gordon to the current owners of Fettercairn, we get a sense of what the preservation of this house meant to the family.

Frances East, granddaughter of Ramsay and Fanny, and daughter of Ethel Alice (4th daughter) met Philip and Theresa Gordon in mid 1996, following the reunion. The restoration of Fettercairn was complete and first art exhibition had just been opened in the Lindsay Street Gallery. With other relatives, Frances had been invited to see the house.

On return to her home in Christchurch, Frances wrote a letter of thanks to the Gordons:

‘There’s no need to say that the Gow reunion was a great success in every way – and our visit to my Grandparents’ home was a nostalgic experience. As I told you, I stayed at Fettercairn many times until my Grandmother died – something no other person at the reunion had done. It was a great experience to have you both show us around and we were very impressed with the love with which you had so painstakingly restored the grand old home and retained all the ‘bits and pieces’ that you found during the restoration period. We were very touched with the retention of the torn up and slightly charred letter written by my much loved Aunt Katie (Harris).[2]

Restoration of Fettercairn in progress
Photograph by Philip Gordon

Vera Carter, another granddaughter of Ramsay and Frances, daughter of Walter Ramsay Stuart Gow, wrote to Theresa and Phil on 27 August, 1996 thanking them for inviting them to the opening of the Lindsay Street Gallery:

It was a great occasion and you have a wonderful collection of paintings. As I told you, we were almost reconciled to the thought that Fettercairn would disappear and to have it restored so beautifully is almost a miracle. I’m sure Grandfather Ramsay and Grandma Frances Gow would be delighted.’ [3]

In a later note, Frances East echoed Vera’s sentiment, speaking for all the Gow descendants:

‘…we are all delighted that people like you both, who have so lovingly restored our old family home with great care and interest, are the new owners.’[4]

Restoring the archways required the bricks to be cut individually to form a curve
Photograph by Philip Gordon

In 2000, Fettercairn changed hands again, returning to its past use as a family residence. In September 2014, photographer Craig Smith and I took a group of Lost Newcastle followers on a walk to explore Hamilton’s historic past. Always mindful of the privacy of people who reside in historical places, we were unexpectedly invited in by its present owners. Everyone was in awe of the way they have taken custodianship of this beautiful house, which continues to be a grand Victorian residence.

In the Fettercairn entrance hall is a glass case with memorabilia of the Gow family
This photograph is of a Gow family portrait. Members have been identified
by descendant Frances East
Standing at rear:
Ethel Alice Victoria 3rd daughter 1875-1959 (mother of Frances East)
Edith Annie 2nd daughter 1869-1943
Lucy Theresa 4th daughter 1872-1966
Adults seated:
Lydia Frances 1st daughter 1867-1951
Ramsay Stuart Gow 1840-1907
Frances Theresa (Fanny) 1844-1923
Seated next to Lydia (left) is Beatrice, 6th daughter 1881-1969
Seated next to Frances is:
Jessie Milne 5th daughter 1880-1966
On floor left to right:
Walter Ramsay Stuart 1st son 1886-1962 (father of Vera Carter)
William Allan Hodge 2nd son 1888-1969
Catherine Ross Gow 7th daughter 1884-1962

Photograph by Craig Smith, taken of a photograph in Fettercairn 2014, courtesy of the current owners


Thank you to the current owners, who shared documents and photographs passed to them by Philip Gordon. Philip Gordon generously assisted Hidden Hamilton with information for the original post.

Related posts

[1] Speech ‘The Gow Family Succession’ by Vera Carter given at the Gow Family Reunion, 1996. Further quotes from this speech are in italics, not referenced.
[2] Letter from Frances East to Philip and Theresa Gordon, 29 September, 1996. 
[3] Letter from Vera Carter to Theresa and Philip Gordon, 27 August 1996. 
[4] Letter from Frances East to Philip Gordon, 17 October 1996. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Inside Gow's Drapery - the Gow Girls

The first trainload of migrants passing through Hamilton waved wildly to the crowds of spectators gathered along Beaumont Street. Men and women alike, the ‘new Australians’ stretched precariously out of windows the length of the train, as if they wanted to physically touch the people welcoming them. They were on their way from Newcastle to a migrant camp inland, thence to a job, and hopefully, a new and better life.

The staff from Gow’s Drapery had left their counters for a few minutes to join the crowds, and be part of history.

