Launceston in the 1840s was beginning to show the growth previously hindered by the vacillation of early governors. The French had been sniffing around the island and along the southern shoreline of the Australian continent so, in 1804, Governor King established a colony at Port Dalrymple near the mouth of the Tamar River. Between King and his successor, Governor Macquarie, the location of the main town was moved at least three times, with a site near the confluence of the Tamar and North and South Esk Rivers finally chosen by 1824.
Coincidentally, my original forebear – a lay preacher in the Presbyterian Church – held Sunday ecumenical services for up to 36 parishioners in his Rowella hallway. Seen as a positive sign to the way the northern part of the state was developing, he used it to convince the powers that be of the stability of the area and to construct The Auld Kirk at Sidmouth (albeit the funds were raised by him and others who lived in the district). The church was built and consecrated in 1843.
This was a bare handful of years after Batman and Fawkner, independent of each other, sailed out of the Tamar to establish Melbourne, still then the very southern part of New South Wales. It was a time, too, when St John’s Hospital was built (at which, in 1847, Dr William Pugh performed the first surgery in the southern hemisphere under general anaesthetic).
Because he was able to see the steady development of Launceston, now nearing forty years, a Mr Tegg established a bookshop in what was now the main thoroughfare, Brisbane Street, on the site of a previous pharmacy. It was a brave move; although the town had a goodly number of merchants doing reasonably well, there was also a certain amount of unemployment. This was eventually overcome following the end of Transportation and the discovery of gold in 1853 in the newly-named Victoria.
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The bookstore survived and developed as did its town. Launceston held the first interstate cricket match in 1851, with Tasmania defeating Victoria; in 1853, Launceston Municipal Council voted for the implementation of an underground sewage system; gold was discovered at Beaconsfield and tin at Mount Bischoff, creating a financial boom; gas lighting was introduced in 1860. The town continued to prosper, to the extent the Duck Reach hydropower station was built and commissioned by 1893, and electric street lighting introduced. In that same year, after a number of changes in ownership, the bookshop was bought by its manager and given their family name, A W Birchall and Sons.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. The First World War enlisted 1700 men from Launceston, many of whom never returned; floods in the 1920s inundated and damaged 1,000 homes and affected 4,000 people; and, of course, the Great Depression created difficult financial times, although the people of Launceston came through a lot better than many others. Cheap local electric power and plentiful supplies of water had brought substantial new industry to the town, including textile giants Kelsall and Kemp, and Patons and Baldwin. 1933 saw the Holyman family set up and operate the airline that would become ANA and, eventually, the aviation giant Ansett.
In the meantime, the Birchalls business continued to develop. Around the turn of the century came a development of which they were especially proud, the creation of the world’s first writing pad. Over the years, and I remember it at a personal level from about the late 1940s, it was a source of wonder and inspiration. By this stage, I think, it had been bought by the Tilley family who took it on to even bigger and better outcomes.
Birchalls was not only a bookshop and news agency but a stationer and purveyor of pens. Attending the store in the early 1950s with my grandfather, I was shown how to write in a fine copperplate hand by a gentleman who represented the Waterman Company. The purchase that day became my 12th birthday present.
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On another occasion, I recall the Coles store at the end of the block had a high priced, for them, American Indian warrior mounted on a horse. It was 2/6 (nominally 25c, but in reality more than $5 in today’s money). Birchalls had a range of gift items, including a number of similar characters, and I was certain I’d seen the same there. I had. Theirs was better quality, and it was 2/3, leaving enough change to pop around to Mrs Gourlay for a packet of mixed lollies!
This is a personal account as much as it is a history, for which I make no apology. I shopped at Birchalls for some seventy years, whenever in Launceston, and in fact made my most recent purchase – a book – a month ago in early December. The closure will be a personal loss because of association but, sadly, it is also expressive of a greater loss as modern reading needs change. As I’ve said before, there is nothing to compare with the tactility of a book or, for that matter, a newspaper.
Graeme Tilley, Managing Director of Birchalls said in an ABC radio interview on Wednesday morning the business had been for sale for a year. The family made the sad decision to close when no suitable purchaser had come along. He confirmed a large and varied stockholding and went on to say banks are happy enough to lend money for bricks and mortar but not for stock.
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The digital age has caused no real problems for Birchalls except for some magazine sales. Although there is a continuing reduction in stock levels, this does not include stationery and education: the shop is not closing at the end of January because it will be in the middle of the Back To School period.
With the recent publicity, there is renewed awareness; there was an expression of interest only the previous day.
Might there be light at the end of the tunnel even now? I think that everyone who now knows of the historic Birchalls will hope so. Public subscription, anyone?