The magnificent, four storey Strange’s & Co Furniture Department Building was built in 1900 on the corner of Lichfield and High Streets, replacing a row of old dilapidated weatherboard shops dating back to the early days of Christchurch. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand – Canterbury Provincial Section of 1903, wrote that the new addition to the city, “…has not merely added immensely to the appearance of the firm’s premises, but constitutes a city improvement of a very striking character indeed.”1
Founded in 1863, by William Strange, the retail business began in a small wooden shop which was later occupied by Mr. Papps, a grocer. From its earliest beginnings, William Strange aimed to offer the highest quality of goods at reasonable prices. His approach was so successful his store soon became one of the largest and most popular retail empires of drapery, merchandise, manufacturing and importing in Christchurch.
Born into a Family of Drapers
Born into a family of drapers in 1832, William spent his childhood in the market town of Brackley, Northamptonshire. At age 12, William began his apprenticeship under the watchful eye of his uncle, William Strange, who had his drapery business in the High Street of neighbouring Banbury, some 10 miles away.2, 3
Conspiracy to Murder
The Strange family had originally come from Harbury, Warwickshire 4, and William’s uncle had gone to Banbury in 1819. During the following year he had come to the attention of the authorities following the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820, when a group of dissenters, called the Spencean Philanthropists, had been caught planning to murder the British Cabinet Ministers and Prime Minister. Amongst those caught and convicted was John Strange, a Bootmaker living in Surrey – William senior’s older brother. John escaped execution by pleading guility, and was transported to NSW, where he lived a further 40 years, dying of old age at 78 in 1868.
As a result of this conspiracy, the Mayor of Banbury, Robert Brayne was asked to look into the character of William, describing him thus:
William Strange the person, whose character Lord Sidmouth has desired of me, came to settle in this place as a draper about a year ago, during which time he has conducted himself with seeming propriety, & appears to be under no particular suspicion of any kind, His native place is Wardington in Northamptonshire five miles from hence. He has lately given out that he is going to remove to Brackley & nothing further of him than that he is one of those cheap-shop adventurers who do not stay long in one place. Of the prisoner John Strange we know nothing. 5
Luckily for their nephew, young William, this all happened before his time. Before starting his drapery apprenticeship at age 12, his conspirator uncle, John had become a constable in Bathurst,6 been granted permission to marry 16 year old Jane Bayliss 7 (despite apparently leaving a wife and children in England),8 had purchased land,9 and, by 1842, had obtain a full pardon.10
The Lure of a New Land
His uncle’s new found success in Australia may have been one reason why William decided to try his luck there too… or perhaps it was the lure of gold. Whatever the reason, at the age of 18, he set sail from London on board the ‘Maitland‘, arriving in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) on a warm summer’s day in February 1852.2
Unfortunately for William, the gold alluded him and he returned to his trade, securing a position with a drapery business in Sydney. But the lure of gold never left him and his continued stints on the gold field always cost him all he had gained.
Whilst in Sydney, William worked for a time at Farmer, Williams and Giles before being appointed manager of Mr Giles’ new business in George Street where he stayed for a further four years. This gave him the necessary confidence to set up on his own, so on 25th November 1863, having been in Christchurch less than a year, William started his own drapery business.
Setting up in Christchurch
The business grew rapidly. “For some years business was carried on in the usual primitive style in a small store; but side by side with the advancement of Christchurch and Canterbury, Messrs Strange and Co.’s business flourished.” 11 The retail premises were in Victoria House on High Street while their furniture department (the magnificent building pictured here) was on the corner of High and Lichfield Streets. Their factory and furniture warehouse was on the corner of Manchester Street and South Belt (Moorhouse Ave) facing the railway station. They also had a London office at 139–141 Wool Exchange, Basinghall Street. London E.C.
In 1882 William Strange could afford to leave his business under the management of his brother, Edward, while he turned his attention to two sheep stations at the Selwyn and Ashburton he had purchased, in pursuit of a more private life. But the lure of retail drew him back ten years later, and William returned to the business as governing director and appointed a new store manager, Thomas Coverdale. By July, 1894, Strange had made Coverdale a partner. The one time drapery now became a retail empire as it rapidly expanded into manufacturing its own goods and sending orders all over the colony.