I heard about this excitement in Hamilton from four women who began their working lives at Gow’s Drapery in the 1940s – early 1950s. Within this brief window in their lives, between leaving school and getting married, ten young women forged lifelong friendships. Over more than 60 years, they have kept in touch, sharing life’s milestones, joys and grief. Now, just four of them remain.

(L-R) Val Kavanagh (nee Stewart), Gwen Fuge (nee Bailey), Phyllis Watson (nee Marks) and Joan Little (nee Watson)
The women meet each month for lunch in one another’s homes
Photograph courtesy of Aurora, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

Gow’s, on the corner of Beaumont and Cleary Streets, where a Discount Chemist now stands, was also known as Montrose House. In its hey-day in the 1920s, it rivalled even the city stores like Winn’s and Scott’s in its advertising and range of merchandise. One of the earliest department stores, Gow’s Drapery closed in the early 1960s.

Gow & Co. Store, Hamilton, NSW 15 August, 1898
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, 
in Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, NSW

I’d already written a post about ‘Fettercairn’, (the story is here) the stately home in Lindsay Street, Hamilton that Ramsay Gow had built in 1903 for his wife and large family. Nine of their twelve children survived, and Ramsay himself died in 1907.

It is said that Ramsay’s wife Frances (Fanny), daughter of a Maitland publican, was the driving force behind the store. I wanted to know more about the store itself – what it was like working there, what was sold, how staff were treated. Meeting these four wonderful women was my opportunity.

By the time our four women were starting work at Gow’s, the store owner was Mr Walter Gow, Ramsay’s son. The Manager was Mr Ray Hitchcock, fondly known as ‘Hitch’.

For decades, Gow’s had been a reliable source of retail employment for young school leavers, especially girls. Val lived around the corner, in Cleary Street, and actually ‘applied’ for a job. Phyllis lived in the same street as Mr Hitchcock. He’d known her growing up, and when she lost her job in town because she’d contracted measles, Mr Hitchcock invited her to join Gow’s.

Gwen’s mother shopped at Gow’s, supporting 7 children alone on meagre government Child Endowment payments. As soon as Gwen reached the legal school leaving age of 14 years 9 months, she left school and started work at Gow’s to help her family. It was 1947.

‘There was no interview’, confirms Gwen.

 For Joan, migrating from Wales as a young woman in 1952, it was her aunt who rang Gow’s and asked for a position for her niece. That’s how things were done in those days.

Today, walking into department stores David Jones or Myers, we are confronted with a glittering sea of cosmetic counters. I wondered what one saw first, walking into the ground floor of Gow’s?

‘Skeins of wool’, Phyllis replies. ‘A whole wall of wool’.

How priorities have changed.

Once the skeins were purchased, they had to be wound into balls at home before knitting could begin – a tedious task for which children were often enlisted to help.

On the left, the women remember, was the manchester counter – sheets, towels, blankets, quilts; on the right, haberdashery – all the things needed for home sewers. There was a long counter for measuring out fabric, one just for buttons and buckles, another for ribbons.

At the back of the store was the fashion – frocks, coats, hats, gloves, hosiery, handkerchiefs, underwear – with a girl in charge of each counter.

Val, and later Joan, both worked as cashiers in a wooden cubicle in the centre of the store, the cash tray in open view. Unlike the rest of the store, which had bare boards (‘I was shocked when I first saw this’, says Joan, fresh from Wales), the cubicle had linoleum to prevent the pennies shipping through the spaces between the boards.

Sales assistants did not handle cash. Instead, they wrote out a docket in duplicate for each transaction, placing it with the customer’s cash in a tube that whizzed on a high wire across the store to the cashier. The cashier would then place the correct change and one copy of the docket in the tube, sending it on its way back to the counter it had come from. For me as a child this fascinating activity took the boredom out of shopping with my mother in a similar store in Narrabri!

Staff worked a 48 hour week, extending until 9 pm on Fridays, and Saturday mornings.

The women tell me that Gow’s was ‘just like a big family – we were family’. Mr Gow came in every day at 10 am, and did his rounds of the counters. While Phyllis remembers being reported once to Mr Hitchcock by Mr Gow for ‘not smiling’, all agreed they had good bosses. Mr Hitchcock even attended a staff member’s wedding.

Wedding of Elva Roberts (10 November, 1951)
(L-R) Joan Pascoe, Dot Moore, Ray Hitchcock, Elva Roberts,
Gwen Bailey (now Fuge), Phyllis Marks (now Watson)
Photograph from the personal collection of Phyllis Watson

When each Hamilton business was asked to nominate a staff member to be its charity queen for the Hamilton Festival, and lead the fund raising for their chosen charity, it was Joan who was the lucky one.

