Breakdown outside the Windsor Hotel, 1920s

Breakdown outside the Windsor Hotel, 1920s
Dr Cheryl Griffin

Eight men, one broken-down car and a wagon to cart it on. This dismal winter’s day was not going well for the driver, seen here on the far right of the photograph in chauffeur’s outfit, complete with greatcoat to ward off the worst of the Melbourne weather.

This photograph was donated to the Royal Historical Society in 2006 by real estate agent Philippe Batters. Written on the back in an unknown hand are the words “Retrieving Mr Gibson’s car outside the Windsor Hotel. Chauffeur Mr Williams on right. Gibson of Foy & Gibson.”

The car, which looks to be a T Model Ford, has lost its back left wheel and by some ingenious method, not revealed to us, the men are going to try to tow it, or perhaps make it stable enough to attempt repairs right there outside the prestigious Windsor Hotel in Spring St.

Who these men are is unknown – two wearing flat caps, three with bowler hats and two with trilbys. They appear to have been sent by Foy & Gibson, as that is the name on the cart. So, they are probably members of Foy’s staff.

One thing is highly unlikely – that one of the men is William Gibson, owner of Foy’s until his death in London in November 1918. He had been living in London since just before the outbreak of World War One, so unless this photograph was taken pre-1914, it is not him.

It is possible, though, that the man on the tray wearing the three-piece suit with fob watch is Gibson’s nephew John Maclellan who took over the business when his uncle died. It is possible, too, that it is Mr Maclellan’s car, driven by his driver, identified by the donor of the photograph as Mr Williams, chauffeur.

It is also possible that the photograph was taken well before Foy’s had a presence in the CBD. It was not until 1928 that the Melbourne city store opened on the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets. So, if it were taken earlier, the rescue vehicle would have made its way from the Smith St, Collingwood store.

Such a gloomy scene and a far cry from the welcoming interiors of the Foy & Gibson department stores. Remodelled in the 1930s the new city store opened in 1936. Further modernised in the 1950s, by the end of that decade it featured a roof-top fun garden and a few years later a huge, three-storey-high Santa that appeared each Christmas. It was worth a walk down to that part of Bourke St (not a mall then, of course), past the enticing and tasteful Myer windows to the epitome of tackiness – the beckoning Santa that was touted as the largest Santa in the world. We were not to know then that these were the dying days of the Foy & Gibson empire. The business closed in 1968 and with it went the giant Santa.

In the meantime, I’m left wondering how they did manage to rescue that car in Spring St? •

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