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When Winn’s was the place to shop, eat, and dance

As a small boy in Newcastle, NSW, in the 1960s, I remember Winn’s store mostly for its cafeteria where, if I was lucky on a day out with my Mum, I might be treated to my favourite salmon sandwich and chocolate milkshake.

Winn’s was a revered Newcastle retail institution with a history that stretched back to October 1878, when local brothers Isaac and William Winn and William Winn’s widowed sister-in-law Marian Aird decided to set up shop as drapers on Hunter Street. The brothers had been raised in Newcastle, mostly by their mother, Harriett, since their father James Winn had died in 1855. Their parents had migrated to Australia from Lincolnshire, England, assisted by the Australian Agricultural Company, which employed James Winn as a carpenter until he fell from a horse (possibly while drunk), suffering injuries that contributed to his death.

A year after her husband died Harriet Winn set up a shop in her home at Hamilton – the site of the present St Peter’s Church of England. According to the potted family history included in Margaret Winn’s biography of pioneering psycho-analyst Roy Coupland Winn (The Continual Inner Search), Harriet’s home was the site of the first Methodist church services in the area. Harriet also produced and sold a traditional family medical remedy known as “Coupland’s Eradica”.

The two brothers had gone to Melbourne to work for a wholesale drapery business, perhaps with an eye to trade in Newcastle. After the successful launch in Newcastle of W. Winn and Co, Marian Aird stayed a few years before moving on and setting up a business of her own.

The first Winn’s shop employed only one assistant and had a frontage just 5m wide. The family lived in the building, with some of their living rooms immediately behind the shop. It didn’t take long before the needs of the growing business forced the family to give up its dining room and from then the store kept expanding. In February 1901 the Winns bought a large block of land behind their shop and built a big new show-room they called “The Palace”, which ultimately ended up with frontages to Brown and King Streets as well as to Hunter Streets. Crockery and kitchenware were added to the store, as were clothing and mercery.

Winn’s store in Hunter Street, August 3, 1897. Photo by Ralph Snowball.

When Isaac Winn’s son – who had joined the business in 1897 – became manager in 1906, his uncle William was freed to move to Sydney where he opened more businesses in Redfern, Oxford Street and later Winn’s at Camperdown.

In 1903 Winn’s became a limited liability company with the two founding brothers remaining as governing directors.

Pages from an early Winn’s catalogue.
Winn’s was an obliging retailer, as this card to a Hunter Valley customer demonstrates

The store built up: two storeys came in 1908 and then in 1910 a three-storey building replaced the original shop and what had once been the old Hunter River Hotel. The Winns bought out neighbours Pike’s boot shop, Ruggero’s fruiterers and the Paragon Hotel in 1912. By the late 1920s Winn’s had more than 200 employees, a garage full of delivery vehicles and of course its kitchen and luncheon rooms.

Winns: circa 1920.
Janet and William Winn and family. Photo courtesy of the Historic Houses Trust.
Winn’s: January 1940.
Busy scene outside Winns in Hunter Street, Newcastle, September 3, 1939.

According to a history of the store written by Gwyneth Robertson, the famous Shortland Room was opened in 1936, followed by the Regency and Empress Rooms in 1964. Formal functions were evidently a substantial business for Winn’s. In later years the firm opened branches in Belmont, Cessnock and Cardiff.

Eight-hour Day procession outside Winn’s store in Oxford Street, Sydney, circa 1930.

In 1967 Winn’s took over neighbouring Cox Bros and in 1969 Winn’s Newcastle store was amalgamated with its Sydney counterpart.

The old firm went into liquidation in 1978, when its branches in the Hunter were sold and the Newcastle business was cut back and the building sold. On January 19, 1980 Winn’s closed its doors in Newcastle for good. The Sydney store survived a little longer, shifting from Oxford Street to Redfern in 1973 but finally succumbing in 1982.

At the Sulphide Corporation ball at Winn’s Shortland Room in 1961. Photo by Ron Morrison.

According to Ms Robertson’s history – based on interviews with former Winn’s employees – the company was an extremely friendly and loyal employer, particularly during hard times such as the Great Depression, when staff members were carefully interviewed to ensure that those who needed the money most got the most hours of work. Leftover food went to charity and the company was a major donor to local charities.

Shortland Room stewards, November 1960. Photo by Ron Morrison.

Long-time employee Miss Anne Griffiths – who joined the firm in 1921 at the age of 14 – recalled the years when merchandise was displayed on stands outside the front doors and “dog wallopers” were hired to keep strays from soiling the goods. It was said that artist Sir William Dobell once filled this role for Winn’s.

Winn’s as I remember it, in the 1960s. Photo by Russ Hughes.

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