Charity queens on stage at Gregson Park for Hamilton Festival c1953
Joan Watson (now Little), dark hair in the centre,
represented Gow’s Drapery
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Another important event on the girls’ social calendar was making their debut. Usually at the age of 17, girls attended a ball with their partners, making their first public appearance ‘in society’ as a young woman. It was their ‘coming out’. When I saw Gwen’s photographs of her debut at the Newcastle Town Hall, I asked whether there were any social barriers for girls wanting to do this.

‘Not at all’, she says. ‘We were very poor. No washing machine, no refrigerator, no vacuum cleaner. My father died aged 44. A very dear lady bought the material for my dress; a dressmaker made it up. We had a lot of help from so many beautiful people’.

Gwen Bailey (now Fuge) dressed for her debut c1950
Photograph from the personal collection of Gwen Fuge

As a child, Gwen remembers being told by her mother at meal times:

‘If I sit down without a chop on my plate, I don’t want any comment’.

When Gwen and her siblings were earning and saving, they arranged to have a washing machine delivered to their mother at home as a surprise. She sent the delivery driver away, declaring there was no way she could possibly afford to buy a washing machine. Of course, it was successfully re-delivered next day.

Easy credit for such purchases was unheard of. The first floor of Gow’s was ‘the office’ where customers went make their fortnightly payments against purchases ‘on lay-by’, or against their cash orders. Cash orders seem to be a type of loan system popular in the days before the advent of credit cards.

In time, Gow’s expanded into a building next door, which became the domain of menswear. The window displays at Gow’s were the highlight of Beaumont Street – Jimmy Canning, son of the family of Cannings Newsagents, was held in high esteem for his skills as a window dresser.

The voices of friends no longer present can still be heard as we chat in this New Lambton living room. Some of these had experienced working in Gow’s during World War II, when reels of Silko cotton were rationed. Others remember curtain material being used to make dresses as it was cheaper; short skirts were worn for the same reason. When nylon stockings were scarce, young women would colour their legs with a cream something like tanning lotion, and then use an eyebrow pencil to expertly draw a seam down the backs of their legs. What contortion – and excellent eye hand coordination - must have required!

It was marriage that brought an end to this happy period of independence for these young women, and opened the door to new life experiences. Post war, women in public sector jobs (including teachers), and in many businesses, had to resign from their positions once they married to make way for the returning men. Val married in 1951.

‘There was no sympathy’, she says. ‘I had to go immediately. They didn’t want to pay my next week’s wage’.

It was a Lord Mayor of Newcastle – no one can remember which one – who put his foot down. His recently married secretary was, he said, his ‘right arm’. He could not possibly do without her. So things began to change, and women found their rightful place in the workforce.

Reunion of staff from Gow’s Drapery, Waratah, probably May 1991
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Two other stories relating to this post are about the  Gow family and their stately home in Hamilton, 'Fettercairn.'


Thank you to Gwen Fuge, Phyllis Watson, Joan Little and Val Kavanagh for sharing their stories. Also to Cinzia Saccoro for putting me in touch with these women in the first place, and to Tracey Edstein, Editor, Aurora and Shirley McHugh, writer for Aurora.

If you can add details or images to this story, please email me at

Monday, 14 October 2013

Missing from Beaumont Street

“All these shops, but nowhere to buy a nail!”

This was my husband’s recurring lament, after we moved to live in Hamilton.

We love being in close walking distance to a wide range of shops and services. It wasn’t long, though, before we discovered some serious gaps in the retail mix.

These gaps are a priority for the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, as part of a bigger plan to attract more people to our business district. For Margaret Colditz, growing up in Beaumont Street through the 1930s to the 1950s, there were no such gaps.

In her unpublished memoir My Beloved Beaumont Street, she tells us about many of the shops and businesses. Margaret’s own story is here.

This is what she says about some of them – ones that are missing from Beaumont Street today.

I’ll start with the nails – and the old fashioned hardware shop.

Deitz’s hardware store was on the corner of Lindsay and Beaumont Street.

Advertisement in the Newcastle Herald and Miner's Advocate, 1955/56.

