Melbourne and shopping have been hand in glove since the 1880s, and at its peak the city flaunted more than a dozen department stores. Today only the Big Two, Myer and DJs, remain, having weathered the economic downturns and threats posed by online shopping – so far.

Since the 1950s and ’60s there have been a swag of departures from the retail scene – Ball & Welch, Buckley & Nunn, Foy & Gibson, Mutual Store to name just a few. And more recently, who now remembers Daimaru in its former Melbourne Central home?

Seasoned shopaholics still lament the loss of Georges in 1995, but few tears are shed for Manton’s, once Melbourne’s favoured drapers.

Manton’s

Manton’s was established in 1925, specialising in fabrics and fashion, and catering to middle-class shoppers with its somewhat downbeat logo ‘It’s smart to be thrifty’.

Manton’s main competitor was Myer, and specialities included mantles, ribbons, corsets, laces, underclothing, millinery, hosiery, haberdashery, gloves and that lovely-sounding all-rounder, fancy goods.

The store was noted for its window and interior fashion displays, and lively print advertising campaigns orchestrated by the firm’s iconic advertising manager, Lallah Dredge. Stylish designs in pencil and watercolour were produced by Olga Farnsworth, Hertia Winter and, notably, by Lallah. You’ll find heaps of Manton’s haute couture creations from the 1920s in our catalogue.

L: Afternoon frock of flowered taffeta with organdie trimmings, 1929, Manton’s
R: ‘553’ Forenoon frock on bolero style of blue and plaid taffeta, Manton’s

Today, Manton’s is best known as the ghost department store that lurks behind Target’s beige facade at 236 Bourke Street. The history of this site is extraordinary, beginning with the Theatre Royal, one of Melbourne’s first entertainment venues, established here in 1855. Manton’s abutted the theatre, which it acquired and bulldozed in 1934. By 1937 the site was home to a strikingly modern six-storey art deco building designed by Jazz Age architect Harry Norris (of the Nicholas Building fame).

Manton’s fortunes had waned by the 1950s, and in 1955 the firm was bought out by GJ Coles & Co to the tune of £2 million. The site went on to became Coles’ Number-One Variety Store.

It’s thought that if you strip away Target’s exterior cladding, Manton’s horizontal Moderne facade will be revealed. One of the Melbourne Heritage Action group’s many campaigns is calling for the removal of the cladding and restoration of not only the hidden Manton’s/Coles facade but also the adjoining vestiges of the Hoyt’s De Luxe cinema, designed by William Pitt in 1915.

Exterior, Manton’s drapers, 226-236 Bourke Street, Melbourne, Lyle Fowler 1891–1969

Georges

While Manton’s targeted the middle classes, Georges’ focus was strictly on quality, from the clientele to the merchandise. For more than a century, the prestigious store was to Melbourne what Harvey Nicks is to London, Bergdorf Dorman to NYC and Isetan to Tokyo. Couture fashion, Parisian perfumes and designer cosmetics are de rigueur department-store stalwarts nowadays, but half a century ago only Georges represented international fashion and style in Melbourne.

What began as George & George’s Federal Emporium, established by brothers Willie and Harley George in 1880 and moving to its ‘Paris end of Collins Street’ location in 1889, evolved into one of the most exclusive department stores in Melbourne. The English-born George brothers honed their retail skills at London’s Whiteleys of Westbourne Grove before sailing to Melbourne in the 1870s.

Georges of Collins Street, model room, c. 1955–65, Sutcliffe Pty Ltd
(copyright restrictions apply)

Derided by some as only for snobs, to Melbourne’s elite the store was home away from home. Georges exceeded its company motto, Quod facimus, Valde facimus (What we do, we do well), offering the discerning shopper a hushed haven of deferential service, sophisticated ambience and exclusive international designer labels.

Georges was known for being the first for everything, thanks to Miss Reta Findlay, advertising manager (1937), associate director (1946) and then director (1959).

It’s not for you to compete with a popular store like Myers. You’ll never win. You need to be exclusive, different. You need to specialize and do certain things terribly well. You’ve got to get the very best, the best in the world,
things that other people don’t have.

– Miss Reta Findlay

The store’s other by-line was ‘universal providers’, and although its customers were select rather than common, its shelves were indeed stocked with every handpicked item you could wish for, reflecting the discerning taste of the store’s departmental buyers and overseas agents.