A state-of-the-art furniture factory was built opposite the Christchurch Railway Station. It was fitted with the latest labour-saving appliances which turned out every description of furniture to adorn mansions or to suit the plainer cottage. Stranges also had a Venetian blind factory, a bedding factory, a wire mattress factory, a factory for the production of all kind of wire-work goods for farm, station, garden, and domestic use; a Macintosh coat factory, a ready-made clothing factory, a bespoke tailoring branch, etc. They also employed milliners, mantle-makers, dressmakers, and complete outfitters, and, besides these vast departments devoted to drapery, they have one for crockery, glass and art pottery, etc. as well as one for boots and shoes. The Cyclopedia stated,
“Indeed, so numerous are the goods in which this remarkable firm deals that its establishment is becoming more and more like the great department stores of America, wherein may be purchased for personal use, under one roof, pretty nearly everything needed on land or at sea.”
Stranges London office, located in the commercial heart of the great metropolis employed a manager, accountants, and buying staff who were responsible for looking out for the newest and most attractive lines of goods to ship to Christchurch.
“..so well do these buyers do their work, and so expeditiously do the modern ocean liners cover the distance between London and New Zealand, that “Strange’s” are enabled to keep on sale a constant succession of the very newest goods, and to show novelties almost as quickly as the latter make their appearance in the shops and warehouses of London.”
It is especially worthy of note that this firm does all its importing direct from the leading manufacturers themselves; and, buying everything in great quantities at a time, it is necessarily in the happy position of being able to deal liberally by its innumerable patrons. It has been said and truly that local industries are the backbone of any town or district with which they are identified; and, this being so, Strange and Company certainly deserve well of the public, for they have founded, and maintain, a number of important industries of their own, which are constantly expanding with the growth of the city and the province, and materially assist in their development.
Stranges provided employment to close upon 600 people, and the name of the firm has become “familiar as a household word” in the mouths of the New Zealand public. It only remains to add that “Strange’s” now own the largest business of its kind in the colony, and one of the largest in all Australasia.” [Cyclopedia of New Zealand. The Canterbury Provincial Section 1903)
A Display of Physical Culture
Like many department stores, the window displays at Strange’s drew lots of attention, no more so than six days before Christmas in 1902 when a display of ‘physical culture‘ was put on by James Young, a pupil of Eugen Sandow (considered the ‘Father of Bodybuilding’) in one of Strange’s windows. As Young performed, a large crowd of Christmas shoppers gathered to watch this muscular young man demonstrate his fitness, blocking the footpath and forcing other pedestrians onto the road in order to get passed. Cabs also stopped opposite the window, causing congestion for ‘vehicular traffic‘.
Despite the Magistrate describing the exhibition as a ‘very excellent thing‘, the unfortunate man was convicted for having been party to loitering that lead to obstruction, but was not fined. Thomas Coverdale, the Manager of Strange’s, had also been charged, but this had been withdrawn.
Source: Star , Issue 7583, 23 December 1902, Page 2. Papers Past.
The Great Fire of 1908
On the night of February 6th, 1908 Christchurch’s worst inner city fire broke out in the department store. Unfortunately the fire was prior to the city’s much needed water being upgraded to high pressure. Hoses were laid along Cashel Street down to the Avon River but the pumps could not keep up with the blaze. Unable to stop the fire spreading, by dawn, the fire had spread across this important city block destroying Ashby, Bergh & Co., the D.I.C. Building and the White Hart Hotel. An insurance payout of over three hundred thousand pounds made it the highest compensation ever paid out in the country. The fire’s damage hastened the city’s high pressure water system.
On the morning after the fire, shop girls turned up as usual for work without realising there had been a major fire in the city. A Star reporter was there to take notes and observe the hundreds of girls who came to work to find this disaster, of the girls,
The Shop Girls’ Dilemma – 9 o’clock this Morning
Five minutes to nine o’clock in the morning of an ordinary day sees hurrying processions of shop girls, dress makers and milliners streaming towards the many drapery establishments in the fire-swept zone. Strange’s, the D.I.C., Hulbert and Slaymaker’s, Hallenstine Brothers, and other soft goods stores lend their quota to the wending lines of femininity entering upon their daily round of toil. At nine o’clock the various departments of the shops are in full swing, hats being trimmed, , dresses being made, confections in millinery being sold and dresses being fitted.
This morning at the ninth hour, however, the shop girls found the shops represented by red-hot furnaces. Blackened, scorched walls, enclosing heaps of burning debris twisted girders and volumes of smoke awaited them. The advent of the shop girl causes a mild flutter of interest among the small crowd of early spectators. As they arrived at their respective, establishments many of the young women expressed astonishment at the picture prepared by the fire fiend. Numbers of them had heard nothing of the proportions of the fire, and many were not even aware that the shops in which they were want to work had been reduced to blackened ruins.
