Friday, June 19, 2009

J Kitchen & Sons, Port Melbourne

J Kitchen & Sons have been operating in Port Melbourne since the 1850s making such products as Velvet Soap and Electrine Candles from the tallow and other animal fats from the nearby slaughter yards. In recent decades the company has become Kitchen & Lever then Unilever and most recently Unichema.

But back in the second half of the 1920s, into the 1930s, the company produced 'a journal of interest to all employees of J Kitchen & Son Pty Ltd throughout Australia' called Advance.

The Port Melbourne Historical & Preservation Society (PMHPS) have several editions in their collection and they give an interesting insight into an established family company in the 1920s.

Of most interest to me is Advance Vol 2 No 7 from July 1925 where their new Administration Offices in Ingles Street, Port Melbourne are described. The article includes a picture of the 'imposing main entrance' which is stepped back from the street with a lamp on either side of the doorway and a view of the three storey office building itself.

The article goes on to say '... the firm may well claim to have built one of the most up-to-date block of offices in the Commonwealth, combining loftiness, dignity and stability'.

Inside the main entrance the vestibule has a 'mosaic floor in a shining pattern, having the monogram of J Kitchen & Sons worked into the centre".

In May 1996 I visited this building and took some photos of the interior which are now also part of the PMHPS Collection. I didn't notice the mosaic in the vestibule but the article also mentions a staircase finished in a similiar style which I did photograph.

The main office occupied most of the ground floor with offices for Directors, the Secretary's Department, Advertising Department and Branch Inspector on the first floor. There was also a large boardroom on this floor.

The offices 'open onto a balcony overlooking the ground floor'. The back page of Advance included these four views of the interior of the office building.

My photos from 1996 show the main office from the balcony and the then CEO's office.

Interior fittings were of the highest order with doors built of 'polished maple and plate glass'.

The second floor contained a 'spacious hall for social purposes designed to accomodate 700 people' with a kauri dance floor. The following edition of Advance in October 1925 included this photo of the opening of the Social Hall.

The company Social Club appears to have been very active with a library containing over 600 volumes, a tennis club, cricket club and football club who on the King's Birthday took on another great Port Melbourne company, the biscuit-makers Swallow and Ariel, at the Port Melbourne football ground.

The Social Club also put on a Christmas Tree where in 1926 nearly 400 local children each received a toy from Father Christmas. There were also dances, smoke nights, table tennis and picnic excursions. And, as this fabulous photo from the Advance of November 1928 shows, a fancy dress dance at Port Melbourne Town Hall.

Here some of the girls employed at the factory are dressed up as Kitchen's products including Miss G Bennett (Toilet Dept) as Electrine Candles (2nd from left), Miss C Weadman (Soap Dept) as Velvet Soap (3rd from left), Miss T Weston (Toilet Dept) as Solv-ol (2nd from right) and Miss G Weston (Toilet Dept) as Coo-ee Cleanser (extreme right).

An aerial photo from the (ripped) cover of the January 1931 edition of Advance shows the extent of Kitchen's premises in Ingles Street and the proximity to the football ground. It is such a great image and easily recognisable to anyone from Port so I had to include it.

But the photo is interesting because there is something that current Port residents would not recognise. It shows Quinn St running along side the Administration Building.

In 1923 J Kitchen & Sons requested Port Melbourne Council to reduce the width of Quinn St by 33 feet to allow the company to expand their works and therefore employee more Port Melbourne residents. At the time Quinn St was 99 feet wide, unmade and little used so Council agreed to the request with the Town Clerk saying that the company would need to buy the 33 feet wide strip of land.

Over a decade later, Reports from October 1937 in the local newspaper, The Record, indicate that Council rescinded a motion from July that year allowing J Kitchen and Sons to take over remaining 66 feet of Quinn St. The motion was rescinded on issues relating to the cost of construction and the land value allowing Council to enter fresh negotiations. No doubt these further negotiations were successful as today there is no obvious sign that Quinn St ever existed.

The Administration building has been empty for several years even though Unichema still operate from the Port Melbourne site. The imposing entrance has been bolted shut and leaves now gather where workers and important visitors once passed.

former Kitchen & Sons, Port Melbourne

And just this week I noticed that all the windows along the Ingles Street frontage have been boarded up.

former Kitchen & Sons, Port Melbourne

I hope this is a sign of preservation, revitialisation and reuse but I fear the building has a more sinister fate.


  1. great! especially with the windows covered. it's like scrooge mcduck's money safe. and please allow me to introduce!

  2. I liked the reverse stair-step feature of the entrance.

  3. In my opinion, the entrance is the best part of the building facade. Althoguh I do also like the long vertical windows at each side.

  4. This building is now being featured in the Australian TV reality programme, The Block, where contestants compete to renovate a building into residential units.

    1. It sure is. The exterior, foyer and front stairs will be/have been restored and the rest of the building has been fitted out with apartments for The Block. The roof will be/has been altered to form a communal space for all the apartments with a grassed area and trees. I think it is great result for a building that has been boarded up and was slowly fading away. Now it has a new lease of life and lots of people know about it and appreciate it.

    2. Sadly the building could never be restored to it's former glory as it was originally intended for but the fact that it has been save from the D9 is a great outcome and will now stand for at least another 100 years in much the same guise as it appeared to the average passer by for the past 100 years.
      So happy and also to watch it's transformation on the nightly show was also a big thrill.