Carrington Road: So what is an assembly plant?

In the 1920s, the General Motors assembly plant in Marrickville was described an engineering marvel and fascinated Sydneysiders. Visitors to the plant included Charles Kingsford Smith, world-champion golfer Walter Hagen, singing organist Julia Dawn, the Master Builders Association, the Millions Club, the 2UW Radio Club, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Radio Movie Club. An illuminated scale model of the plant was a hit at the 1929 Sydney Motor Show.

But what is an assembly plant? It is a factory with an assembly line, where work is separated into a sequence of tasks. Henry T Ford developed a moving assembly line in 1913 and it cut the cost of automotive production. Cars became affordable so more people could buy one. Assembly lines made household goods cheap and readily available in the Twentieth Century, something we can still appreciate 100 years on.

General Motors on Carrington Road was possibly the first purpose-built assembly plant in New South Wales with moving production lines. Ford had only just opened its plants in Geelong, Adelaide and Brisbane (Sydney came later in 1936). Here’s a description of the General Motors assembly line from the 1930s:

Bodies are hauled by electric hoists into the body storage area, where they are fitted with electric wiring harness and dashboard instruments, later assembly begins with the riveting of the chassis frame. Red hot rivets are tossed from the furnaces to the riveters with seemingly reckless abandon. Each man is ready to collect and the hot rivets are hammered into place with pneumatic hammers. Petrol tank, axles, steering wheel, steering column, transmission and springs are then fitted, and the chassis moves on to a trestle. Mechanics fit spark plugs and prepare the engine. The chassis frame is treated with anti-corrosive, the engine lowered into the chassis frame, and the unit is ready for its journey along the conveyer line. Fenders and other parts are fitted and a body is gently lowered to the frame… An army of men swarms over the unit… the engines are started and the cars roll off under their own power to checking pits. Here every bolt and nut is inspected, steering and wheel alignment are checked, the ignition system is inspected to see that everything is functioning perfectly… The car goes on its first journey…

Speaking of nuts and bolts, we’ll bring you more on where these could have been made soon (hint: it’s just down the road!)

 

 

Carrington Road Let’s get to work!

General Motors on Carrington Road Marrickville was big – as big as Melbourne’s and around double the size of Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. When opened, the plant was designed for 175 workers producing 60 cars a day.

On Opening Day, a Chevrolet was assembled and driven off the assembly line’s rails under its own power in 29 minutes, considered quite a marvel by the fascinated onlookers! Equipment was strung from above and the factory had plenty of beams to support equipment as well as overhead pipes carrying oil and water as well as power.

In the 1920s and 1930s, cars were assembled in Australia from an imported chassis and many locally produced parts and materials. Holden supplied some of the bodies to General Motors. Australian leather and wool was used for seats, timber and lead for batteries and hardware was also locally made. General Motors wanted to showcase its links with Australian manufacturing, even producing a booklet on the topic. Discover Australia Builds a Motor Car (1928) for yourself.

This booklet also mentions another Carrington Road Marrickville business Duly & Hansford (we’ll come back to them another time).

Here is the assembly line in 1928. This photo was taken by commercial photographer Milton Kent. Milton Kent pioneered aerial photography after getting his pilots licence in 1926. We’ve found some photographs of General Motors taken by him in a plane which we’ll show you next week.

Carrington Roads Industrial Past – Marrickville

Carrington Road’s industrial past (and future?) Save Marrickville is campaigning against a proposed 35-storey residential development along Carrington Road Marrickville which includes the last Australian General Motors factory (listed by the National Trust: picture below), but I have found a much bigger history.

In 1926, the American motor vehicle firm General Motors (Australia) Pty Ltd established assembly plants in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney to produce motor vehicles for the Australian market. Sydney architects Ross and Rowe were commissioned for the Sydney plant (6-10 Carrington Road). The design was to comply with all the conditions of a modern assembly plant and to provide the best possible conditions for all employees, according to GM’s magazine Motor Progress. The NSW Premier, the Hon. JT Lang, opened the factory declaring:

Factories were the milestones along the road Australia must travel to become a self-contained nation whose secondary industries would absorb her primary products . . . there is no market like that created by the employment of local labour . . . and it will be a striking advertisement to the world of this country of ours.

General Motors – Carrington road, Marrickville

General-Motors purchased Holden in 1931 during the Depression (fearing it would be snapped up by a competitor) and continued to operate there until 1939. The factory then produced tyre cord until 1961 after being taken over by Davies Coop, a significant corporation in the Australian textile industry in the Twentieth Century. Other businesses were established close to General Motors. AH Peters (16 Carrington Road) made bodies for trucks and utilities including ambulances used all over NSW.

