Jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne

Recently I was reading through all the policy material provided by candidates seeking election in the Melbourne City Council Elections. As owners of rooms in the Manchester Unity Building, we are required to vote in the upcoming elections. Hence the reason for my homework! I won’t go into the many issues facing our beautiful city. Or the proposals by prospective councillors to overcome these problems. This is not the place for my views on such issues. But there were two things I could especially identify with, given our location and trade. The first was the desire to protect and preserve the city’s historic buildings. The other was to provide support to small local businesses and in particular, manufacturing businesses. That got me thinking about the rich history of jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne.

Jewellers Have a Long Association with the Site of the Manchester Unity Building

Did you know that even before the construction of the Manchester Unity Building in 1932, the site was home to a famous jeweller called Stewart Dawson? Dawson’s, on the corner of Swanston Street and Collins Street, was known as “Puppy Dog Corner”, or “Lovers Corner”. Why? Couples used to meet at the corner to gaze at the beautiful engagement rings displayed in Dawson’s windows.

The continued presence of many jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne keeps that tradition alive today. Melburnians know that the building is a hub for jewellers working in all aspects of the trade. It is certainly the place to go if you are in the market for an engagement ring! Especially if you would like input into the design. And if you would like to deal directly with the jeweller making your ring. We often find couples wandering the corridors gazing with delight at their newly acquired engagement ring! It seems that even today this spot in Melbourne is still known as the corner of love and marriage!

Construction of the Manchester Unity Building

Jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in MelboourneConstruction on the Manchester Unity Building began on the 1st of January in 1932. The inspiration for the design of the building came from the Tribune Tower in Chicago. It is Neo-Gothic in style. The architect, Marcus Barlow, broke from conservative architectural styles that were dominant in the 1920’s. Many regard his work on the Manchester Unity Building as his greatest achievement. The building’s facade consists of a whopping 250 tons of terracotta tiles. Australian marble features in the interior for flooring, lining the walls and in mosaic work. In fact, 95% of the materials used in the construction of the building were Australian.

When it first opened, it was the tallest building in Melbourne. It was also the first building with an escalator. It took just eleven months to build, with builders working round the clock. They built on average a floor a month. At the time this was a construction record that held until the 1980’s.

The beautiful, intricate and largely intact cornices and ceilings depict scenes of work and industry. In this vein the building has always been occupied by different trades, professions and retailers. Other than jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne, the building has been occupied by a number of interesting tenants. These include, amongst others, a radio station, a banjo school, hairdressers, librarians and something not often seen these days, furriers.

A Vibrant, and Sometimes Dark History

And of course, as with any building of this age, it has not been without it’s fair share of fame, intrigue and dark history. There was a drinking club on the fourth floor that Robert Menzies used to frequent. At one time there was a café in the basement that had on display tanks of live alligators!

Workers in the building have had terrible crimes committed against them. There was the mystery of the Pyjama Girl case. The Pyjama Girl was found murdered in Albury in 1935. Her identity was a mystery for 10 years during which time her body was preserved. Finally, she was identified as a person who had gone missing years before. She was a young hairdresser who had worked on the eighth floor of the Manchester Unity Building.

And of course, many people will remember the horrendous murder of three jewellers on the eighth floor in 1978. It is a cold case crime. Although there is a chief suspect, no case has ever been brought against him.

The History of Jewellers in the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne Continues Today

Today, as throughout its history, the building is home to many jewellers.  It is one of the few buildings in the city where jewellers can ply their trade. This is because we require natural light to view diamonds properly. We must also be able to use oxy bottles so we can heat metal. Being in a building where we can open a window is essential!

It is certainly an interesting building to work in, aside from the architecture. Other tenants include such trades and professions as architects, hairdressers, dentists, lawyers, watchmakers, lawyers, and the list goes on. Such an interesting mix of people cannot help but add to the rich fabric of Melbourne’s culture.

Our rooms are Dickensian in many ways. The spaces we work in are very small. Not the best working conditions, as hours at the bench are long and intense. And everything is a bit grotty!  Making beautiful jewellery is a messy job. If a jeweller’s rooms look too clean it means that they are not working much!

In actual fact the Manchester Unity Building is perfect for us. We don’t need a lot of room to do what we do – just all the necessary tools and equipment. The most important of these is of course a pair of steady hands. And it goes without saying – a great deal of skill!


Many thanks to Christine Ansorge for this wonderful photo of the Manchester Unity Building. The photo is looking at the building from the City Square side of the intersection of Collins Street and Swanston Street. In the foreground is a statue of Burke and Wills.

Christine Ansorge is a photography student majoring in Photojournalism. This photo is part of her work on her final year folio which is about the Manchester Unity Building. After she completes the year she is off to Alice Springs where she has landed a job as a photojournalist for the local paper, the Centralian Advocate. We wish her all the best in her new and exciting career!

For more information on the Manchester Unity Building:

Visit the History of the Manchester Unity Building website

Wikipedia: The Manchester Unity Building