Dictionary of Sydney

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Goldsbrough Mort & Co

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Goldsbrough Mort and Co

The location of the convict colony at Sydney Town, in the south-west Pacific, meant that it soon developed as a major entrepôt for the region. Initially the export of whaling and sealing products and the sandalwood trade were major underpinnings of this, but as the colony's own industries developed, these became a major component of the export trade: wool, and later, wheat were the most important.

At the end of the nineteenth century, both Circular Quay and Ultimo were the sites of vast buildings that were manifestations of the industry underpinning much of the colony's wealth: these were the wool stores, and several were owned by one of the major companies, Goldsbrough Mort and Co. Other important companies included Dalgety Co, Winchcombe Carson and Co Ltd, Pitt Son and Badgery Ltd, and John Bridge and Co.

When John Macarthur imported the first fine merino sheep for his property, Elizabeth Farm, at Parramatta, he could not have envisaged how far the future development of the convict colony would be beholden to his vision. But both the early economic development of, and geographic expansion within, the eastern colonies of Australia were largely due to the growth of the pastoral industry. As the saying 'Home on a sheep's back' implied, Australia rode to international prosperity on the wool industry.

While the sheep that had arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet were primarily a food source, this began to change in 1797 with the arrival of the first Spanish merinos. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden were concentrating on their selective breeding programs and aiming for fine wool rather than meat. Their vision paid off, for by 1838 sheep had moved into every Australian colony, the annual wool clip was over two million kilos, and wool had become Australia's main export.

TS Mort and the wool trade

It was within this context that in 1843 Thomas Sutcliffe Mort established Mort & Co in Sydney, as an auctioneering and brokering business specifically focusing on selling wool. Mort was born in 1816 in England, and had come to Sydney in February 1838, seeking ways to restore the family fortunes. He became a clerk in Aspinall, Browne & Co, later Gosling, Browne & Co, and gained extensive experience in local and international commerce. He was not the first to auction wool in Sydney but he began regular sales where wool alone was offered, drawing specialised sellers and buyers together from around the world.

By 1850 Mort had become the premier auctioneer in Sydney and was already wealthy. In the 1850s he provided facilities for growers to consign wool through him for sale in London. These additions completed an integrated set of services to pastoralists that formed the pattern for later wool-broking firms. Mort also experimented with many business ventures outside the wool industry, and in March 1855 he opened Mort's Dry Dock at Waterview Bay (Balmain). By the end of that decade, as a result of both inflation and successful speculation in pastoral properties, he was a very wealthy man. But for many years the Dock's profits were disappointing: it was grossly over-capitalised and was a major drain on his funds, and in the mid-1860s Mort began to look to refrigeration as a possible solution to the three main problems his various businesses faced: as a pastoral financier he was vulnerable to falling wool prices on the value of pastoral assets; as owner of a large engineering plant, he was anxious for manufacturing orders; and as a milk and butter producer he wanted better access to the Sydney market from his dairy properties on the south coast.

Goldsbrough Mort is born

The company merged with the Melbourne firm of R Goldsbrough & Co in 1888 to form Goldsbrough Mort & Co. The new company was in a commanding position, and its wool stores were a major physical presence in Sydney by the end of the nineteenth century. Over the twentieth century, Goldsbrough Mort & Co continued to grow, and the wool industry was a major employer in the Pyrmont and Ultimo area from the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century.

In 1962 Goldsbrough Mort & Co merged with Elder Smith & Co, to form Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort & Co Ltd. Consolidation continued, and in 1981 Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort & Co Ltd merged with Henry Jones IXL to form Elders IXL which today trades as Elders.

While the great wool stores that once surrounded Circular Quay have long gone, some of the buildings in Ultimo remain, as a reminder of the glory days: some have even been recycled. The Wattle Street wool stores group, all located along the east side of Wattle Street are among the finest examples of the Federation warehouse style remaining in Sydney. In each case, the buildings occupy the whole of their blocks through to Jones Street. The Goldsbrough Mort Building was erected in 1881, and in 1922 an additional three floors were added. The original building was burned down in 1935 and the present building went up on the site. In turn, it was converted into apartments in 1995.

The architecture of these buildings demonstrates a sophisticated use of brickwork for decorative effect. Nearly all the wool stores exhibit variations on post and beam construction techniques for their internal structures: the use of hardwood timber being taken to its ultimate extent, well after the advent of metal structural elements. There are few surviving comparable examples of buildings where timber construction is used at this scale, nor with the sophistication demonstrated through the range of these buildings. The group are also significant elements in the Ultimo streetscape.


Alan Barnard, 'Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 5, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974, pp 299–301

'Goldsbrough Mort Woolstores', Sydney Architecture Images website, http://www.sydneyarchitecture.com/PYR/PYR14.htm, viewed 26 February 2009

'Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort and Company No 3 Woolstore', Australian Heritage Database online, http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=2341, viewed 26 February 2009