The discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850s led to the opening up of the country as settlement expanded beyond the original 19 counties proclaimed in 1829. A succession of gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria transformed the political and economic landscape from its convict origins to a largely unregulated market. Freed from the social restrictions of the Old World, a man might prosper, whatever his background, through luck, perseverance or a canny understanding of human frailty.

The opportunities afforded by this change brought waves of immigrants seeking their fortune and the promise of a better life in a new land. Among these were Joseph Gates, a nineteen-year-old farm labourer from Essex, England and Hannah O’Hanlon, aged 23 a cook from Cork, Ireland. They met on the voyage to Australia aboard the immigrant ship ‘Columbia”, which landed in Sydney on 20 May 1854.

Joseph and Hannah married soon after. Their son, Joseph James Gates was born in May 1861 in Sydney’s Surry Hills, a gritty working-class area where crowded tenements jostled for space amidst the factories, warehouses and workshops of a rapidly expanding city. His family moved to Balmain, where young Joseph was educated at St Augustine’s Convent School until, at the age of 11, he secured employment at Elliott Bros. Chemical Works.

In 1875 Joseph joined Bull, Price, and Company, (which later became Henry Bull and Company) wool merchants and manufacturers of blankets and flannels. The company was incorporated in London but had a substantial presence in Sydney, where its eleven-storey warehouse was, for a time, the second tallest building in the city. The imposing premises (pictured) on the corner of Market and York Streets opposite the Queen Victoria Building were a testament to the importance of wool in the Australian economy and the wealth that flowed from it. The building incorporated the sales room and offices. It was built to impress buyers, not just store wool bales.

Gates left Sydney to work as an import-export agent in San Francisco for three years.  On his return, he became associated with Foy & Gibson in Collinwood, Victoria.  The company’s slogan “two miles of mills” was literally true, since its expansion involved the removal of a large area of slums in Collingwood.

In 1883 Francis Foy sold his half-share to Gibson and moved to Sydney where, with his brother Mark, he established Mark Foy’s in 1885.  Gates then moved to Sydney to join this new venture. Mark Foy’s was one of Australia’s first department stores that manufactured many of the goods it sold.  This was quite an innovative concept in Australia

Gates returned to Henry Bull and Company where he rose to the position of Director. In all, he served a total of 34 years with that company. In 1909 he became managing director and member of the London board of directors of W. and A. McArthur Ltd. (warehouse agents)

In a remarkable corporate career Joseph Gates rose from Sydney’s poorer quarters to the boardrooms of London’s east end. He received only the most basic schooling but became one of the country’s leading businessmen. 


Somehow Gates also found the time and energy to serve as an alderman on Drummoyne Council for more than 25 years and as Mayor in 1905.

Joseph Gates died at his property, “Wymston” 33 Milton Avenue, on 20 May 1929, survived by his widow, three sons and two daughters.

In an interesting sidelight, Joseph Gates lived at “Wymston” between 1907 and 1917. This gracious house was the home of Dr George Fortescue, who named his property Chiswick Farm, giving rise to the name of the suburb. The address of Wymston at that time was Milton Road, Chiswick. Henry Bull and Company’s London address and head office was Milton Road, near Barbican Gate.

Mark Foys Department Store building now serves as the Downing Centre Law Courts in Liverpool Street, Sydney. The distinctive Belle Epoch style of the building and its scale with shop fronts on three sides is reflective of the French influence


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