As a one-time Girl Guide, Margaret Colditz writes:[1]

There was kind, smiling-faced Mr Deitz. He had the most comprehensive array of hardware. He always greeted us with a bright, happy face. When we would request ‘one yard of blind cord please Mr Deitz’,he immediately knew that we belonged to St Peter’s Girl Guide Company....many a young one learned to tie a reef knot outside Mr Deitz’s shop.

Quietly, Mr Norm Agland was always ready to guide us when we had to buy our first billy can for outdoor cooking. Norm was an authority, in those times, on household effects – for example, butter coolers, meat safes, and fly papers. He helped our mothers to select new wire for their clothes lines....

I wondered if Brian Agland, who as a child used to run in and out of the house that once stood on our block, was related.

‘Norm was my father’s cousin’, Brian tells me. ‘He was tall, slim, and always wore a dust coat. He was always very calm. I would often walk up to Deitz’s with Dad on a Saturday morning and Dad would buy nails and screws by weight, and these were packed in a brown paper bag’. Read more about Brian here.

In a tragic, freak accident during a parade in 1944, Mr Norm Agland’s 70 year old mother was killed by an out-of-control horse, on the corner of Beaumont and Tudor Streets. Norm was 34.

Then there was the fish and chips shop. One can buy fish and chips in Beaumont Street today, but gone is the iconic, single purpose establishment of Margaret’s times – and it would be wonderful to be able to buy fresh fish there.

It is the stories and characters behind the shop façades that even today, make Beaumont Street unique. Margaret writes not a word about the taste of the fish and chips she bought –

Fish and Chips
Stockfood/Ken Field Photography Ltd. R.F.

but something else that lingers in her mind:

I remember with affection Tony’s Fish and Chip Shop, and his brother who had a gold front tooth. None of us had ever seen a gold front tooth. This one had come, with its proud owner, from Italy.

There is always plenty of walking to be done, as the business section of Beaumont Street is around a kilometre long. But a shoe shop today? Not one!

Mr Lee’s shoe shop .... was very elegant. One half side of the shop had Ladies’ and Children’s Footwear, while the other side was the Gentleman’s Department. If one couldn’t be fitted, Mr Lee personally measured one’s feet and arranged for shoes to be personally crafted.

Shoes 1940s
Photography courtesy

What Bunnings is to hardware today, so Spotlight is to drapery, haberdashery and manchester. Gow's Drapers was a very large shop for the times, and employed many people. Approaching Gow's, Margaret always wondered what new window display would be featured. It was Gow's the schoolgirls visited at the beginning of each school year to purchase their sewing requirements.

One yard of white lingerie lawn became converted, during the year, to a pair of Bombay Bloomers, with a spray of flowers artfully embroidered on each side. All of course, hand sewn!

Gow's also sold clothing for women and men. While Beaumont Street has an array of boutiques for women, only men who take big sizes are catered for now.

And then, the money system. No cash registers, but one all-powerful central cashier:

The assistant at the counter would put the docket and money into a cylindrical container, pull a cord, and one watched it whizz around the wires to the central cashier, to the cry, in Gow's, of ‘Change, Miss Bates!’

Read more about the Gow family  here.

Finally, a type of business we definitely no longer need – Mr Poole’s coal, coke and wood shop. It is worth checking out here, because it demonstrates, as Margaret writes, that “Trust was everywhere!”

Mr Poole’s large shed looked like a large, black cavern. Not only did it store coal, coke and wood, but there was enough room for a truck inside. Then -

At the entrance, hanging on the wall, was a black board, and some white chalk. With this, customers wrote their name and order – no need for an address, Mr Poole knew all of us. We all welcomed him as he refilled our ‘coal holes’ in the garden. We would replenish our coal scuttles and then have fun making our fires in the dining room fireplace.

Coal scuttle

While we may be missing some specific businesses in Beaumont Street, a very distinctive customer service can still be found. On Saturdays, I wend my way through the shoppers to find my special purchases – fresh pasta at Pina Deli, my favourite fetta cheese at  Nina's IGA, the best chicken at the Beaumont Street Butcher, or luscious strawberries at the Hamilton Fruit Market.

At every stop, I am reminded what customer service really is.

Like the shops Margaret Colditz remembers, cheerful greetings, attention to detail and pride in quality are still part of the Beaumont Street experience. Perhaps, after all, that is what makes a visit really memorable.

[1] Sections in italics are reproduced with permission from Margaret Colditz: My Beloved Beaumont Street. Unpublished manuscript, 1990.