General Motors establishes in Carrington Road

Have you heard about the old General Motors-Holden factory in Marrickville? It’s right here at No. 10 Carrington Road. You can still see it for yourself. But why Marrickville? What did it mean for Australia and our industry?

Well, we’re excited to bring you the story of how a thin strip of land played a big role in the Twentieth Century. We’re unearthing new information all the time, so join us as we reveal a fascinating history, full of people, their stories and hopes for the future. So let’s go!

Our story starts in 1926. The American motor vehicle company General Motors wanted to expand. Australia seemed perfect – a wide-open land to explore, a wealthy and adventurous people and a prosperous economy.

Their key rival Ford had just fitted out an old wool store in Geelong. But General Motors had bigger ideas. It planned five modern assembly plants: Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney (yep you guessed it – on Carrington Road, Marrickville).

In Sydney, General Motors hired well-known commercial architects Ross and Rowe to build the new factory, and they built fast. The Sydney Morning Herald marvelled at the “speedy construction” (the design was completed in just 10 days) but the feat was impressive: reinforced concrete floor, shadowless light, 1000 electrical points and a fancy office building and staff dining hall.

Discover the Herald’s article from 1926 for yourself.

And what happened to the other General Motors assembly plants across Australia? Gone. This is the last standing.

Roads, rail and electricity

Remember Sydney’s flying photographer, Milton Kent? Here is a superb photograph taken by Kent over General Motors on Carrington Road Marrickville.

The gleaming General Motors factory is set against old Sydney with its brick pits and chimneys. A network of new power poles lines the streets. You can see General Motor’s office building, the big saw-tooth roof of the assembly plant and the distribution yard, full of new automobiles. (We’ll get to the cars in coming weeks.) The buildings under construction on the right include a new cafeteria for the factory’s workers.

The goods railway line from Marrickville to Port Botany runs just behind the factory. This line opened on 14 October 1925, just one year before General Motors, and made it easy for vehicle parts made in Australia and overseas to reach the factory by train. It even came right inside the factory’s storerooms, and is still there today.

And Carrington Road itself is a grand boulevarde. General Motors gave £5000 to Marrickville Council to build the road from concrete, as it remains today.

You might also like to explore other aerial photos of 1930s Sydney in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Adastra Aerial Survey Collection

Self Guided Online Walking Tours – Inner West

Walking tours of the Inner West includes a series of walks that focuses on significant people, public buildings and the social and political history of the area. Below are links on the Izi travel app which you can download onto your phone

Download here for Google Play

Download here for Apple here

 

Fenwicks Building 2016

Balmain Humble to Handsome

Leichhardt Public School 1908

Leichhardt Norton Street Historical Tour

General Motors assembly plant- Carrington Rd, Marrickville 1934

Marrickville Carrington Road Industrial Heritage      

 

 

 

Louisa Lawson’s Old Stone House

Louisa Lawson’s Old Stone House

Recently, I’ve focused on the big corporations like General Motors-Holden who set up along Carrington Road Marrickville, but what about individuals in the area? Louisa Lawson was one important local: a publisher, journalist, inventor, women’s activist and also Henry Lawson’s mother. She lived in this cottage from around 1893 to 1919 near the frequently flooded eastern end of Renwick Street and Richardsons Cresent. The cottage was close to the Gumbramorra Creek (now a stormwater canal lined during the Depression).

Louisa Lawson set up her printing press here and according to a 1931 article by George R Reeve (a history writer who lived in nearby Newtown), published two of her own books of verse and one of Henry’s from the cottage. The cottage was originally a lodge on Thomas Holt’s estate, The Warren. It was described as small, but Louisa Lawson was eager to greet visitors and entertain with stories of publishing The Dawn. Her eldest son, Henry Lawson also knew her cottage well enough to describe it while he was in Darlinghurst gaol in 1909. He needed bail and hoped Louisa would help:

The case seems desperate but do all you possibly can. I’d soon go hopelessly out of my mind here. Do anything to raise the money and I’ll take care this business will never happen again. You might even go to my mother. She has plenty. Her address is Mrs. Lawson, ‘Old Stone House’ Tempe (near Railway Station) . . . Her property is near the railway gates. She’d tell you of some friends anyway. It is real gaol this time, you know, and the loneliness is terrible . . . Yours in Trouble, Henry Lawson (Henry Lawson Letters, 1890–1922, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1970, p 175).