In gossiping groups they gathered in the roadway, and spoke of the fire in ‘hushed tones.’ But not for long. The shop girl is not a brooding individual and she quickly regained her light heartedness and witticisms at the expense of themselves, their employers, the brigade and everybody and anybody flooded their conversation.
One young lady declared happily that now she could start a milliner’s business of her own. “I have been wanting to leave, but I hadn’t the courage,” she confided jokingly to a fellow worker, “but now this is a splendid excuse. I shall order my sign right now. Will any of you girls join me?” She laughingly asked the gathering, and then she supplemented, “you’ll need jobs for a little while.”
“I was just on a ‘duck’ of a hat,” complained on girl. Her wail awoke another girl to her troubles and she declared that her new coats had been in one of the buildings. “It was a beauty too,” she added in tearful reflection. “This will mean holidays, ” chortled one very young lady. “but there will be no pay.” replied a staider maid. “Look at the D.I.C. When we left it last night everything was as right and tight as could be. Now look at it. Whey, there’s nothing in it at all but fire.”
The troubles of their employers worried some girls, but most of them in an effort to forget their own troubles spoke in he lightest of terms of the ravages of the fire. One young lady, evidently a saleswoman expressed herself highly pleased that as her shop has been destroyed no stock had been saved. There could be no salvage sale to add to her duties. Others spoke in envying tones of the luck of the girls in Stranges who would not be thrown out of employment by the disaster.
And so they laughed and cried over their misfortunes, keeping together during the morning and congregating in groups around the block of buildings. Right up to mid-day they remained viewing the ruins and then they commenced to disperse, some laughing and joking, others in very reflective mine, but beneath it all there was an undercurrent of apprehension of a future with the possibilities of no employment for some time.”
Star , Issue 9154, 7 February 1908, Page 3
William Strange’s Death
By the time of William Strange’s death in 1911, the company’s capital was £152,000, with all shares held by William, except for a few in the hands of Coverdale, his business partner and the Manager at the time, H. Herbert Smith. William had invested everything he had in the business, with little spare cash to his name. He had appointed his friend and lawyer George Harper, as Executor and Trustee, along with his son, William Strange Junior, who was farming in Ashburton. George knew the business well, having been involved since its foundation, right through to the later years when William had not been able to look after the business as before.
The two Trustees appointed a third, accountant John Henry Stringer, and between them they continued to run Strange and Co after William’s death. They described the business as ‘small‘, and had to ‘husband every pound‘, with all profits being swallowed up. Their relationship with Coverdale and the manager Smith was less than ideal, believing they stood in their way of growing the business. Harper said he felt hampered by Coverdale’s partnership, and had ‘an immense amount of work and trouble when he was there‘. In about 1917, Smith retired and a new manager was appointed who was more receptive to their intervention. Their ‘careful nursing‘ of the business enabled them to buy out Coverdale, and the business became a limited company.
William’s Trustees also changed company policy from buying mostly locally to importing direct from England, and in doing so were able to increase profit over the successive years after his death. However due to trading conditions in 1920, a much larger capital was required to work the business than it had been at the time of Strange’s death. 12
The Directors had received several offers for the business but all had been turned down, until 1922 when one of the largest property deals to be recorded in New Zealand was made. It involved the entire block occupied by Strange and Co, in addition to other properties adjoining. The total area was three-quarters of an acre, and the price was said to be £750,000, including Strange’s stock. The purchaser was understood to be a local syndicate.
1. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand – Canterbury Provincial Section of 1903
2. Obituary Mr William Strange. Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXV, Issue 9003, 25 November 1914, Page 2
3. 1841 and 1851 England Census
4. Family Search Historical Records. England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975.
5. The National Archives, UK. Public Records Office Document HO 44/6 ff 5-6
6. “Supreme Court.” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Nov 1828.
7. Family Search Historical Records. Australia Marriages, 1810-1980
8. England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 for Thomas Shaw Strange, born 8 Feb 1817 to John Shaw Strange and Mary Ann Strange. Baptised 19 Mar 1826, St. George the Martyr, Southwark, Surrey, England.
9. Colonial Secretary’s Office, Sydney 12th Nov., 1833. GRANTS OF LAND. (1833, November 18). p. 4.
10. “Government Notice. No. 290.” The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859) 24 Nov 1840
11. Messrs Strange and Co. A Big Flourishing Business. Wanganui Herald, Volume XXXV, Issue 10254, 1 February 1901, Page 2
12. Probate of William Strange, Archives Christchurch,
13. ‘REAL ESTATE.’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 31 March, p. 4 Section: Second Section, viewed 21 August, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58426062