Southern Cross Joinery established by Albert Walters

A chance discovery of an old filing cabinet has rekindled memories of a unique Tasmanian business.

BRENDON BOWES writes that the label ‘Southern Cross’ was once the hallmark of top quality office furniture.

When Donald Walters spied a blackwood filing cabinet in a Hobart antique shop, he immediately recognised it as a product of Southern Cross Joinery, a cabinetmaking business established by his father Albert Walters at New Town in the early 1900s.

Donald’s brothers Alan, Colin and Keith Walters had worked in the factory until its closure.

Prompted by his find, research by Mr Walters, a retired civil engineer of Bellerive, has revealed that early this century Southern Cross was the only Australian maker of filing cabinets.

It was a thriving business exporting all over Australia and won awards at British Empire Exhibitions in the 1920s.

The filing cabinets were made with such care and attention to detail that some have survived to the present day and items marked with this label can command a high price at antique shops.

Delving into family history has uncovered an illustrated catalogue, patent certificates and a diary his father kept between 1907 and 1916 revealing fascinating details about Southern Cross.

Starting from a small workshop at New Town, Albert Walters established the well known factory at Risdon Rd noted for top quality hand-made furniture produced from the finest blackwood and select Tasmanian oak.

The firm made an important contribution to the state’s economy through manufacturing office equipment, joinery and shopfitting, and construction of houses, stores and even a church.

Born in 1887, Albert was one of 11 children and after his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker and joiner in Hobart started working for Southern Sales Co of Sydney in 1908.

He was assembling prefabricated American-made office furniture, including filing and card index cabinets.

Recognising that there was a ready market for office filing systems it started him thinking:, "why can’t I make them in Australia?", Mr Walters said.

Returning to Hobart and registering the name ‘Southern Cross Systems’, Albert began manufacturing filing and card index cabinets to his own designs. Business quickly expanded with sales to offices throughout Australia.

A special cabinet was made for Lady Barron, wife of Tasmanian Governor Sir Harry Barron, resulting in Vice-Regan patronage when more cabinets were ordered for Government House.

Large orders followed for filing cabinets and massive 20 drawer and 30 drawer ledger cabinets for the Hobart General Post Office and the Supreme Court registry.

Mainland customers included David Jones stores.

In 1910 Albert arranged with agents J. Walch & Sons to print an illustrated catalogue proudly acknowledging that the business was ‘under the patronage of the State Governor of Tasmania and the Australian Federal Government’.

In July 1914 he moved to a larger factory at 17 Risdon Road, a three horsepower electric motor powering the machinery.

A man of restless energy, Albert also owned and managed an orchard at Lutana and at one time investigated the manufacture of cricket stumps. He was also an inventor and patented an ingenious filing cabinet locking mechanism.

Closing the top drawer locked all those underneath it, requiring only one lock and key for each cabinet.

Albert also loved cycling and achieved the fastest time in a Launceston to Hobart race.

Enthusiasm for motor cycles saw him purchase an ‘Abington King Dick’ in 1910 which had no gears and was push started.

In 1915 he made a promotional visit to Melbourne displaying Southern Cross cabinets in Federal Parliament House and meeting government ministers. The cabinets were much admired, resulting in orders from government departments.

His products also featured at the world’s largest trade fair in London’s Wembley Centre where British Empire Exhibitions were staged.

At the 1924 exhibition a Southern Cross filing cabinet was entered by J. Walch & Sons.

It was specially made from Tasmanian fiddleback blackwood, winning a medal and certificate of honour for Albert. The cabinet also won a medal at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition, and was later used in the office of Sir Geoffrey Walch, Managing Director of Walch & Sons.

In the 1920s Albert’s sons Alan, Colin and Keith were apprenticed and worked in the family business. Donald also serving there for a short period then working for a firm of consulting engineers for over 40 years.

Southern Cross building projects included St Michael’s Anglican Church at Orford in 1929, a new storey on the Dover Hotel, and in recent years joinery for the University chemistry building, Rosny College and Cosgrove High School.

They were exclusively responsible for supplying a number of specialised products to Tasmanian schools, including compasses (dividers) and set squares used with classroom blackboards and technical drawing.

In 1969 the family decided to sell the Risdon Rd factory site at New Town and the adjacent residence to Coles for a supermarket and Tasmania’s first K Mart.

Business continued from other premises and office equipment was still being made by Keith and his son Craig until 1984 ending over 70 years of cabinetmaking by the Walters family in Tasmania. In 1986 Craig Walters left for Perth, W.A. to continue cabinetmaking and joinery in that state.