Industrial heritage up in flames
On 25 May 2023, a warehouse listed on the NSW State Heritage Inventory, caught alight in Surry Hills, Sydney. The massive fire engulfed the building listed for its historic associations with manufacturing and processing. The 110-year-old building was originally owned and operated by R. C Henderson Pty Ltd, a hat manufacturer.
Dr Lisa Murray, Public Historian and HCNSW Member, highlights the building’s significant industrial history.
The R C Henderson hat factory in Randle Street was built in 1912. It is a Federation-style factory, typical of the many warehouses that once dotted Surry Hills. The construction of Central Railway Station in 1906 and the creation of Wentworth Avenue in 1910, along with resumptions of 1850s and 60s terraces, encouraged a wave of warehouse construction in the area.
The plans to adaptively reuse the building as a hotel was going to cast a new appreciation of the architectural fabric of the building. The six storey building, with basement, was constructed of brick and timber, the large pairs of windows providing plenty of natural light onto the manufacturing floors. The building had ironbark structural columns and beams, lined timber ceilings and timber floors, and timber stairs connecting the different levels.
The industrial heritage and labour history of Sydney often goes unnoticed. R C Henderson Pty Ltd was a major hat and millinery manufacturer that operated from 1905 through into the 1950s. They started out making women’s hats and later branched out into men’s hats. They followed overseas trends in Paris and elsewhere, issuing new hat designs each season. Hat materials included rabbit fur and merino wool, as well as lighter materials such as straw. Their hats made from Australian wool were sold under the brand name of Platypus.
Randle Street was their main factory, supported by a dye and felt works in Hayes Street, Rosebery. The jobs of the workers were gendered. The hot work at the dye and felt works was the domain of men, as was much of the hat blocking and shaping, which involved steam and heavy machinery. Women were involved in the millinery side of manufacturing – designing, lining, trimming and finishing the hats. Boxing hats and managing orders were also typically the domain of women.
Henderson Hats was not the only hat manufacturer operating in Sydney in the twentieth century. J Bardsley & Sons were based at Leichhardt and Dunkerley Hat Mills were at Bourke Street, Waterloo. Akubra hats were manufactured at the Dunkerley factory in Waterloo from 1918-1973. Since 1974 the Akubra Hat factory has been based in Kempsey.
Dr Lisa Murray is a Public Historian, and a long-term member and supporter of the HCNSW.
- Main image: Henderson Hats Factory, 1949. (Museums of History NSW – State Archives Collection: NRS-4481-3-[7/
- R C Henderson warehouse, Randle Street, Surry Hills, 2009. (photographer: Mark Stevens. City of Sydney Archives, A-00071349)
- Henderson Hats Factory, showing women working, 1949. (Museums of History NSW, State Archives Collection: NRS-4481-3-[7/
- Henderson Hats advertisement – Art in Australia. Vol. 1 No. 2 (1 May 1922) p.5 (Trove)
- Henderson Hats Factory, showing male worker forming a hat, 1949. (Museums of History NSW – State Archives Collection: NRS-4481-3-[7/16135]-St35278)
- Fire Underwriters Association of NSW, Detail Survey Maps, Sydney, detail from Block No.250 showing the Henderson Hats factory, c.1917-1939. (City of Sydney Archives, A-00880231)