In addition to women’s right to vote, Louisa Lawson was active in addressing the working conditions of women and girls in factories. I wonder what she would have thought of her own cottage being demolished to make way for the area’s factories sometime after 1943?

Thanks Sue Castrique, another local writer and historian, for providing much of the above research into Louisa Lawson’s life in Marrickville.

 

Rega Products: Let us spray!

Rega Products: Let us spray! While memories of the Depression lingered, factories on Marrickville’s Carrington Road roared back to life. “The activity visible on all sides of this plant of General Motors – Holden is one the finest proof of the definite return of prosperity to the country as a whole,” according to The Land on 1 May 1936.

So what was this activity? We’ve already introduced AH Peters and Duly & Hansford, but Rega Products’ new factory was also going up on the other side of Carrington Road.

Designed by modernist architect Aaron M Bolot, the factory was praised for its design and connection to consumers. It was said that people would feel “good and reliable products must come forth from efficient and beautiful buildings.” I’m sure this remains true for the factory’s current occupants, New Directions.

So what did Rega Products make? It provided “men on the land with sprayers for the cattle and their fruit trees, for the manufacture they provide spray pistons for duco-ing or painting their goods; for the house-wife sprays for suppressing moths and vermin; and for the motorists the pumps for their cars” according to the Building (24 July 1937). One of these clients was General Motors-Holden, ordering a massive 30,000 pumps from Rega Products!

Pumping and spraying chemicals was soon to be even more important but we’ll cover that another time. And that so-catchy “let us spray” tag line? It came from a 1932 ad for Rega Products merchandise.

General Motors-Holden Assembly Plant Restarts 1934

General Motors-Holden Assembly Plant Restarts 1934

The General Motors Australia assembly plant on Carrington Road Marrickville shut during the Great Depression. One of its main suppliers was also struggling. That company was Holden Body Builders in South Australia.

But General Motors spotted an opportunity to secure its future in Australia. Acting quickly for fear rival Ford might act first, General Motors snatched up Holden for £1.1 million. At about $100 million in today’s terms, this seems pretty cheap now!

General Motors-Holden’s Limited (GM-H) started on 1 March 1931. GM-H made a further loss of £341,914 in 1931-32, but according to a 1935 GM-H report money from wool sales in 1933-34 improved spending, including on cars which were now a necessity in Australia. This brought the Marrickville assembly plant on Carrington Road back to life. It opened again on 3 April 1934, marked by a visit by Lieutenant Colonel Bruner, the NSW Minister for Transport.

This 1936 photo of the Marrickville plant shows cars of the 1930s to be more streamlined and enclosed. The signage says “General Motors Holden’s Limited” with the distinctive GMH on the pediment above. And a row of newly planted Canary Island Date Palms lines the road. If you’re out for a drive along Carrington Road today, come and see how they’ve grown!

 

The Great Depression in Marrickville

Boots, shoes etc, the world-famed Marrickville tweeds, porcelain baths, basins, sinks… famous Marrickville blankets, rugs, clothes, motor bodies wonderfully constructed bodies of superfine grace, beautifully streamlined…furniture, hardwood, toys, machinery! Some marvelous machinery – made in Marrickville. That is the point sought to be driven home by the Marrickville manufacturers “Made in Marrickville” (Australian Made, Labor Daily, April 1930, p 7)

1930 began with a hope. Could the depression be avoided through the manufacturing excellence, showcased at Marrickville Town Hall?

But it was not long before factories slowed due to low sales. General Motors on Carrington Road Marrickville shut in 1931 as Australian car sales declined to just 5 per cent of the previous year. Unemployment in Marrickville reached 29 per cent. Other areas were worse-off (nearby Newtown reached an unemployment rate of 43 per cent).

The NSW Government scrambled to create Relief Schemes to provide work for the unemployed by fixing roads and drainage. A particular focus was to “improve” low lying land in Marrickville, Tempe, Wolli Creek and other parts of Sydney by filling and draining swamps (SMH, 28 July 1930). This included work on the Sydenham pit and drainage of the former Gumbramorra Swamp to the Cooks River.

Relief work was low paid and hard. Those who complained about the conditions were threatened with being cut out of food rations and further work. It is no surprise that strikes and industrial disputes became common. And Marrickville Town Hall once again became an important meeting place, this time for the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, Women’s Vanguard as well as hosting fundraising events to help the unemployed.Next time we’ll find out how General Motors survived the Great Depression.

You might also like to read about Made in Marrickville now.