Street History: Fountain Street, Alexandria

August 19th, 2022 - by Brad Gillespie

Cutting between McEvoy Street and Mitchell Road, Fountain Street still proudly displays its industrial roots.

But while the street and its buildings have moved on, with Woolworths and Dan Murphy’s now serving the area’s residential resurgence, clues to its industrial history remain.

Early beginnings

Before European arrival, the area known as Alexandria was inhabited by the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. The land, mainly marsh and swamp, was mistakenly considered of little value by the first Europeans.

In 1818, former convict William Hutchinson built a flour mill in nearby Waterloo. One of the first industrial operations in the area, it set a precedent of industry in Alexandria and Waterloo that would continue well into the 20th century. In 1823, Hutchinson was granted 1400 acres in the area, part of which was Fountain Street.

Factories, abattoirs and warehouses started popping up in the surrounding area in the following years, along with simple housing for workers.

Fountain Street in the 19th century

While it’s likely there were some warehouses along Fountain Street in the 19th century, it was also residential at the time. The houses would, most probably, have been small workers’ cottages like those in the surrounding streets. Today there is no trace of these old homes, but we know something about a few of their tenants.

In October 1879, one Stephen Robert Blue was mentioned in the New South Wales Government Gazette. The Fountain Street resident had been declared insolvent. An assistant lithographic printer, Blue had apparently racked up so much debt that a meeting between his creditors and the Chief Commissioner of Insolvent Estates was called to determine whether he would even “be allowed to retain … his wearing apparel, beds, bedding and tools of trade”.

Ten years later, in November 1889, The Daily Telegraph reported on a theft. A William and Rebecca Smith were charged at Redfern courthouse with stealing five white shirts and a collar. How were they found out? The telltale shirts were discovered hanging on the clothesline when police called at the Smiths’ home at 37 Fountain Street. Mr Smith, who had a previous record, was sentenced to six months’ hard labour.

Fountain Street’s warehouse history

State government planning documents provide a unique window into what the street looked like as the 20th century progressed. Aerial photos from as early as 1930 show the street lined with warehouses, which grew in size and number as the decades passed.

Even into the 1990s many of the street’s warehouses were still in use, with planning documents from 1991 listing numerous companies operating from Fountain Street premises. These included Moir, Alexander & Co., paper merchants, stationers and toy importers at number 4; Brown & Dureau Ltd, chemical suppliers; Stenhouse repairers and panel beaters; and the self-explanatory Asbestos Products Pty Ltd.

Oliver Electric Company

By the 1940s Alexandria was the largest industrial hub in Australia. It was even referred to at the time as “the Birmingham of Australia”, a nod to the English city’s industrial status.

One family, the Olivers, set up their business in a warehouse at 15–17 Fountain St. Begun in 1942, Oliver Electric Company was run from its Alexandria base by three generations of the family, until the business’s recent relocation to Balgowlah.

The building was then snapped up and redeveloped into the modern, stylish apartments we see today.

21 Fountain Street

Next to the Oliver Electric building, 21 Fountain Street today embodies the saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

The former factory houses the Fountain Street General Practice, along with a raft of tempting cafés. You’ll find Bread and Circus, Pokeo Bowls and more – including the much-loved local haunt, Campos Coffee.

The building itself is a renovated factory. It’s believed to have been a paint factory and even, at one time, a processing plant for products of the whaling industry. Sydney newspapers in 1929 mention a whaling company setting up operations in Alexandria, and while it’s possible this refers to 21 Fountain Street, we can’t be sure.

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