Michelmore and More

Written by Vicky Bowden of the Sugar City Art Deco and Modernism Society | Published May 2022

Numerous Mackay families made their commercial mark on our regional town, many trading successfully for many decades.  As Mackay grew post-first world war (and post cyclone) so did the need for new premises to operate out of.  As was typical of the time and popular taste, many of these were built in the Art Deco style. 

One such building that still exists today is Chaseley House on Sydney Street, designed and built by the formidable team of architect Harold Vivien Marsh-Brown and McDonald’s builders, for the Michelmore family.  This new retail premises was built in the same place on Sydney Street as Michelmore’s former wholesale and grocery store. By the time Chaseley House was completed in 1937, the Michelmore family had been trading in Mackay for well over 40 years, the original wholesale merchant business having been started by John Alfred Michelmore in 1891.

The story of John Alfred’s meteoric rise from 17-year-old English boy, fresh off his second trip to Australia, to stalwart of the Mackay business community is described in his obituary, printed in the Daily Mercury in January 1947. His early experiences working at the Meadowlands mill and as a Jackaroo at Fort Cooper and Lake Elphinstone were followed by an appointment with merchant’s Byrne Brothers, from where he went on to establish his own business, Michelmore and Co., with the backing of William Bagley and Edmund Dimmock. He forged close associations, and friendships, with other local businessmen – Albert Cook of Greenmount being one of them – and like Albert studied weather patterns, and practised water divining.  Albert Cook was a pallbearer at John Alfred’s funeral.  When he died, John Alfred’s business had grown to a staff of 220 employees with numerous establishments, retail and wholesale, established in the Mackay district.  John Alfred left an estate valued at just short of £160,000, a substantial sum in today’s terms.

One thing that puzzled me was where the name Chaseley came from.  Very likely (and thanks to local historian Glen Hall for the tip that sent me down this path) it would seem that the name came through the Michelmore family by marriage. 

John Alfred Michelmore’s daughter Mary May married William Wright, and his sister, born in 1896, was called Emma Chaseley Wright.  William’s sister Ethel Jean also called her daughter Chaseley Joyce, when she was born in 1920, so clearly the name meant something to the family. Earlier still William Wright’s father Samuel Bryant Wright had a sister called Emma Sophia Chaseley Wright.  Emma Sophia was born in 1849 whilst the family was travelling to Australia from England, on board the sailing ship Chaseley.  This vessel was one of three ships chartered by the Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang to bring free immigrants from London to Brisbane. The passengers on these three shipshad been hand-picked by Dr Lang; described as “the cream of the British Artisan Classes, endowed with more than the average intellectual equipment”.  The immigrants (214 had boarded in 1848) arrived in Moreton Bay in May 1849 after enduring 120 days at sea.  Writing in “The voyage of the Sailing Ship Chaseley” Kevin Dickson relates that bad weather washed away all livestock very early on their voyage and the passengers lived on salted beef, pork and butter.  Rats were in plague proportions, taking food from tables. Not the best environment to give birth in!

It seems very likely then that the ss Chaseley (and one of its youngest passengers) was to go on to be immortalised in Mackay’s rich Art Deco heritage long after it docked in Australia.

The newly built Chaseley House opened in December 1937 to much fanfare.  A Daily Mercury article published the same day describes the premises in some detail:

“Erected in reinforced concrete, having two floors at the levels of 13 feet and 12 feet, the building covers an area of 56 feet by 72 feet…internally the building has been set with lime and painted in soft shades of cream…externally the building is faced with Cement Plaster…the shop fronts have been erected in stainless steel mouldings, and all facings are of polished red granite.  The name of the building, Chaseley House, is moulded in Terra Cotta, and the name of J Michelmore & Co Pty Ltd is conspicuous in chrome plated metal lettering.”  Chaseley House was to be home to Michelmore’s Crockery, Radio, Electrical and Toy division. Other premises dealt in wholesale hardware, wine and spirits, confectionery, stationery and general merchandise.  Michelmore’s were also agents for bookings on several passenger ship lines, and for insurance.

In 1966 Michelmore’s published a 75th Anniversary brochure showcasing their long association with Mackay, a copy of which is held by the State Library of Queensland.  By that time the company’s wide footprint in Mackay’s commercial district had expanded to numerous retail premises, 16 warehouses, 4 hotels – including the Whitsunday International Hotel on Victoria Street which Michelmore’s built, over 350 employees and 20 trading departments selling everything from crockery to car oil.  Huge growth from the humble beginnings of a fledgling business employing a carter and a boy.


Ambassador Hotel – Style Risen from the Ashes

Ambassador Hotel – Style Risen from the Ashes

Written by Vicky Bowden of the Sugar City Art Deco and Modernism Society | Published September 2021 Behind Mackay’s Art Deco facade hide many stories of the people who designed, built, owned, lived and worked in these buildings over the span of close to 100 years....

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