Dictionary of Sydney

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Beard Watson Limited

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Beard Watson Limited

Beard Watson & Co was a Sydney retailer and manufacturer of high-class furnishings for the home, renowned especially for its quality furniture. Located in George Street between King and Barrack streets, the company was founded in 1889 from the remains of the furnishing retailer Mark Albery & Co, following the dissolution of the partnership between Mark Albery and William Henry Beard. The new partnership consisted of Beard, a work colleague James Kebblewhite and James Henry Watson, formerly the head of the furnishing department at David Jones. [1]

Initially Beard Watson focused on the retail of fine furnishing fabrics and floor coverings. The company's pretention to high quality was demonstrated both by its advertisements of 'Artistic' furnishings and its display at Sydney's Society of Artists Exhibition in 1897 of stock designed specifically for Beard Watson by celebrated English designers: a Walter Crane carpet and a Lewis Day silk and wool tapestry fabric. [2] However, the company had even loftier ambitions: in 1901 it amalgamated with high-quality furniture manufacturer Walker, Sons and Bartholomew to form Beard Watson Limited. [3]

Expansion and growth

The newly invigorated company experienced a growth spurt over this period. Firstly, the neighbouring retail space on George Street was acquired, doubling the size of display and work space for its 130 employees. In 1906, two additional floors were added, creating a five-storey building in which could be displayed 33 model rooms: dining and drawing rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. The top floor became a workshop where up to 150 people were employed to make up fabrics into curtains, valances and other furnishing drapery, and where imported standard-length carpet strips were sewn into rugs of various sizes. In 1913 an extension through to the rear of the building created a York Street entrance. Finally in 1923 a further building was acquired on George Street – Beard Watson now extended across three shop frontages at 359–63 George Street. [4]

[media]The additional retail space allowed Beard Watson to expand its range of goods for sale. After 1920, when the company's name changed slightly to Beard Watson & Co Limited, it had diversified beyond furniture, floor coverings and furnishing fabrics into glassware, dinnerware and other ceramics, household linen and kitchenware. Canberra's Calthorpe's House was almost entirely furnished and installed by Beard Watson in 1927, following a two-day shopping spree by Mrs Della Calthorpe that cost the family over £705 (over twice the average annual wage in this period). [5] In 1929, the company had a permanent display of 64 fully furnished rooms in its George Street store.

Beard Watson attempted to maintain a high reputation in all aspects of its business. According to a spokesman for the company in 1917, 'our determination is to cater for the medium class trade as well as for the more expensive'. [6] This is demonstrated in advertisements that appeared throughout the 1920s and 1930s in The Home, a prestigious magazine for the well-heeled consumer. Beard Watson also supplied furnishings for a number of artist-designed 'modern' rooms at the celebrated 1929 Burdekin House exhibition. [7] In addition, regular art and craft exhibitions were held in store from at least as early as 1913. Exhibitions helped create a sophisticated image for the company, as demonstrated by the Wedgewood display in 1935 that attracted the support and associated publicity of Lady Hore-Ruthven, the wife of the Governor of New South Wales. [8]

Beard Watson is probably best remembered nowadays for manufacture of quality furniture. A 1917 article stated of Beard Watson that the

furniture it sells, and particularly the furniture it produces, is distinguished at once for its good workmanship and for its artistic beauty. [9]

In 1913 the company had moved its production to a new purpose built five-storey factory and warehouse designed by architects HE Ross and Rowe in Phillip Street Redfern. Furniture was manufactured by its 150 employees from a large range of both local and imported timbers. In addition, new machinery, such as a steaming and bending press to make 'Austrian' (bentwood) chairs, placed it at the vanguard of furniture manufacturing in Australia. After 1934, Beard Watson also made furniture under license for English firm, Parker-Knoll. [10]

The business extended beyond the production line to custom fit-outs of public and commercial buildings. Beard Watson advertised that it could work with architects to design the best furniture and furnishings for a particular job. A design service was offered from at least the 1930s, and by the 1960s free expert advice from some of Sydney's leading interior decorators was available for customers. [11]

Takeover and decline

In 1959, hardware retailer Nock & Kirby took over Beard Watson as it attempted to diversify and expand its business. Beard Watson, however, continued to trade under its own name. By this time, furniture retailing in central Sydney had begun to contract as rents rose and the population moved further from the city and closer to the purpose-built suburban shopping centres which had begun to appear. In an attempt to follow this trend, the company opened branch stores in Canberra (1955), Wollongong (1960) and the Sydney suburbs of Gordon (1957) and Dee Why (1963).

In order to combat less than successful sales at its city store, in 1964 the fifth floor was turned over to an 'economy furniture section' to broaden its customer base. Then in 1966, the city building was sold to insurance giant AMP with the bottom three floors leased back by Beard Watson, halving the size of the original store. Hampered by poor sales and high rents, the city store finally closed in early 1973. In May 1973, electrical and furniture retailer 'Sydney Wide' opened their 28th branch on the site of Beard Watson's George Street store. [12]


[1] Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1889, p 1; Journal of the Retail Traders' Association of NSW, January 1930, p 14; Diane Langmore, 'Watson, James Henry (1841–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 12, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990, pp 399–400, available online at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-james-henry-9002/text15773, viewed 15 July 2011

[2] The Society of Artists Spring Exhibition, October 2nd 1897, Catalogue, Sydney, p 29

[3] Beard Watson Ltd, Company packet # 2016, State Records New South Wales, 3/5746

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 1906, p 11; 24 June 1913, p 7; 13 September 1913, p 19

[5] Anne Bickford, Calthorpes' House Museum Guide, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1987, p 11; Wray Vamplew, (ed), Australians: historical statistics, Fairfax Syme & Weldon Associates, Sydney, 1987, pp 145–65

[6] 'Furniture Making in Australia: a visit to Beard Watson's factory', The Australian Manufacturer, 28 April 1917, p 14

[7] The Burdekin House exhibition: catalogue, Sydney, 1929, [pp 69–71]

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1935, p 4

[9] 'Furniture Making in Australia: a visit to Beard Watson's factory', The Australian Manufacturer, 28 April 1917, p 14

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1913, p 12; Stephen Bland, Take a seat: the history of Parker Knoll 1834–-1994, Baron, Whittlebury, 1995, p 147

[11] Building, 12 August 1932, p 42; Australian House & Garden, October 1963, p 119

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1964, p 123; 15 December 1972, p 1; 18 March 1973, p 96