Reuben Morris & sons footwear factory 1897

Reuben and his sons in front of the factory on Latrobe Terrace, Paddington 1897

The Morris family owned and operated a boot and footwear factory in the suburb of Paddington, in Brisbane, from the 1880s until it was sold in the 1960s. The second factory building in Caxton Street was reopened in 1976 as the Spaghetti Emporium restaurant, complete with a giant boot on the roof. In the 1980s, the building became the nightclub “Brisbane Underground” but it was demolished for the Hale Street city by-pass in 1990.

The Factory was started up by my great-great-grandfather Reuben Morris and his sons Frederick and Henry in 1888, named ‘R. Morris and Sons’; son James was also involved from 1890 until 1899. Henry later sold his partnership to Frederick, and younger brother Bert helped Frederick for a few years.

When Reuben Morris died on 20 January 1899, Frederick Thomas Morris, my great-grandfather, took control of the company. The name of the business was changed to ‘F.T. Morris and Company’, and was a limited liability company by 1933. Later, following changes to the Companies Act, the name was changed to ‘F.T. Morris & Co Pty Ltd’. Frederick’s brother-in-law, William Michael, worked in the factory for most of his life and eventually became a partner. In 1930, William told Frederick that he had been absent only three and a half days in thirty-five years.

The Morris family had come from Northampton – England’s most important shoe manufacturing centre in the 1880s. They had all been connected more or less with the shoe trade, and were sure that they could make shoes that would sell in place of the imported goods.

Frederick said at the opening of the Caxton Street factory, “Well, we got out some samples, and I have no hesitation in saying that they were equal to those imported. I was very reserved in those days, and I did not like the idea of soliciting orders, but, armed with these samples, I was sure I should be received with open arms. But, alas, I was doomed to disappointment! I showed my shoes to the retailers; they were interested, but refused at first to believe that they were locally made, but, when I convinced them, they said they did not care to buy as they had regular indents coming forward each month, and did not care to upset these arrangements, but, if we could make the ordinary plain work as made in the city, they might give me an order. We then made the plain elastic side and lace shoes, these were accepted, and so our business career commenced.”

The old factory 1929 retouched

The boot factory was originally in Latrobe Terrace, Paddington. This building eventually looked like a rabbit warren, with various sections scattered on three levels.

FT Morris Factory Group c1925

F.T Morris footwear factory group, c1925

F.T. Morris Factory Group, 1934 (1)

F.T. Morris footwear factory group, 1934

Footwear Factory Management 1941

Factory management 1941
Doug Loosemore (grandfather) front left; James Stevens (great-uncle) front right

The company employed up to 180 workers and could make 630 pairs of boots and shoes a day. They sold direct to retailers from Mount Isa to Melbourne.

In 1940, the factory was making ‘cossacks’, scout boots, cane-cutters’ boots, ‘railway boots’, and dress boots. Riding boots were popular, and in the late 1950s they made safety boots for construction workers with steel protection in the boot. They also made sandals, dancing shoes that were popular in the jazz era, and children’s shoes.

One type of boot was called the ‘Emperor Riding Boot’. It was cut from one piece of leather. During both wars there were a lot of Army contracts for boots.

Worldwide changes in the types of footwear worn greatly affected construction methods of boots and shoes. Boots were worn less and less. Until after the First World War, more boots were made than shoes. The factory responded to the changing fashions, especially the footwear worn by workmen, by increasing the production of shoes. Materials other than leather were substituted requiring quite different footwear manufacturing machinery.

F.T. Morris died on 28 July 1932, and his sons-in-law, my great-uncle James Stevens and grandfather Douglas Loosemore, took control of the business.

The introduction of thongs had a big impact on the business (especially in Queensland) because the demand for sandals was reduced. There was tough competition from backyard operators who could lease boot making machines and the relative cost of labour was high. The factory did not have a high rate of return on the capital investment, and only flourished when government policies imposed tariffs on imported footwear.

Sold to Dixon & Sons in the 1960s, the business continued to make a profit for a while but eventually couldn’t compete with cheaper imports and nylon and canvas mass-produced shoes. The factory closed in 1973.

‘Fitem Shoes’, almost identical to the factory’s trademark, ‘Fitem Footwear’ was mentioned in the Australian TV series ‘I Can Jump Puddles’ in the 1980s as a competing boot manufacturer.

Boot factory late 1980s

The new factory built in 1930 during the Depression, corner of Caxton & Hale Streets. Photo taken in late 1980s for me by Helen Dominish

Rear of factory as Brisbane Underground

Rear of the factory when it was operated as the Brisbane Underground Nightclub in the 1980s (Helen Dominish)

The boot factory began in an old carpenter’s shop at the bottom of Cook’s Hill but soon moved to a small building in Latrobe Terrace, Paddington. As it grew, this building eventually looked like a rabbit warren, with various sections scattered on three levels. The business moved to its second premises in Caxton Street, Paddington in 1930, during the Great Depression. In his opening speech, F.T. Morris said, “I have been told by some of my friends that I am very foolish to spend money in putting up an expensive building while the times are so bad, but… if I can do anything to develop this business and leave it in such a state of efficiency that it can be carried on to give employment to more and more people, I shall feel that I have not built in vain.”

This new building, designed by prominent Queen Street architect, Walter C. Voller, was constructed specifically for a footwear factory. After 43 years as a footwear factory, the property was later sold and used as a restaurant, “The Spaghetti Emporium” in the late 1970s that served spaghetti, and beer in glasses fashioned in the shape of a boot. A giant fibreglass boot was installed on the roof. Tables were made from old pedal sewing machines. The restaurant closed in 1979 after unsubstantiated rumours food and hygiene inspectors found hundreds of empty dog food tins in the industrial bins out the back! Various former employees have commented that they never saw anything like that. In 1979, the building was taken over by a Melbourne nightclub owner, Brian Goldsmith. The old boot factory building became the Brisbane Underground, the fulcrum of Brisbane’s nightclub boom in the 1980s. In October 1990, the building was demolished to make way for the Hale Street ring road. A skate board park was built on the remainder of the property for the local kids.  The giant boot moved to Gympie Road on top of a paint shop and became a local landmark. The owner has taken it down for repairs and there is no schedule for when or where it might return.