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Building a Showpiece

How two Scottish lads built a dynasty from rags to riches.

By Adrian Howie, descendant of the Howie brothers.

John and Archibald Black Howie were two of 12 children born to William and Christina Howie. 

Living in Glasgow, Scotland, William Howie was a master builder, and his two sons John and Archibald were stonemasons. In October 1878, disaster struck with the spectacular collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank, in turn wreaking financial havoc on many Glaswegian businesses, including William, John and Archibald’s, all of which became bankrupt.

This tragic unfolding of events, likely prompted John, Archibald and their younger sister Mary to emigrate to Australia aboard the Samuel Plimsoll, arriving in Sydney in June 1879.

Soon after, John and Archibald entered Australia’s building industry, with their first recorded work being the 1880/90 construction of brick cottages on Dick Street, in Balmain. Concurrently, during that Balmain project, John worked on the Pitt Street wing of the Sydney GPO and taught stone masonry at Sydney Technical College.

By 1891 the brothers, then trading under the name Howie Bros, had acquired a good reputation as builders. No doubt their reputation factored in to the brothers winning the contract to build the mansion Belmont Park (near Richmond NSW) for Major Philip Charley, one of Broken Hill’s first discoverers of silver in the region. Described at the time as the perfection of stone masons’ work, this beautiful building is now part of the St John of God facility, currently undergoing a sympathetic restoration to its full glory.

By the mid 1890s, John and Archibald decided to go their separate ways; John establishing John Howie and Sons with his sons John and William and son-in-law, while Archibald continued under the name Howie Bros. Notable buildings constructed by them include the Art Gallery of NSW, the Newington Powder Magazine and the original Mitchell Library (now the Mitchell wing of the NSW State Library) – all of which are excellent products of highly skilled, conscientious work.

John retired from the business in 1910 but his son, also named John (who had been born in Dick St, Balmain), continued the business until 1927.

John Howie

The first ventures of John Howie and Sons Ltd (as the business had by then become) into Canberra seem to have been the construction of the Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Hotel Canberra – today’s Hyatt Hotel Canberra.

In March 1923 it was announced that a tender of £42,194 (almost $4M in today’s money) from A. Howie & Sons had been accepted for the construction of the superstructure for a bungalow hostel (the foundations having been laid by the Department of Works). The reference to A. Howie and Sons is incorrect: it should have been to John Howie and Son. The error was corrected in the Commonwealth Gazette of 17 May 1923. Extensions to that contract, encompassing the building of the entire hotel, are reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 January 1924.

Mount Stromlo Observatory was also built by Howie and Sons. Credit: ANU Archives

The original intention of the Government was that the hotel (Hostel Number One) would serve the accommodation needs of members of Parliament and senior public servants, followed, if space was available, by tourists. By April 1924 one wing of the building was nearing completion and it was expected that accommodation for 100 guests would be available in October. Given the main purpose of the hostel, the Government had decided to provide the furniture and other equipment for the building.

Concurrently with their major hostel project, John Howie was also contracted in early 1925 to supply and fix bituminous roofing, at a cost of £6,055, to the then under construction “provisional Parliament House” - today’s Old Parliament House. In February 1925 it was reported that John Howie and Sons had won a contract for the construction of 20 workmen’s cottages near the Causeway, Canberra. These cottages seem to have been for his men working on the new provisional Parliament House. Howie’s success at winning this contract could have been credited to the superior settlement he built for his Hostel workforce consisting of 25 timber cottages, 18 timber huts, 2 recreational huts and ablution blocks. All with water and electricity.

At the same time, the firm was contracted to build the new J B Young store in Kingston, the completion and opening of which was celebrated at the Hotel Canberra on 10 December 1925.  The business went on to build many well-known structures throughout Sydney and Canberra, one that is still well used and much loved being the Bondi Pavilion.

The hotel opened on 10 December 1924.  The first manager, described as the “temporary manageress”, was a Miss Isobella Southwell, the then manager of the Yarralumla Homestead at which politicians visiting the area had been staying (now the residence of the Governor General).

The new building attracted some, dare one say, carping criticism. Some Victorian Federal members were reported to express indignation at the extravagant scale of the “Hostel de Luxe”. The building cost was said to have risen to over £140,000 (about $14M in today’s currency) to which “at least £70,000” in fittings to be added.

A Melbourne resident was reported as saying that “not even the most exclusive hotels of Melbourne or Sydney could outshine the magnificence of No 1 Hostel. Costly carpets into which the feet sink, luxurious hangings and wall decorations, elaborate furnishings and superb bathrooms for every suite, greet the eyes of visiting taxpayers. Every bed is covered with an expensive hair mattress, and the billiard room appointments are said to be without a rival in any capital.” (Sun, Sydney, 13 December 1924, page 1).
Original drawings of Hostel No 1