Georges’ signature attention to detail was evident at every stage in the shopping journey, including the lavish but discreet packaging. The store’s branded paper bags, boxes and wrapping paper symbolise the store’s style and legacy, and are preserved in the Library’s Ephemera collection.

At its mid-century height, Georges’ third floor was home to Young Sophisticates, offering clothing for the (slim) 16- to 60-year-old. The second-floor Young Colony department was a hit with children with its central fish tank, while fashionistas looking for the latest haute couture made their way to the first floor. Just like today’s department stores, Georges’ ground floor was reserved for perfumes and make-up – and Gucci. The Little Collins Street Hostess Store, meanwhile, offered everything for the homemaker. Changes over the years included swapping millinery for shoes, and the closure of the ladies’ cycling department and the store’s exclusive art gallery.

Georges of Collins Street, Young Colony, c. 1955–65, Sutcliffe Pty Ltd
(copyright restrictions apply)

Now that more than 20 years have passed since Georges closed its doors, it’s hard to convey a sense of the store’s sophisticated shopping experience. Stepping into the classical-revival arcaded entry via the couture-filled, glass-fronted displays. The stepped entrance to the ground floor, lightly scented by French perfumes and lit to flatter society’s best, with a dedicated Haigh’s counter and entire glove department.

Georges experienced many ups and downs in its 115-year history, swapping ownership with Ball & Welch and owned by David Jones since 1981. On its demise in 1995, Georges’ loyal customers were heard to mutter that it wasn’t the store that had failed but Melbourne, having failed to live up to the store’s standards of quality. But who can forget that heartbreaking (and wallet-breaking) farewell sale to beat all sales!

Georges Department Store, Wolfgang Sievers, 1973 (copyright restrictions apply)

The story of these lost department stores – including collection material not included in this post – currently features in our Changing face of Victoria exhibition, open daily on Level 5 of the Dome Galleries.

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This article has 5 comments

  1. According to my Aunt, Gwen Cairns (the wife of Labor leader Dr Jim Cairns) was a buyer at Manton’s in the 1930s. When Gwen Cairns attended another aunt;’s wedding in December 1938, my Grandmother thought that the once divorced,terribly chic Gwen Cairns was too ‘fast’.
    Manton’s was a store that traded to a well heeled customer and my fashion conscious Aunt,who was a factory machinist, bought an elegant hat trimmed with a bird that cost her six weeks wages on lay-by at the Bourke Street store.

  2. Payne’s Bon Marche was another store which closed in the 40’s in Bourkevst as well as Waltons

  3. Carolynne Bourne

    “Darling, always deal with the man at the top”

    I was around 10 years old and every Friday Uncle Jeff (Cleal) would drive Nanna (Ann [Jones] Cleal) to pick me up and drive us to ‘Georges’. There Uncle Jeff would wait in the car, a T-Model Ford. Nanna would be greeted at the front door by the Manager and he would show us to his office. There refreshments were provided.
    For Nanna there was tea and a two tiered stand of bite size cakes and finger sandwiches with crusts cut off. I was given a glass of milk and a plate to select pieces from the stand, then I was seated on a chair with a side table adjacent to where he and Nanna sat at his sizeable desk.
    There would be polite conversation and then Nanna would ask to be shown what she wanted to buy that week – for example gloves, veils for her hat and so forth. A purchase would be made. Graciously the Manger would walk us back to the front door.
    As we stood on the pavement waiting for Uncle Jeff to pick us up, nanna would be holding my hand and say to me , “Darling, always deal with the man at the top” … and this I have done. In my life’s journey it has stood me in great stead – I have been a Chief Medical Laboratory Scientist, a CEO and been honoured with a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

  4. Mantons became Coles’ Store 200 not number one, number one was in smith street collingwood, number 12 was on the site that is now David Jones mens’ store in Bourke st. store 200 also became Coles Head Office.

  5. My mother was a shop assistant at Foy & Gibson in 40’s & early 50’s. She fondly tells us the story of how she was given so many gifts for her upcoming wedding to my dad she couldn’t manage to carry them home on the tram. My grandfather had to drive to the city from Preston to collect her & her gifts. Clearly well regarded by her colleagues & management. She went on to work at other retail establishments including Fletcher Jones.

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